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Rahul Dravid and the World Cup arc of redemption

He was the captain when India made an early exit from the 2007 World Cup; but in 2023 with Dravid as the head coach, their true potential has been unlocked

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Players who get affected by trolling, social-media abuse and paid-to-trend hashtags might feel those before them had it easier, but they had their own share of troubles with fanaticism. They might even argue it was more hardcore back in the day. Or even as recently as 2007, when India had just been knocked out of the World Cup in the first round.
Effigies were burnt, stones were thrown at players' houses, and they were forced to alter travel plans at the last moment to escape angry fans waiting for them in their cities and in their towns. Irfan Pathan remembers being physically pushed and sworn at by a man he was sharing an airport queue with. MS Dhoni didn't go to Ranchi for days after returning to avoid any incident.
Rahul Dravid, if you believed what was said and implied in the media, was just a meek yes-man-captain, who let the evil coach Greg Chappell run the team into the ground. There were two assumptions here: whatever happened under his captaincy was bad, and that he was incapable of being bad. His effigy was burnt but he was still the good boy we could forgive once the villain Chappell was gone. A great foot soldier who should never have been a leader.
The day India were knocked out of the World Cup, Dravid sat through a gruelling press conference where he was actually asked if he worried about the security situation back home. It can be argued that you can ignore the memes of today or get off social media to shut off the cyber bullying, but how do you ignore physical threats to your and your family's physical well-being?
Memes needn't always be hurtful, though. They can be clever storytelling too, as this latest one involving Dravid is. It has all the ingredients to go viral. Emotions, redemption arc, cricket, and the king of Bollywood. The meme draws parallels between Shah Rukh Khan's character in Chak De India and Dravid. Both were "disgraced" as captains but redeemed themselves as coaches with world titles. Neither of them had instant success or acceptance as coach.
If you show it to Dravid, he'll likely lament the excessive focus on the coach. He might probably joke about his looks when compared to Shah Rukh. If in a feisty mood, he might also point out to a Test series win in the West Indies when they were strong, a first Test win in South Africa and a Test series win in England under his captaincy. So not exactly disgraced.
Memes, though, are not to be taken literally. In reality, neither did Dravid take up a team of nobodies nor did he do it for redemption. He has long forgotten he was a player. He is a professional coach who doesn't even believe that only cricketers can help his teams. And he took over a highly successful team full of some of the best and most-competitive professionals in the world.
In fact Dravid's was the unenviable job of being the guy who came in just after India had won the magical Test series without half their first-choice players in Australia and held the 2-1 lead in a Test series in England. The team was going to be in transition under Dravid, and the frequent injuries would make matters worse.
Those who know more than just the results say the leadership of Dravid and Rohit Sharma brought in proper processes when it comes to preparation and performance reviews, not in terms of results but execution. They brought about a sophistication and method to preparedness: from data to pitches to techniques, everything was worked on. They brought a level of comfort through proper communication. Players knew much better where they stood, what their roles were, how they could develop.
Lest you feel it made people too comfortable, that Indiranagar ka Gunda meme is not completely fictional. He might not be the road-raging madman as portrayed in the commercial, but he is no mollycoddling comforter either. When Dravid has to be stern, you are left under no misapprehension. Ask some of the players who have worked with Dravid at Under-19 and India A levels, and you will know how colourful his language can get. Nor is he averse to gamesmanship or pushing the line to push his side's advantage; remember he was fined for ball-tampering once.
Many of the players Dravid has worked with as India coach have passed through him at the developmental levels. Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Ishan Kishan, Shreyas Iyer, Mohammed Siraj, Prasidh Krishna, even Kuldeep Yadav when he was down and out, have all worked with him in Under-19 or India A teams. That is where Dravid actually helped lay the foundation of a pipeline of talent for the national team.
Some felt perhaps that was the best place for him. One of Dravid's failures as captain was considered to be his inability to satisfactorily convince Sachin Tendulkar that his batting at No. 4 was the best for the team. Or his inability to shut the tap on incessant media leaks allegedly through Chappell, who was also shooting a documentary on the side while he coached India. Or the handling of the dropping of Sourav Ganguly, which was called for at the time.
You see the pattern there: big names, be it the dissatisfied players or the offending coach no matter how noble his intentions. It was felt Dravid was better off developing players before they became superstars.
Half of Dravid's stint has been without a proper captain thanks to injuries. He didn't mend what was not broken. In a nod to the former team management, he kept playing with four fast bowlers in Tests abroad.
From the time Rohit was regularly available as captain, Dravid went ahead with perhaps his biggest contribution to this team, dragging their intent into the modern times. It took some convincing that even when there were collapses while going for above-par totals only rarely did they end up with a complete blowout. The superstars he was working with were no less than Tendulkar or Ganguly.
The results of this revolution, which Rohit bought into and then led the rest of the side into, was perhaps best visible in the World Cup semi-final. It is not hard to imagine an Indian team of not long ago settling for 325 in those conditions. It was the extra intent that gave India the cushion to be calm when Daryl Mitchell and Kane Williamson were going.
There's also less of the us-against-the-world edginess in this team. Dravid is not averse to bringing in support from outside the sport. Virat Kohli recently credited the time he spent with mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton, brought in during the last T20 World Cup but discontinued because India didn't win the title, for the role it played in his revival.
All through the World Cup, perhaps the first time they have been at full strength during Dravid's stint, India have looked like a team whose true potential has been unlocked. If they keep playing similar cricket and the final still happens to be that one rare blowout, it won't take away from the progress they have made. Still a final win will make it extra special for a team unfairly trolled for not winning knockout matches despite a stellar record in league stages.
And perhaps the coach will take some time to remember the scenes from the dressing room while India lost to Sri Lanka in Port-of-Spain in 2007 - the royalty of Indian cricket, Tendulkar, Dravid, Anil Kumble, Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh all sat glum, on the verge of tears, as wicket after wicket fell. Tendulkar, Sehwag and Yuvraj got another shot at World Cup glory, and took it. Others didn't. Not everyone does.
And then possibly the coach will just laugh it all off with another meme featuring the king of Bollywood.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo