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Verve People
September 15, 2004

The Great Wall of India

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Meenal Agarwal; Rahul Dravid is wearing a black suit with a light blue shirt from Daks, The Taj Mahal Hotel. Light blue suit with a white shirt by Narendra Kumar Ahmed.; Location courtesy: The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai

Googlies, yorkers, brickbats, come what may, they bounce off his unflinching mien that always keeps its cool. Rahul Dravid, the willow world’s newest pin-up boy, indisputably proves that good guys finish first. Verve has an early morning encounter with India’s vice captain, recent Padma Shri awardee and MTV’s youth icon of the year

On a rain-sprinkled morning, we buzz him in the well-appointed room of the South Mumbai hotel he’s staying in and a sleepy Rahul Dravid mumbles his way to consciousness, promising to be with us in a few minutes. Half an hour later, a tall, loose-limbed figure makes his way down the carpeted passage to the suite we have booked. Like his matches, he’s come well prepared for this encounter – no cricketing gear this time though, only a few shirts in hand and a pair of shoes in a box. It doesn’t take us long to convince the Indian vice -captain, shy though he seems to be off the field, to go along with our ideas for a photo-session. Facing a choc-a-bloc day, and not wanting to be mobbed as Mumbai begins to roll into its rhythm, he insists that we finish our shots first – and talk later – en route to a commercial shoot in central Mumbai.

Naturally, this Bangalore-based ‘man in blue’ is living to packed schedules. Post a satisfying tour of Pakistan earlier this year, 31-year-old Dravid briefly touched base in the garden city before zipping off for business-cum-pleasure trips to Dubai and Greece. In Mumbai for a couple of days – for the ‘ad break’ and a golf event – his waking hours are carefully segmented. As we walk down the winding stairway to the main entrance, overlooking the seafront, Dravid, dashing in designer threads, halts in the shadows, ensuring anonymity before he steps out. Yet, the minute he steps on the divider, voices begin to shout, “Hello, Sir!” “Hey, Rahul, how are you?”

Back in the hotel, he dips into a bowl of cereal and fruit and you watch the Dravid charisma slowly unfold. “Why are you making me do all this?” he grumbles, half seriously. “I am a cricketer, not an actor.” But, the gentleman that he is, he just can’t say no – to us or to anyone. It is this very quality of India’s most reliable player that has endeared him to people who know him well. Charu Sharma, the country’s leading sportscaster, who lives in the same city as Dravid, agrees, “Rahul is truly a very good human being. To me, that is far more appealing than his on-field performances. He has proved that you can be well behaved and still be a power in sport. You don’t have to be a bad boy to be a champ. Good guys do succeed. He is rock steady. Nothing about him changes.”

Constantly on the move, Dravid admits that travelling – and cricket – give him the chance of exploring new destinations. In Pakistan, he was amongst the first to wander about the local markets. “Not just me, all of us stepped out,” he remembers. “Wherever we went, there was great deal of security which underlined the importance of the tour to world cricket. But none of us were really hassled and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.”

His game and passion for sightseeing has taken him across the globe. Though bouts of homesickness do plague him in distant corners. “Cricket’s given me the chance to live a life filled with excitement and success…but I miss being at home, eating with the family. Even if I enjoy different cuisines wherever I go,” he grins, “after four or five meals I long for my home-cooked dal chawal.” Living out of a suitcase too can be tedious. “It’s a challenge and after eight years I have finally got used to it,” he admits. “I try to make myself comfortable wherever I am. If we are at one place for more than three or four days, the first thing I do is empty out my suitcases and put my clothes away in cupboards. It gives me a feeling of being rooted, at home.”

Home is where the heart is…and Dravid, married last year, often leaves his wife, Dr Vijeta (Pendharkar), a general surgeon, behind, while batt(l)ing it out on pitches worldwide. “It is a bit stressful for her,” he says honestly, “but she is very supportive and is getting used to my absences.” Right now, she has taken a break from her hospital (St John’s, Bangalore) schedule to be with him – but is carefully cocooned from curious eyes. Dravid, a self-confessed introvert “who has been thrust into the spotlight” would rather keep his personal life ‘private’. As a young lad he was quiet, sincere and mature beyond his years. With working parents, his father, Sharad, was with Kissan Products Ltd and his mother, Pushpa, was a professor of Architecture at Bangalore University, Dravid and younger brother, Vijay, grew up in a serious and simple middle class atmosphere.

Consequently, his cricketing aspirations did cause some ripples in their household. Fortunately, for young Rahul and India, his parents did not stop him from following his dream. “I always knew that I wanted to play cricket. Initially Mom and Dad were worried,” he recalls. “They impressed on me the importance of basic education. I was told that I must get good marks at school even though I had begun to play cricket. In India, you need something to fall back on. You normally stop playing in your mid 30s.” By completing his graduation, even while watching his cricketing career blossom, Dravid, who was cricket captain and best student in his final year at St Joseph’s School, kept his options open. He confesses, “If not a cricketer, I would have done something in management. But, that wouldn’t have given me the high that the game has. I realised that cricket could be a full-time option, only when I was selected for the Indian team.”

Cricket was the driving force of the young lad’s life. Though he did not wear his heart on his sleeve – he still does not – Dravid once broke down on losing his wicket. “It was most embarrassing, I was just 13 and I cried all the way back to the dressing room….” For a boy who’s grown up almost worshipping greats like Kapil Dev, G R Vishwanath and Sunil Gavaskar, his own ‘capping’ is a memory indelibly etched in his memory. “Naturally, I was a greenhorn,” recalls the now senior member of the Indian squad. “I was lucky in having excellent team mates – Javagal Srinath (who nicknamed him Jammy on account of where his father worked) and Anil Kumble. With (Mohammed) Azharuddin and Sachin (Tendulkar) as my first two captains, I learnt a lot. They knew the ropes of international cricket and had exactly the attitude I needed to cultivate.”

As he follows our photographer’s bidding and sits on the arm of a chair in the quiet lounge, his eyes focus on the distant memory and words flow out unbidden the minute the shots are taken: “When you wear that cap and walk out for the first time, you know that whatever happens, you have joined a group of elite men…you will always be known as a test cricketer. No one can take that away from you.”

He’s played matches across countries and continents. Yet, the veteran insists that he still feels nervous on the eve of any encounter. “Even today, the anticipation is as keen as it was years ago,” he states. “The day I stop feeling excited about walking out on the field is the day I will call it quits.” To quell the butterflies that flutter in his stomach, fitness routines apart, Dravid begins to relax a few days before the event. “I try not to get too excited or pumped up,” he says. “I listen to music, read a few books.” An avid reader from his childhood, he has perused several tomes, sports autobiographies and is rarely seen without a book in his hand in his free time. His all-time favourite is Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach’s slim masterpiece. “As a young kid, I could identify with the seagull,” he says. “Every time I read JLS, I get something new from it. The book is all about pursuing excellence and raising the bar all the time.”

That is something that ‘The Wall’ – as he is popularly called – excels at. He has always redefined his personal goals, for “expectations go up all the time. You set and reset standards and have to perform at new exacting levels.” Tennis ace and friend, Mahesh Bhupathi, who has known him for more than a decade, says, “He deserves his success as he has worked hard for it. He is one of the most down to earth and disciplined professionals I’ve met.”

Acclaimed as the most focussed man on the field, Dravid has his own formula for chilling before stepping out. “If we are batting, I stay completely ready in the dressing room,” he says. “Since I am not an opener, I am never sure when I will have to go in. I am always fully togged up…I don’t want to go looking for my gloves at the last minute.” Once the previous wicket falls and it’s his turn to wield the willow, he’s all set: “The adrenaline starts pumping immediately. I get up, walk down and across the white line and it is almost as if a switch is turned on.”

He’s not very superstitious about his game, though there is a routine he’s followed all along. “As a kid I had a fetish about many things. I had a lucky shirt, a lucky bat…. I’ve outgrown all that now but I still put my right pad on first, every time.” Before any tour, he seeks blessings at the local Ganesha temple.

All the rituals are peripheral to his game. On the field, either behind the wicket or in front of it, Dravid is concentration personified. Eyes crinkled against the glare of the sun, his internal blinkers ensure a one-track mindset. Sambit Bal, editor, Wisden Asia Cricket, emphasises that Dravid’s strong point is his control over his mind. Bal points out, “He is a thinking player and is at his best when the pressure comes on.” And Dravid is not telling what could disturb him: “If I tell you what can distract me, half the world will know,” he grins. However, he does reveal what goes through his mind when a pace man is thundering down towards him from the other end. “There is no time to think. You keep a blank mind and react instinctively. You have to trust your skills, the hours of net practice you’ve put in, the countless matches you’ve played,” he says. His composed attitude has stood him in good stead over the years and the cricketer has evolved into a cool dude. V V S Laxman, stylish strokesman and Dravid’s teammate says, “He is an intense guy but I have never seen him lose his composure or argue. Due to his helping nature, youngsters can approach him easily for advice….”

Dravid, who’s vanished for a few minutes to change into his casual tracks and T-shirt, picks up a newspaper from the hotel lobby. He steps quickly into the car waiting outside and I continue with our conversation, seeking his reaction to all the compliments. He dismisses them with a shrug. “That is the way I am,” he says, “If things are not going your way on the field, getting angry will only make things worse.” I cannot erase the recent picture of an unusually upset Dravid slamming his bat down after getting out at 99, a whisker before his century in Karachi. “Come on,” he looks at me almost exasperatedly, “We are humans, not gods. You cannot expect us to kill our emotions. When I got out, I expressed my spontaneous upset at myself. Surely, I am allowed that much?”

That much…but no more. He will never sledge, no matter what the provocation. He believes firmly that the high tension does not condone you to swear or abuse at people. “We do indulge in clowning, gamesmanship and chats while playing,” he says. “It is all a mind game. You try to relax and, at the same time, try and unnerve your opponents.” The famous huddle of the men in blue is all a part of that. “It is our way of bonding, planning strategy or sharing our happiness at getting a wicket.”

Dravid knows that the team is a well-knit unit where the motivation is spelt out. “All of us have clearly understood that personal records are always subordinate to the team goal,” he says. “There is no question of competition with your own teammates. We are living out of each others’ pockets for nine months in a year. We want to better our own goals and slaughter the opposition, not each other.”

Not an easy task to accomplish year after year…but personally Dravid has hit a good patch in the last three years. He doesn’t believe it is the ‘decade of Dravid’ but cricket aficionados will swear by his growing popularity, also evidenced in the emergence of a strong ‘Brand Dravid’ in the world of advertisements. The brand ambassador for names like Samsung, Reebok, Pepsi, Castrol and Hutch is hot property today. “I have not cultivated any image,” he endorses. “I am myself before the camera.”

Prahlad Kakkar, adman and filmmaker, who has known the cricketer since his fledgling days and the first Britannia campaign, feels that he has a unique quality rarely seen today. “He is one of the most consistent persons I have ever known and as a gentleman, is cast in a mould they have broken since. He is old fashioned, reliable and honest. He always does the right thing, even if it is not convenient for him.”

His fans’ crazy devotion has not turned his head. They have a place in his life ‘as long as they do not intrude on my privacy’. It is when the team is touring or on holidays abroad that Dravid gets the anonymity he is looking for. “While touring we do all the normal things that we cannot do back home,” he says. “Last year, after winning the Indo-Pak ODI at Johannesburg, we were in a mood to celebrate. The entire team trooped out in the middle of night and ended up at a roadside stall – the equivalent of Mumbai’s Chowpatty – to have hot Chinese food. Can you imagine India’s best players doing that here, back home?”

He takes it all in his stride though, the attention, the acclaim, the bouquets and the brickbats. There was a time, almost at the beginning of his international career, when he faced severe humiliation as he struggled to find a place in the one-day squad. Dravid looks out of the window at the passing scenery before replying softly, “Those were dark days. I have always tried not to get carried away by praise or bogged down by criticism…. At that time I had to be honest with myself and come up with some strong answers as there was no point in blaming anyone else for my exclusion. I decided that I would work hard at my game and ensure that people had no choice but to pick me. If they had dropped me then, they would never do it again.” So he does not allow his letdowns or passing controversies – allegations of ball tampering and declarations – to keep him down for long, even though as Bal points out, “Dravid is very sensitive and very concerned as to how people will judge him.”

Behind the composed exterior is the soft heart of a man that beats for people in need. A day before the golf tourney in Mumbai, he is scheduled to fly to Ahmedabad for a charity cricket match to raise money for the operation of a former player’s son. Back home, he is also quietly involved with the Bill Gates Foundation for AIDS and The Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness in Bangalore. “I try and do whatever little I can,” he says, “in whatever time I get.”

The top spot could be his for the taking when opportunity arises. The vice captain denies wanting to step into anyone’s shoes. “I am not lobbying for captaincy. I am quite happy with what I am doing as all of us contribute in our own ways to the team’s overall performance. But, if at some stage I do get the job, I will do my best.”

He has already done a great job, even while living in the shadow of Sachin Tendulkar, India’s cricketing icon. Often overshadowed by the little master or quicker innings by faster scoring peers, Dravid’s contribution is overlooked. “Sachin and I share a great, comfortable relationship that has let both of us grow,” says Dravid, who easily lapses into Marathi while communicating with Tendulkar on the field. “It is an honour to share the same dressing room with Sachin.”

For a boy who’d chalked out his future almost as soon as he could connect bat to ball, he’s kept his post-cricketing years uncharted. “I haven’t really thought about that,” he says, stretching out his long legs, as the car glides to a halt in front of the studio. “It all depends on how my family feels and what they would like me to do. They are making many sacrifices while I am playing… Anyway, isn’t it too early to talk about my retirement plans?”

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