If you had spoken to Rahul Dravid during his last weeks as Indian captain, or tried to get in touch with him soon after he stepped down from the job, with a short, crisp statement and little else by way of explanation, you would have known a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
It has now been nine months since that fateful day, and many significant things have happened in Dravid’s life since. He has lost his place in the one-day team, and has matured enough to realise that this is not merely an issue of form – unless there is a dramatic change in policy, and simultaneous injuries to three or four young one-day batsman, he is not going to get a look-in. He has shepherded the Bangalore team – where he is highest-paid as the icon player – to second-last place in the inaugural Indian Premier League, in the middle of having mud slung at him by Vijay Mallya, the high-profile and occasionally petulant owner of the team. Oh, and yes, Dravid has gone past 10,000 Test runs, joining one of cricket’s most elite clubs.
When Hindustan Times caught up with Dravid, he was having a hit in the nets at the National Cricket Academy in his hometown, Bangalore, on a cool drizzly June morning, just as he always does. Once he had finished with his batting, and letting wife Vijeta know he wouldn’t be home for lunch, he briefly contemplated the vegetarian thaali at the Karnataka State Cricket Association clubhouse, but changed his mind and settled for a steaming pot of pasta at ‘Sunny’s’, one of Bangalore’s more popular restaurants.
Cricket in the blood
With so much being written and said about India’s most popular cricketers, it’s tough to come across something new. So it came as a bit of surprise when Dravid let on that his uncle had played two representative matches, a long while ago, back in the Central Zone, in the days when the premier first-class competition was not necessarily the Ranji Trophy. It turns out Rahul's father Sharad was a batsman himself, playing university cricket in Indore, and then turning out for his employers Kissan (from where Rahul got the "jam" nickname) when they were a player short in a Sunday match.
But if you thought slipping in a couple of looseners over ginger lemonade would soften up Dravid, think again.
"You're not going to get much of an answer out of me, mate," he says when you put it to him that people still don't quite know why he gave up the Indian captaincy. Was it some barbed remarks from the chief of selectors that triggered it off? "I think the important thing for me was to do it till I enjoyed it. I just felt the time had come to move on, and I just knew it," he begins, half frowning at you for asking a question that was intruding into his space. "It's hard to explain exactly how I knew it. It's something you feel. It might have seemed odd to people, but as a person you just know for yourself when the time is right, and I felt my time had come."
Well, if he gave up the Indian captaincy, even after enjoying success both in India and abroad, then surely it should have been easy to just walk away from his role in the Bangalore team at the IPL, people ask. After all, was it worth the trouble for someone who had achieved so much in cricket? "There were aspects of the IPL that I enjoyed. Playing T20 cricket was new to me and I wanted to see how I'd go in that form of the game," said Dravid, playing that one down with soft hands. "We didn't do well as a team and that was disappointing. There were other things that could have gone a bit better as well both on and off the field. In a team environment, I offer my views in different ways – there are some things you say in press conferences, some to the people I need to speak to."
Looking back, not in anger
But the last year has not been about stumbling from one tough spot to another for Dravid. "It's had its share of ups and downs, I admit," he said. "But getting to 10,000 in Test cricket has been nice. The IPL - there were parts of it that you did enjoy and appreciate but also parts of it that could have gone better, and made it a better experience. Overall it's been alright."
Alright is not really the best word to describe a career in which someone has scored 10,000 runs in ODIs and Tests. In Tests only Sunil Gavaskar, Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, and most recently Ricky Ponting – all batsmen you would unhesitatingly describe as great – make up the list. "I didn't set out playing with 10,000 Test runs as a goal. If you play for a long period of time, like I have, you will achieve some of these things," said Dravid. "I've played unbroken, missing only one game, in my career as a Test player. You have to be fit and scoring consistently, or you'll get dropped at some stage – the fact that I've been able to do that is important, not so much the number itself. It's nice to be in the company of some of the players you really respect and admire."
Sure, he may not have started off with 10,000 runs as a goal, but surely, somewhere along the way he must've realised it was a real possibility. "I've achieved more than I expected to achieve or set out to achieve. But expectations are something that keep changing over a period of time. At the start of my career if you asked me whether I expected to score 10,000 runs in both forms of the game I would have said no. A year back, if you'd asked me the same thing I'd have probably said yes and wanted a little more too."
While Dravid's image in cricket is largely spotless, the one criticism that's frequently directed at him is that he does not speak up enough on issues that matter, that he had the chance to influence Indian cricket, through his stature, but did not do so enough. "You don't need to say things in public to get things done. There's a lot of stuff we've got done in the journey of my career, without having to say things in public," said Dravid. "You look at the support staff the Indian team now has, the player contracts, sharing of revenue, professionalism that has come in – there have been a group of players who have helped in that process, helped create that. And I'm happy to have been a part of that and played my part. You don't have to make bold statements in the public all the time."
The man, not the Wall
It's one thing not making strong statements about team-mates or administrators in public, but Dravid has been largely aloof from his public as well. Just as we finish our main course young Riddhima, in her early teens, comes across for an autograph, and though perfectly polite Dravid is almost bashful. "All my life I have been a bit shy. I'm introverted, if you want to put it that way," he said. "Things have changed a bit as well. When I started off people wanted to know more about your cricket and how you came through the system. They didn't want to know a lot about your private life or try and get to know you as a person, as a personality or celebrity. That's changed a lot with the way the media has changed and with the public attention also wanting so much more than just the cricket aspect. In some ways I'm still quite guarded about the private and personal side of myself and I like to keep it that way. Everything else I do is in the public eye but there must be something you can keep to yourself, something you share with just family and people you're close to. Otherwise what's the difference between family and the public?"
Trying to find out just what he means by the support he gets from his family is a bit tougher as Dravid usually keeps Vijeta and young Samit well out of interviews he gives. "My parents gave me a lot of encouragement and support, and my wife's been really good as well. I'm away a lot and she's had to manage many things on her own in this period. Even when I'm there physically, at home, I sometimes get so involved in what I'm doing that I'm not 100% there mentally, and just pre-occupied with a game that's coming up. She's been very understanding," he said.
But dealing with an understanding wife and parents is one thing, while handling a young son another entirely. "He still doesn't understand exactly what's going on. There are times when he'll ask me why I have to go somewhere and insist I should stay with him. When a two-and-a-half year old says, ‘Why do you have to practice? Play with me instead’, there's not much you can say. It's hard to explain anything to a toddler," says Dravid, a smile forming for the first time since the interview began. "It's terrific, because irrespective of what sort of day you've had he's going to still expect the same things from you. He's not going to judge you any differently if you've been batting all day on a tough wicket in a Test match. He still expects you to sit down and play with his toys, read him a story. That's great. It grounds you and brings you back to reality very quickly. There's nothing to live up to when I'm with him."
The home stretch
There's no gentle way to put it so you just say it bluntly. When you tell Dravid he's coming to the end of a long career, just for effect adding, "who knows you might still play another five years," he bursts out laughing. "That's one thing I can tell you right now, I'm sure I won't be playing in five years. The closer you come to the later stages of your career you learn to stay in the moment and take things as they come. You learn to enjoy things a bit more. You're a bit more relaxed as a person, about who you are, what you've achieved," Dravid explained. "In the early stages you want to make a mark, establish yourself, then you want to do things as a player and as a team, then you come to a phase where you probably know you've done quite a lot and want to enjoy things. At each stage you need to be different. At some points you have to recognise that you need to step things up and take it to another level. I needed desperation and hunger at one phase. I need something else now. It's different. You're not always trying to prove a point. You learn to enjoy things for what they are and take things as they come."
Now that we have him contemplating a few things, we ask him how he looks at himself as a batsman, even as dessert is declined and coffee arrives. "I don't think of myself as an orthodox batsman. I have a technique that works for me. I don't know if it is the right technique. I don't know if there's any such thing as a perfect technique in the first place," said Dravid. "As a batsman there are some things that everyone has to conform to – you have to watch the ball, you have to keep your head still, you must show the full face of the bat as much as possible, you want to judge length well. There are basic principles to batsmanship, but we all do things differently.. My technique is different from the copybook, but it works for me. There are things about my game that are not necessarily correct in the traditional sense, but I've learnt how to make it work for me. It's unique and it makes it work for my body structure and my way of thinking. Each batsman has to figure this out for himself – how to put runs on the board and play according to what is demanded of you by the situation and your team – the way you go about doing it is your way. That's the charm of the game." That it is.