Sometime in the mid 2000s, there was a running joke between me and my college roommate that we could next expect Rahul Dravid to open fast bowling for India. Dravid, was at this stage, at the top of his game. He was the captain of team, he played a sort of floating role in the middle order in the one dayers coming in when required, he had kept wickets for an extended period in the past, he opened in Tests in Pakistan to accommodate his former captain Sourav Ganguly and almost broke the record for the highest first wicket stand. There was nothing, it seemed Dravid couldn’t do. More importantly, there seemed to be nothing Dravid was unwilling to do. The recent retirement of Kumar Sangakkara was accompanied by numerous tributes, most of them talking of his constant evolvement and improvement as a batsman. Dravid was another batsman of that generation not hesitant in tinkering with his technique, making small changes over the years and opening up his game in a way international cricketers are often warned against. It is perhaps no coincidence that both Dravid and Sangakkara are deemed as the most cerebral of cricketers of their time, not afraid to introspect, and managing to strike the correct balance in not overcomplicating the game for themselves.
The recent promotion of Ajinkya Rahane to No. 3 made me wonder whether in Rahane, we see the next Dravid. Since he joined the Rajasthan Royals, Rahane has been Dravid’s protégé. His statements in the press seem to cast Dravid in the role of a strong influence and trusted mentor. Much like a young Dravid, Rahane is the picture of earnestness, sincerity and studiousness. In team full of strutting young men, Rahane seems almost diminutive in comparison, given his light physique and a general lack of airs. It almost reminds you of Dravid’s as a quiet accumulator in a team of superstars. His recent stint as captain in Zinbabwe suggests he could be an able deputy to a brasher, more aggressive Kohli, like Dravid was to Ganguly. If his performance in the slips in the test series against Sri Lanka is anything to go by, he is also Dravid’s replacement at first slip. Those are some striking similarities and will have a number of fans salivating at the thought of Rahane taking over the most important role Dravid performed for years, that of a No. 3 Test batsman. But, this is where the similarities must end.
When Rahane emerged on the international scene, the first person he reminded me of was not Dravid, but characteristically opposite and longtime partner, Sourav Ganguly. Rahane’s strokeplay, particularly his off-driving in the ‘V’ between point and mid-off is strongly reminiscent of Ganguly. He is like a right handed Ganguly, guiding, almost caressing the ball square of cover. Unlike Dravid and now Virat Kohli who get front and across at the slightest opportunity and commit to either the front foot or the back foot fully, Rahane, does not bother with taking giant strides on the front foot, nor does he shift his weight as appreciably when playing off the back foot. Rahane can often afford to do so because, like Ganguly he has great hands. While this allows him to score at a brisk rate (though he has had some trouble piercing the in-field in the shorter format), it also means that often he is following the ball only with his hands and not his whole body. This makes Rahane particularly susceptible to late swing when the ball is new.
Which also brings us to the questions what an ideal No. 3 batsman should be. The three most successful No. 3 batsmen of recent times were Ponting, Sangakkara and Dravid. The Ian Chappell school of thought (which is the Australian way) posits that a No. 3 batsman must look to dominate. You come in either at the fall of an early wicket, in which case you attack to wrest back the initiative, or you come in after the openers have provided a solid platform for the others to dominate from. Ponting was as perfect a product of this philosophy as we have seen. He had a sound technique, a wide array of strokes and most importantly, he wanted to dictate terms to the bowlers from the word go. Dravid and Sangakkara, on the other hand often fought it out more in the middle, willing to look ugly and get through the tough passages of play injured but alive. Both could dominate in some measure once settled, Sangakkara more so than Dravid. Steven Smith, recently promoted to No. 3, is more in the Ponting mould, however, he has been found technically wanting when the ball is moving early in the innings. Ideally, you want your No.3 to provide the ideal mix of aggression and stability. The best No.3 currently, Hashim Amla provides you with that balance. Be that as it may, if the rest of the batting order is full of attacking batsmen, as was the case with Dravid, logic dictates that you look more for solidity in your No. 3 batsman.