The buzz had been steadily building, for an hour or so. Excited, excitable young lads skitted here and there, casting anxious glances at the elevator door. Proud parents were fighting a losing battle as they tried to mask their emotions. It took quite an effort to get the kids, especially, to forsake the corridor and take their seats as they awaited the arrival of one of India’s most celebrated, storied and idolised cricket sons.
When he did arrive, dressed casually but smartly in an orange tee-shirt and blue jeans, he was mobbed for selfies – the era of the autograph is, of course, well and truly over. Once he entered the private confines of a hall that could hold around 250 but was bursting at the seams with every vantage point taken, spontaneous chants broke out. For a full minute, the audience went “Dravid, Dravid, Dravid, Dravid…” The man at the centre of it all, the one on whom the adulation was being heaped, wore a typically embarrassed smile. He must have wondered what the fuss was all about; he must also have certainly been touched by the outpouring of love and admiration.
Rahul Dravid has never fancied himself as a hero. Unlike some of his contemporaries and many of his successors, he has remained remarkably grounded, refusing almost consciously to take himself more seriously than he should. He has no inflated sense of self-importance, and if he does have an ego, it has been suppressed in some deep, small corner, never to see the light of day. The slight awkwardness of the earlier days when the spotlight was so unforgivingly trained on him – like his peers that formed the Golden Generation of Indian cricket – has made way for a level of comfort and acceptance that is a natural progression. As he picked his way past the raucous mass of teenagers and made his way to the front through the narrow aisle, Dravid was at ease with himself. At peace with himself. Aware of the impact of his presence, but hardly allowing himself to be swept away by the tidal wave of feel-good and hero-worship.
Dravid was the chief guest at a unique prize-distribution function that brought wildlife conservation and cricket together on the same platform. The brainchild of Joseph Hoover, an old friend and a former colleague, the Tiger Cup uses the sport as a vehicle to raise awareness in impressionable minds of the pressing need to protect the majestic tiger, as much for ecological balance as for anything else. Each year for the last seven years, a forest guard has been recognised and rewarded for his commitment to wildlife and forest protection.
A wildlife enthusiast like many cricketers, Dravid had the cozy gathering eating out of his hands with a masterclass narrative that both kids and parents lapped up. That he is himself a father of two young lads yet to hit their teens, and has spent a large part of the last three years with the cream of India’s Under-19 talent, means the former India skipper is closely connected to modern trends and developments. When he spoke of how his cricket-playing sons, Samit and Anvay, wore the Tiger Cup cap with pride even at home, several parents nodded knowingly, while the boys themselves grinned sheepishly, feeling an instant connect with Rahul Dravid’s children. Almost intuitively, Dravid touched the right chords, talking to as an equal rather than talking down to the packed hall.
Right at the get-go, Dravid stuck a cautionary note. “In all these years since India started playing international cricket,” he pointed out, “less than 600 players have represented the country. Less than 600. Of the millions that play the sport, and that aspire to become a superstar. I am not trying to discourage or demoralise anyone, all I am doing is being realistic, and asking everyone here to be realistic. The odds are very daunting; if even one kid in this room goes on to play for India, all of us can be very proud.”
Obviously, he was leading up to something, characteristically carefully building his innings. “It is important to play the sport for the right reasons,” he went on. “Of course one has to be ambitious, but we must not lose sight of why we started playing cricket. Being selected for India is the ultimate honour, but sport teaches us a lot of other things – bonding, camaraderie, team spirit, looking out for each other, knowing right from wrong.
“If the only reason for playing the sport is to represent the country, and if that doesn’t happen, then we might start feeling bitter at a very early age. That will be sad, if the game that you loved so much contributed to making you a bitter person. That’s why I repeatedly stress that it is essential to keep the larger picture in mind.”
Switching tracks only marginally, Dravid’s next focus was education. “No matter how much you throw yourself into sport, you cannot afford to ignore education. The shelf-life of every sportsperson is limited, no matter how talented and successful. Education prepares you for life’s various challenges, as well as for a life after sport,” he reasoned, then stressed the need for versatility. “You must participate in a lot of other sports. I have had the privilege of working with the best Under-19 players in India for a few years now, and they all have other interests too. Yes, focus on cricket, but don’t restrict yourself to cricket. Sachin Tendulkar was an excellent table tennis player, Sourav Ganguly was a very good footballer. I used to play a lot of hockey in school. I see lots of young boys and girls here, I urge you to try your hand at other disciplines too.”
During his formative years, Dravid was fortunate to have supportive but undemanding parents. Leaning on his experiences, he urged the fathers and the mothers to allow their children to blossom by themselves, not expect them to live out their own dreams. “I have heard of kids going to two or three different camps a day – practice at one camp in the morning, go to another in the afternoon, a third one in the evening. At 13 and 14, you must allow them to enjoy themselves. There will come a time when they must practice long hours, but that is not now. Do you want your child to be a superstar at 16 and 18, and then burn out by the time they reach their 20s?”
This was all gold dust. I am not sure what the kids and their moms and dads expected when they arrived at the Karnataka State Billiards Association for the event. Maybe a shake of the famous Dravid right hand, maybe the unavoidable if intrusive selfie. They might not have bargained for 15 minutes of wisdom and erudition from a man who has been there, and done it all. Dravid didn’t let out any state secrets, he merely reiterated the most fundamental elements. But then again, that has always been Dravid, hasn’t it? Steeped in basics, grounded in reality. Hopefully, the kids also took home several learnings, not merely medals, certificates and photographs with Indian cricket’s man for all seasons.