February 2002: Features

Behind the wall

His poker-faced, dour exterior on the field could belong to a senior accountant going to work on a Monday morning or a surgeon scrubbing down and donning the gloves for a major operation. Such preconceived associations can be tricky though, especially if you let them cloud your thinking on the morning you are meeting the man.

Rahul Dravid is standing in the parking lot at the Chinnaswamy Stadium wearing a peacock-blue polo shirt and a cheery smile. His disposition is as sunny as the weather in Bangalore. The handshake is firm and friendly and there isn't a hint of starry airs about him. He could easily be one of your mates - an ordinary Joe, albeit one blessed with extraordinary talent.

For six seasons, Dravid has been Indian cricket's Mr Dependable, The Wall expected to protect a hugely talented but fragile middle order. But when things have gone wrong, he has often been the first in front of the firing squad. It is he who gets panned when the scoreboard doesn't tick, the token sacrifice up the order each time yet another makeshift opening pair fails, and stand-in wicketkeeper when the one-day side needs batting depth. He has been Indian cricket's Prometheus, bound securely so that the media can take bites out of him at leisure.

Criticism can harden some. In Dravid's case, it is met with a quiet, mature acceptance. "If the past five years have taught me anything," he says, "it's that you have to learn to accept criticism and to handle it. In the end, I think it's very important that I make the calls and make decisions as to how I play. I never go out with a fixed mindset, saying, `This is how I must play'."

That train of thought is suddenly derailed when his mobile-phone beeps. Steering a car through Bangalore's evening traffic while answering a call is hard enough without having a dictaphone thrust in your face. The first segment of the interview - a sort of three-part On the Road - comes to an end so Dravid can record a message for one of the wildlife organisations he works with. You sit in a corner of their office, twiddling thumbs and cracking knuckles, while the staff run around, momentarily blinded by the light a star can emit. As we leave, the receptionist, smiling coyly, gets him to autograph a CD.

Back in the safe haven of the car, conversation resumes. Does the image of a dull and dour batsman ever bother him? Was he always like that? You brace yourself for a wounded backlash. But there isn't a hint of agitation in Dravid's voice. "I was always a solid player," he says, his gaze fixed on the road, "and my approach has been pretty similar all along. My coach, the late Mr. Keki Tarapore, taught me the value of technique and defence, and how important it was to stay at the wicket for long periods of time and score runs."

But doesn't he take it to extremes at times? "I tend to bat pretty much according to the situation," he says. "Every day is not the same. As any batsman will tell you, there are days when you go out there and everything seems to go right off the meat of the bat. Other days, you just don't feel right and the ball finds the edge. Maybe you go out there and find yourself facing a bowler bowling a fantastic spell... sometimes, it does happen that I get stuck, but I definitely don't go in there with a preconceived notion that I must play slowly. I've always been the sort of player who grafts. Agreed, there are situations where I tend to get bogged down, but who doesn't?"

Now that the sensitive subject has been broached, it's time to dig in. We talk about his initial struggles in the one-day team, his perceived limitations in the slog overs and his inability to rotate the strike effectively or work the ball around with soft hands. He smiles grimly and says, "I would be the first one to admit that I'm not a complete player. You have to keep improving all the time, keep raising the bar each time you go out to bat. There are very few complete players in the world... but I don't think my one-day record is as bad as some make it out to be. You've got to accept that, at this level, people are going to analyse and judge your game. You have to make your own assessments, set your own standards. Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Brian] Lara are in a different league. For the rest of us mere mortals, it's a constant learning process. I know my strengths, just as I know my limitations. In the end, you have to be effective and choose a method that works for you and the team over a period of time."

We've found our way into the crowded warren that is Commercial Street. Genuinely apologetic, he tells you that his sponsors, Reebok, expect him to make two showroom visits. This is the first of them. Almost as soon as we're out of the car, he's smothered, like a morsel of food dropped on an anthill. By the time he comes out of the showroom, the autograph-seekers are lined up, pens, markers, scraps of paper and rupee notes held up for the occasion. The apparel has changed. Peacock-blue Reebok Polo shirt has made way for sunny yellow Reebok Polo shirt. We manage to leave the kerb and drive away even as a fiver is thrust through the window. "How can people ask you to sign on money?" he asks, bemused.

We talk technique. Can technique get to be constricting, a form of slavery? Does he think a lack of flexibility went against him on his last tours to Australia and South Africa? Dravid plays it back with ease, and a smile. "I don't think I'm obsessed with my technique at all. I do believe technique is important. When you look at a Tendulkar or a Lara, they have fantastic techniques which permit them to play with that kind of flair. It's technique which gets them into position to play the shots they do."

When he watches such players unravel their repertoire, does he wish he could emulate them? "I think I play most shots quite well. I play some better than others. I've seen the effect of what a good reverse sweep can do [] but I don't think I have the ability to play it the way Andy Flower does. It's a shot I'd love to play someday."

Like with most other Indians, Sachin is an object of affection, and awe. But does the onerous task of walking out before Tendulkar weigh Dravid down? Does it bother him that crowds are actually willing for his wicket to fall so that they can watch Tendulkar bat? He agrees, and disagrees. "It's not easy batting before Sachin, that's for sure. Most of the crowd are there to watch him, and half the time, I'm waiting to watch him too," he says with a chuckle. "But I have shared some very good partnerships with Sachin. He's such a great player that he can demoralise an attack and make it easier for you." Tendulkar and Lara are two batsmen he would pay money to go and watch. That would be a dream partnership, he says.

You can't talk about partnerships without recalling Kolkata, where VVS Laxman and Dravid fashioned that epic revival against Australia. What was it like watching Laxman script that innings of a lifetime? "It was terrific. Some of the shots he played were just incredible. It was amazing to be part of it. It's something that both of us, everyone in that team, and everyone who watched, will remember for a long, long time. Just to see someone bat as well as he did for such a long time was amazing. You have seen people bat that well for a session, or even two. But he just went on and on... "

And his 180, a solitaire in its own right - was it the best he's ever played? "Frankly, I don't think so. Maybe it gave me most pleasure in terms of what happened in the final analysis and the way the series went from there. In terms of sheer quality though, I think my innings at Hamilton against New Zealand was better."

And what does he remember of the duel with Shane Warne, a bowler who appeared to have him on a string when India toured Australia in 1999? For the first time, he moves firmly onto the back foot. "A lot of these things are built up by the media. I'd played Warne before that and had my successes against him. He'd also got me out a few times. If you play each other often enough, there will be times when a bowler cleans me up, just as there will be times when I bat well against him. I didn't have a good series in Australia, period. It wasn't about Warne as such, it was more about me struggling for form."

India's record abroad is another potentially touchy topic. No matter how many times you watch Titanic, the liner always sinks at the end, much like India's batting abroad. How tough is it to deal with repeated failures? "We've been in positions to win a few Tests but haven't converted them," Dravid reflects. "It's something I hope we can correct in the near future. Maybe we grow up used to these conditions and this kind of atmosphere. We've often found it hard to adjust to conditions abroad. There is a lot of pressure playing in India but there's also a huge familiarity aspect that we enjoy." Have repeated failures abroad led to a lack of self-belief, a cattle-to-the-abattoir mentality? "Can't argue with that thinking because people will just throw the results at me," he says. "To some extent, we've lacked that killer punch. Maybe we've just not had the kind of players needed to excel in those kinds of conditions."

He's left himself open and it's time to move in for the kill. Is the `best middle order in the world' all hype then? When was the last time Indian batsmen lived up to their reputation? "We're bitterly disappointed that we haven't won more games abroad. We know we can, and should, do better. But there's no point getting frustrated. You can't dwell too much on the past. A lot of the time, when the batting does well, the bowlers have been off-colour. And vice versa. We just have to improve, and who knows, things will be different when we tour the West Indies and England later this year."

That's as far as we get because another Reebok showroom beckons at Brigade Road. The handshakes, pictures and autographs take less time here. After the hysteria on Commercial Street, Brigade Road turns out to be a breeze, and we are now homeward bound.

We talk of how the winds of change have buffeted Indian cricket in the last decade, how the game has became a TV spectator sport, about the celebrity cult, the hype and the hoopla. Has cricket been reduced to a circus? He furrows his brow, thinks a while and says, "I think the sidelights, if you can call them that, have added to the sport's popularity. Sometimes, they do take away the focus from the serious issues. From a player's perspective, all these images and perceptions are creations of the media and have nothing to do with what the players think. All these glib phrases like the Fab Four or the Famous Five... the players themselves don't believe them or think they're larger than life. We know that we get respect and attention only because we happen to play a game better than most other people. It just so happens that cricket is a sport that's enormously popular with the masses." Not that he would have it any other way. "I appreciate the good work done by the media and the marketing people around the sport. In the end, you want your sport to be popular, you want it to keep growing. I'd rather be playing cricket with its mass appeal than another sport which doesn't get the same media attention or is not as popular."

It isn't just off the field that things have changed. You ask him about the differences he's been able to observe between now and those cloudy English days when he made his debut. "John [Wright] has worked hard with the team since he came in. He's definitely brought in a bit more planning and a more methodical approach. The attitudes and methods have changed a lot. Some things that we did in 1996 seem outdated now."

India's aura of invincibility at home has also been consigned to the dark ages. Does he think that visiting teams have worked India out, begun to feel at home in a country once thought fit only for elephant rides? "Definitely. I was telling someone the other day that it's going to become harder and harder. Teams are coming to the subcontinent more often. They've realised that India is a great place to tour, that it's a fantastic place to play cricket, probably the best in the world. They're sending a lot of their A teams over, and their junior teams too. They've learned to adapt to the conditions. And their attitudes towards touring India have also changed."

The life of the modern sportsman is far from being a magic carpet ride. We only see the wine and roses, but not the endless flights, the coach rides and the days spent living out of suitcases and off room service. How does he deal with the life of the road warrior?

"I enjoy touring. It's a great chance to experience other cultures and see new places, meet new people. I like to see the places of interest in a particular area if I get a chance. Nowadays, with tours becoming shorter and schedules tighter, you don't get as much free time." He also enjoys reading - Lance Armstrong's inspiring It's Not About the Bike being one of the recent reads - and listening to music.

Touring, though, can be a stroll in the park compared to the scrutiny of a cricket-crazy nation. How does he deal with the fame and the mass hysteria?

"It's part of the package, you learn to cope with it. It's not that much of a problem in Bangalore, to be honest. I do most normal things. Obviously, when I go for promotions or other functions that are hyped, there's a big crowd. But on a normal day, I can walk down any street in Bangalore, go out with friends to restaurants and lead a pretty normal life. Being a recognisable face, there are certainly some things you can't do and have to be wary about."

How does his family cope with the adulation and the demands from fans? "The hardest thing is that sometimes, they have to suffer a little bit. As a cricketer, I get to do what I love and I get recognised for it. That makes it easier to cope with the hassles. But for the family, it can be inconvenient when people call up at odd hours of the night and my parents do get disturbed at times. They're more or less used to it now but sometimes I do feel it's sad that they have to face these things because it's me that plays the cricket."

Dravid has always had a reputation as a thinking man's cricketer. Does he set himself goals, long-term or otherwise? "I have both long-term and short-term goals, keep reassessing them as time goes by." And what would they be? "I wouldn't like to talk about them. It's quite private," he says with a cheeky smile. "Short-term would certainly be to get a Test series win abroad and to do well in the World Cup next year."

The car eases to a stop. We are right in front of the Dravid residence in one of Bangalore's quieter suburbs. It's been a whirlwind two hours. For a person who has been painted as drab and boring, he has been refreshingly open and candid - a blue sky where some had warned you to expect nothing but grey. You remember something he said earlier, about getting respect and attention only because "we happen to play a game better than most other people".

And you realise that that's not strictly true. Dravid is perhaps Indian cricket's answer to Aussie tennis icon Patrick Rafter. Both are men with bags of talent and looks that attract more than a fair amount of female attention. But also men who are pleasantly free of the vomit-inducing arrogance that pervades so much of top-shelf professional sport. Ordinary Joes who are far from ordinary.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo