When I met cricketer Rahul Dravid, he was not yet a star. I didn’t know whether he’d become a famous cricketer one day. But, I did know that he would turn out to be a fine man. The signs were in the cards. Guess what? He did, after all.
When I read the news of him rejecting Bangalore University’s doctorate saying he wanted to “earn a doctorate” I wasn’t surprised even a tad. Rahul was always ill at ease under the spotlight. Then and now.
Going down a nostalgic path, I recalled the time I met Rahul Dravid. A time when he was not yet The Wall. A time when he had not played a single ball for the national cricket team. A time when he doubted whether he would ever play for the country. A time when the calendar read — July 1995.
Rahul was all of 22-years-old. And I was a rookie journo.
I had been a fan of the game for God-knows-how-long! Like all the other kids in the colony, I burst crackers at midnight when ‘we’ won the first World Cup; shed copious tears whenever ‘we’ lost a match (during those days, sometimes I felt I was crying a lot more than I celebrated). Spent a whole year, as a 15-year-old, mooning over Martin Crowe. Secretly cheered for Ian Botham even when he played against India. And I lost a lot of sleep and weight each time one of my favourite cricketers got married.
I was a typical Indian cricket-weirdo kid. (Thank God, I have outgrown the madness now)
And it was with great interest that I watched Rahul Dravid replace Manoj Prabhakar in the ’95 India-West Indies series when temperamental Manoj was shown the door.
Unfortunately, Rahul completed the series without hitting a single ball. He wasn’t given a chance. It looked as if he was selected just to fill the space suddenly vacated by Manoj Prabhakar. To my young mind that was the only plausible explanation. Or how else could you justify it? At that point, Rahul had played 21 Ranji matches and scored 2100 runs at an average of 79.20; 10 first class centuries and the youngest player to score a hundred and to score 1000 runs for Karnataka in Ranji. He had been left dangling for quite some time by the selection committee.
It is in this backdrop that I met The Wall.
I was able to convince my editor of the magazine that I was working for at that time about the need to feature this then not-so-well-known cricketer in the magazine. It was just a ploy to meet the man, of course.
The first time I called Rahul’s home (yep, those days it was that simple), he was not in. His father, a lovely man (then a retired officer from Kissan FoodProducts) whom I had the privilege of later spending many hours chatting, promised to pass on the message to his son. He did. And the son, being the gentleman that he was then as he is now, promptly returned my call (though I hadn’t called at a decent hour).
We arranged to meet the next day at his house in Indiranagar, which was just a 20-mt walk from my house.
Rahul’s mum, then a lecturer in architecture and an artist, was the one who greeted me. If you have met his parents, then you wouldn’t be surprised by Rahul’s genteel ways and manners. They were the most loving, kind and generous folks you’d meet. And his father had a great sense of humour too.
It was 11 am. Rahul was sleeping. He had been awake till the wee hours of the morning, studying. He was then a second year MBA student. While he freshened up to meet me. His mother fed me delicious mango and coffee along with interesting conversation. They were easy people to talk to.
Rahul had always been a little above-average student. “Two months before the exams I start my preparations,” he would later tell me. “And at that time, it is only studies and no cricket.” The man always knew how to compartmentalise his priorities.
After a short time, Rahul walked in, lanky and shy, dressed in grey tracks. The colour of the shirt has now been lost in the memory lane. But, I still remember that he was a typical boy-next-door. Bright eyes. Ticking mind. Shy smile. But, radiated a quiet strength.
When Rahul was only an infant, his father would take him along whenever he went to watch cricket matches. “The interest must have rubbed off when he was around three-years-old,” his mother had said, “because when he was a four-year-old boy, he would play the game with older boys.” Playing David to Goliaths came easily to him even back then.
His parents would reveal to me that when Rahul was a little boy, he always went to sleep with his bat and ball. He’d never part with it. “I have never seen my son walk properly. He is either batting or bowling or fielding even when he is walking,” his mother said. It did not bother him one bit what others might think of his antics. In fact, his family christened the act “Rahul’s circketnatyam”.
Rahul became serious about cricket only when he was around 10 or 12 years old. “After that, it’s become a way of life for me,” he said. “I like the game very much. Nothing else matters as long as I enjoy playing.”
Before July 1995, it was at midnight that he got to know that he was selected to play for the country for the first time. He was elated. The next day he joined the team. He knew he wouldn’t go out into the field immediately. But he did expect to play in following matches.
But that never happened. Rahul completed the series without facing a single ball. It was not a memorable debut. Even back then, nothing much ruffled Rahul. Or at least he never showed it. “I did feel disappointed when I completed the series without hitting a ball,” he said. “But then there is no point feeling disappointed and frustrated. That kind of attitude would only make me dig my own grave.”
The selection committee had ignored him for too long.
“It would amount to lying if I said that I am not anxious each time the team is announced. It affects me a lot to find that I haven’t made it to the national side (if only he had a crystal ball then!). But one also has to look at the situation logically. Now, India has a very strong and compact team. To disturb the equation now would be catastrophic. My turn will come. Till then I shall continue playing…” he had said.
Now, when I look back, pragmatism has been the cornerstone of Rahul’s career.
He’s known as The Wall for a reason.
When he was young, Rahul, by his admission, did not handle failure well. He used to cry his lungs out whenever he played poorly. But his family would always be there to support him. Not many words were spoken. Just some pep talk: “It’s alright, winning and losing is part of the game. You will have to get used to it. Whether you win or lose we still love you…” and a lot of back-slapping and hugging. “These words and constant show of love reassured me, and I slowly got used to accepting failure as a stepping stone for growth,” he had said.
I laugh my head off when I remember how at that point in his life he had said to me: “I know there is a possibility of me retiring without playing for the country at all. Just like Bhaskar (the excellent Delhi cricketer who retired prematurely because he never got a chance to play for the country). If that happens, it’ll be very sad. The prospect of it does shake me up a bit. I don’t want to be a cribber. I hate unnecessary controversies. It shifts the focus from the game to the person. At any stage in my life, I don’t want that to happen. I am always an optimist. I am young. There is still time for me. I only hope I think the same way after 10 years.”
Well, look how things turned out for you, Rahul.