The air of fragility that surrounds Rahul Dravid has been there a while now. It was not in his scores of the past year, or the lack of them. It was not just in his dramatic renouncement of the India captaincy. It was not even in the way he seemed to keep his distance from everyone, even his teammates. Dravid perhaps, always kept his distance at some level, from everyone.
But it is there in the way he looks: Alone, always alone, even when surrounded. Those who know India's best Test batsman of the recent past well, would tell you that this is perhaps a man walking on eggshells. Why, no one can fathom. Not now at least.
The past was behind
After all, when Dravid gave up the captaincy, he was thought to have freed himself of the responsibility that constantly worried him, of a system that irked him no end. It had taken a toll on him, on his peace of mind and on his batting. His form, mostly inspirational in the longer format over the years, had faltered badly over the past 12 months, even looked brittle.
The Rahul Dravid we knew seems to have disappeared into a shell; the man on view has deep shadows under his eyes; he seems to be keeping a tight rein on his emotions and on himself and whatever is happening in his head seems to be taking its toll.
It was evident in the way he batted on Thursday, in the uncustomary opener's role, a position that is his least favourite, as averages clearly show. Dravid, asked to open in the interests of the team in order to accommodate Yuvraj Singh — "no one else would have agreed to do so in any case" said another top India player — agreed. He would probably have said yes in any case, but many hold that given the way he's played of late, there wasn't that much choice.
Still, given the variety of roles he has both taken on and been made to do in the interests of the team over the years, and done successfully, you'd have to say that isn't a fair statement.
But neither is what he did on Thursday, to himself or to the team. He took 66 balls for his eventual five runs, 41 balls to score his first; he looked edgy, stifled, even tortured and totally under pressure. He was twice lucky to survive, once when an edge to fourth slip slipped out of Phil Jacques' fingers and once when Hayden held on to an edge off a no-ball by Mitchell Johnson.
Sachin Tendulkar later defended him, kind of, saying it was too early to pass judgment on Dravid as an opener and they would figure it out at the end of the series, but he did say that "there was not enough rotation of the strike" by the first wicket pair.
Whether Wasim Jaffer was affected by his senior partner's mood or whether he himself was feeling the pressure of Sehwag and Karthik on the bench is something only he can know, but neither player seemed quite there and that is not good news for India.
In happier times
Much of India's phenomenal success in 2003-04 was credited to the way the Virender Sehwag-Aakash Chopra combine bravely stuck it out against the Aussie attack and blunted them for the rest who followed.
In fact, with an average 57+ per innings over the series, Chopra and Sehwag averaged way more than the Langer-Hayden pair (46+) and are, in fact, the most successful opening act in the world against Australia on their home turf in the last five years. It is a hard act to follow but if India are to do anything at all to save this game, then Jaffer and Dravid will have to do just that. Unfortunately for Dravid (because this role was thrust on him), he will have to shoulder the burden, because after all, he is Rahul Dravid, a man who averages nearly 56 over 115 Tests.
The problem will be — what does he now do? He dug a big hole for himself with his excruciating innings. He might come out and try something completely different, which might not work either. Whatever he does, he would be haunted by the thought of not scoring; after all, a player of his calibre also has a reputation to protect.
Lesser players are allowed their lapses. Legends rarely are. It was agonising to watch Dravid on Thursday. It must be far more agonising to live it alone.