From a player living on the edge after being dropped from the ODI team, one would have expected a triumphant swagger. But Dravid is a man of few words. And when he does talk, he is as watchful and circumspect as he is with bat in hand. Today’s fast-track media detests sportsmen that aren’t quote machines. When a subject is neither florid nor effusive, reporters have to take the trouble to dig deep. Dravid doesn’t come giftwrapped with sound bytes. With such individuals, even the smallest gesture tends to be deconstructed for clues. Often, motives are ascribed where none exist.
Was Dravid’s uncharacteristic exuberance on field after his century in Ahmedabad—which reminded one of his exultation after a hundred in the match against Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001—a response to some of his detractors? He laughs and shakes his head. “People end up analysing every move we make,” he says, raising a spoonful of scrambled eggs to his mouth. “When I made that hundred at Mohali in 2008 and didn’t jump up and down, everyone said maybe he’s sending a message. But I wasn’t trying to.”
He’s having breakfast at the coffee shop of the Taj Lands End hotel in Mumbai. In a couple of hours, he’ll be heading to the airport, back home to his wife, Vijeeta, and two young sons. As usual, Dravid doesn’t seem to be in a hurry, a demeanour that has sometimes lulled bowlers into complacency. “In 2001, the team was under a huge amount of pressure,” he reminisces. “We got totally outplayed in the first Test, especially in the first three days in Kolkata. We faced a lot of criticism from fans, the media and within the team setup, too. Everyone was having a go at us. It was expected because we weren’t doing well. To turn it around was such a huge adrenaline boost for me.”
The 376-run partnership between Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman ensured that India won, after following on 274 in arrears. “At Ahmedabad, it was the same. I went in to bat when India was struggling at 30 for four,” Dravid says. “It had nothing to do with what was happening around me.”
What his recent centuries have accomplished was to reveal strokemaking gifts that many thought had been lost forever. They were wonderfully fluent and positive innings, the efforts of a man keen to impose himself on the proceedings rather than just be carried along by the tide. Apart from the 74 he notched up in Mumbai—where he was content to watch Sehwag eviscerate the Lankan bowling—he scored at a clip that few thought him capable of any more.
In a team of dazzling stroke players, Dravid was always been the conservative cornerstone. It’s a role into which he has grown. “It’s a great learning experience because you’re watching others play some amazing shots, the kind that you would love to play but know you probably can’t at that stage,” he says, before stressing that circumstances are everything. “At Ahmedabad, when Dhoni came in to bat, I was nearing my hundred. In Mumbai, when I went in to bat, Sehwag was on 150. There’s a difference. It was towards the end of the day and I was playing for time, trying to set the team up. Viru was really going strong at the other end.”
Such a statement is in keeping with the nature of a batting legend who has always played down his successes. “I try to ensure that my game complements the other guy’s,” he says. “I don’t see myself needing to match them. I don’t try to do that at all.”Dravid knows he has a game that works well for him, one that has been successful over a long period of time.And he tries to stick to it and keep improving on his strengths. Against Sri Lanka he played a lot more shots and his attitude was a lot more positive. “I tried to focus on being more dominant against the spinners,” he says. “I was very disappointed with the way I played in Sri Lanka in 2008 and had a lot of time to reflect on it. Coming into this series, I practised a lot against spin and I knew that I was going to set the tone early on if I got the chance.” He did in Ahmedabad, and how. The first time Rangana Herath came on to bowl, Dravid stepped out and hit him for six. “Learning from last time’s experience and also watching the way Viru played at Galle was a real education for me,” he says.
His approach vindicated his teammates’ faith. “I think he’s a great player and his record speaks for him,” says Gautam Gambhir, the opener whose solidity makes him a natural successor. “As a cricketer, you go through these lean patches. He’s such a great player that it was just a matter of time before he came out of that. A lot of credit goes to him for the way he fought it out.”
During the course of their careers, Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and even Sehwag have gotten far more acclaim than Dravid. Not one of them has had to constantly reinvent himself in the way that Dravid has done, time after time. Go from being a dour accumulator to someone capable of scoring 153 in an ODI? Check. Keep wickets in ODIs for the sake of team balance? Check. Open in a Test match? Check. In a team consisting of exceptional talents, he has been the man for all seasons. Even as recently as last August, with the new generation of players struggling for form, it was Dravid to whom the selectors turned in order to shore up the ODI batting. But even after being the top-scorer against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy, it was he that was unceremoniously dumped so that the young guns could once again boom, this time in less trying home conditions.
Some of his old mates were aghast at the decision. “I don’t know why they didn’t continue with him,” says Anil Kumble. “I don’t think someone who has played that long should have been dropped in that way after having performed in the Champions Trophy.”
But Dravid is not miserable. If you’re expecting an angstridden rant, look elsewhere. “It was nice to be back and I have no regrets even though it lasted only for a short time,” he says. “It’s always good to represent India whatever be the format. As long you’re playing the game and enjoying it you want to play as much as you can. In whatever time I have left, it’s important for me to savour and enjoy each innings and match that I play.”
Before starting this interview, he had warned that there would be no settling of scores. “I don’t want to deal with that ‘Is he in or is he out, or does he still want to play?’ business or stir up old debates,” he said. “I don’t want to set myself up to be disappointed.”
Steve Waugh, a player Dravid admires immensely, was denied his World Cup swansong in 2003. If the same fate befalls Dravid in 2011, it won’t be for want of effort on his part. Whether it’s in the gym or a net session, he keeps ticking the boxes as he’s always done. In the autumn of his career, some rewards are already his. As he reflects on the old days, his normally keen eyes grow distant. “I look back to the time I started,” he says.“When we toured, even if we won only one match, people thought it was a big achievement. But now, the team is always expected to win. That in itself is a big change. People are asking for a series win every time we go out on the field. That’s a compliment.”
Indian cricket’s mild maestro is taking a much-needed break after the win he helped fashion. While his teammates played two Twenty20 games and five ODIs against Sri Lanka, he was spending his time in the gym or on the field at deserted venues helping Karnataka’s bid to win the Ranji Trophy. As he tucks into a masala dosa—the dieticians do give the odd day off—he admits that getting off the treadmill took some getting used to. “That was an adjustment I had to make,” he says. “There were gaps in between Tests and I was used to playing all the time. I was used to that competitive environment.”
The Ranji Trophy games are something he keenly looks forward to. “This year, I’ve focused really hard on my fitness as well,” he says. “I told myself that I’d had a really bad 2008. What was I going to do differently in 2009? One of those things was to get my fitness right. Working with physio Paul Chapman at the National Cricket Academy was great and I’ve been able to maintain a good level of fitness.”
Statistically, 2008 was the worst year of his career. In 15 Tests, Dravid made just 805 runs at an average of 30.96. Had the young pretenders managed to put up the sort of scores that Dravid or Laxman did when they were trying to break into the team, the selectors would surely have drawn a thin red line under his career. Soon after the Tendulkar-and-Sehwag inspired victory in Chennai, a match in which Dravid scored three and four, he had never seemed so dispirited. When assured that his time would come, he had said: “I need to get one [big score], not only for myself, but for everyone who has constantly wanted me to do well.”
“I did recognise the fact that I was going through a pretty lean patch,” he acknowledges. “I wasn’t playing anywhere close to the standards that I had set for myself. When that sort of patch happens to you, at my age, it’s natural that there will be questions asked and a push to look ahead.” Dravid can still see the contradiction: he wasn’t getting runs but knew that he was playing well. “It sounds silly,” he admits. “How can you say you’re playing well when you’re not scoring runs? But everything from the way I was hitting the ball in the nets to the short knocks that I had, I felt I was playing well.”
He knew that the match against England at Mohali was his last chance to rage against dying light. “I was one match away from being dropped,” he says. “And I would have had no complaints. If that had happened at that stage, I would probably have moved on because I couldn’t see myself coming back.” When the Rubicon crossing came, he made it over to the other side. He went on to score 136, shutting the door on England’s chances of squaring the series. “The way Dravid played, he hardly gave us any chance,” said Graeme Swann, England’s offspinner, afterwards. “He was exceptional.”
During the days when Dravid was searching for the light, encouragement came from the unlikeliest of sources. Against Australia, he totalled just 120 runs in four Tests. Had India lost instead of winning 2-0, he might not even have made it as far as Mohali. “During that series, a lot of teammates were telling me I was looking good in the nets,” he says. “It was frustrating for me, no doubt about that. At the end of the series, Ricky Ponting came up to me. Obviously, he sensed that I was under a lot of pressure. He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking or the scene around you, but from what I’ve seen of you batting, I can’t see anything different. Everytime you come out to bat, you look like you’re going to make a big score. But you just keep getting out.’ Coming from someone like Ricky, it sort of reaffirmed what I myself was thinking. You always think that friends will say the right things to you, but hearing it from someone in the opposition gave me a bit of confidence.”
It wasn’t that he was coming in and heading back before the ink on the scoresheet could dry. There were several starts, but the man who built his reputation on monumental innings had been reduced to cameos. “If you look at the 20s or 30s that I got, I looked good, but didn’t end up converting them into big scores,” he says. “That was rare for me, and it was frustrating. I can’t put a finger on it. I’ve looked at it, thought about it, but I couldn’t really say what I’m doing different this season.“I’ve made some technical changes to my game. It was pointed out to me that my bottom hand was getting tighter, maybe because I was tense. So I’ve made a conscious effort this year to make my bottom hand very loose. But again, that’s not something I hadn’t done earlier. When you tell someone about the basics of batting, you say that the left hand dominates. It’s not rocket science. But maybe at some level, I was tightening up without being aware of it. It’s the only small technical thing that I can think of.”
He had struggled similarly in Australia, though his 93 in Perth played a huge part in India’s only win. At the time, Peter Roebuck had written: “Impregnable on his previous visit, Dravid tried hard to recover his effect but located only its shadow. At such times a batsman falls into caricature. He manages to convey his spirit without ever recapturing its essence. But then success cannot be bottled. Always there is a fine line. It is the secret known to all batsmen, one that drives some to drink and others to erect barricades around their wickets.”
Dravid also feels that, maybe, at a subconscious level, he had lost a bit of confidence. He wasn’t getting the scores he used to. “The lack of confidence is accentuated until you get that one big score, and then the belief just comes back,” he says. “It’s a vicious cycle and you have to arrest it somehow. In the past, too, I’m sure I must have gone through patches in Test cricket where I hadn’t done very well. But I always had the ODI game to pull me back. Here, because I was only playing Tests, the gaps between series were long and I didn’t have the cushion of the ODI game, where it’s often easier to score runs and get one’s confidence back.”
When he mentions confidence, it’s impossible not to bring up captaincy. It was never something he hankered for, but in certain quarters Dravid was forever tainted as “the man who replaced Sourav Ganguly.” During the 2004 tour of Pakistan, Ganguly had been injured and Dravid was temporarily in charge. It’s a captain’s lot to take tough calls, and many haven’t forgiven him for declaring Indian’s innings in Multan when Tendulkar was on 194. Ravi Shastri, former player-turned-commentator, had criticised Dravid’s subsequent captaincy for being “unassertive” and for allowing coach Greg Chappell too much leeway in taking decisions. Even after India’s historic series victory in England in 2007, Dravid faced vicious criticism at The Oval over his “defensive” tactics. The hullabaloo died down only when Michael Vaughan walked in, all Yorkshire calm, and said that he would have done exactly the same thing.
It’s also no secret that Dravid played his best cricket under Ganguly, averaging 73.31 over 49 Tests. In the 25 matches that he led, the figure dropped to 44.51. So how much did the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the tumultuously eccentric Chappell era contribute to the decline in Dravid’s confidence and batting form? “I quit at that stage because I wasn’t enjoying the captaincy,” he says, and you can catch a glimpse of residual hurt in his eyes. “I had done it for a period of time. There was a lot happening and I didn’t get the kind of scores that I would have liked to. So I just felt like I would go back to simply being a player and try to score runs. But it didn’t happen that way. I don’t think it had anything to do with the loss of form. I tried to move on as best as I could.”
At times, he sought refuge in the past. After that career-saving innings in Mohali, he admitted that archival footage had been part of his preparation. “When I’m doing well, I don’t watch a lot of videos,” he confides. “But when I was going through a tough phase, I did look at a few videos, just to see if there were any changes in my play. I didn’t find too many. Maybe I don’t need to look at them anymore. At this stage in my career, I don’t need to analyse much. I just need to enjoy it. Live in the moment.”
But the perfectionist streak remains though. Some players talk of being in “the zone,” but Dravid breaks it down in such a way that it seems less mystical. “There are a couple of things that tell me that my game is in sync,” he says. “If I’m playing a fast bowler and I can play an on-drive or the clip, through midwicket, it tells me that my balance is right. I sometimes feel that I over balance. I have a few check points in my batting. One is that I shouldn’t over balance. Another is that I control the game with my left hand. Also, if I can hit a spinner against the spin, it tells me my game is fine. To do that, everything needs to flow properly.”
In keeping with the character of someone who was deeply influenced by Phil Jackson’s book Sacred Hoops, coaches have played a big part in his career. “Keki Tarapore was my coach while growing up,” he says. “He taught me the basics. After that, we’ve had various coaches in the national team. There was John [Wright], then Greg and now Gary [Kirsten]. You discuss your batting with your coaches, teammates and also with former players. Sometimes, I might ask a question of Sunil Gavaskar or Shastri because they watch a lot of cricket, of someone like ParthasarathySharma, to whom I talk to about batting. There is no one person I go to, all the time. After a stage, you also work things out for yourself.”
While some aficionados are convinced that Twenty20 will do to Tests what the Ice Age did for dinosaurs, Dravid says that it has only added new facets to his batting. So much for old men being set in their ways. “In this series, I stepped out and hit bowlers over the top,” he says. “It’s not that I haven’t done that in the past, but because of the Twenty20 game, I’m forced to do that a lot more and practise it, too. There’s a confidence that creeps into your Test game which allows you to then express yourself a little more. You lose a bit of the fear of playing certain shots because you’ve done it with a fair degree of success in another format.”
After scoring a century in Kanpur, Gambhir had spoken of how he had grown up wanting to make centuries and double tons rather than just flay the ball for a few overs in a T20 game. It’s a sentiment that Dravid endorses, though he wonders if it’s shared by the Playstation generation.Dravid comes from a time when cricketers couldn’t specialise, when they basically had to play both Tests and ODIs to make a decent living. “Today you can perform in front of big crowds and make a lot of money playing just Twenty20 cricket,” he admits. “But the personal satisfaction from doing well in a Test match cannot be felt playing a Twenty20 game. The satisfaction of getting the best out of all skills—physical, mental, technical and emotional—would come only in a Test match.”
He is now nearly 37. With 14 years of international cricket behind him, the master batsman has a thick album of memories to fall back on. “The 2001 Kolkata match will be right on top because of the way we were down and out in the series and then seized a great victory,” he remembers, when asked for the brightest images of them all. There are more. The win at Adelaide in 2003. Rawalpindi, where India beat Pakistan and Dravid scored a mammoth 270. Again in 2005, beating Pakistan in Kolkata was special because he scored a hundred in each innings. The pages flip one after the other in his mind: in 2006, winning a series in the West Indies after 35 years, in 2007, winning the series in England. . .
After all these years of wielding the bat and chasing the ball across the turf, he also holds the world record for the highest number of catches in Test cricket (188). These days though, when he heads home, cricket is quickly pushed to the periphery. With two energetic young boys around the house, there isn’t much time to obsess over bottom hands and series averages. “Vijeeta still thinks I could improve my switching off,” he laughs. “She still feels that even when I’m at home, my mind is sometimes still on cricket.”
Men who haven’t played cricket even half as long as Dravid complain about burnout and of the loneliness that comes from the seemingly interminable months away from their families. Players’ associations insist that Tendulkar’s and Waugh’s careers, spanning two decades, are rarities. Dravid, though, doesn’t buy into the doomsday theories. “The levels of fitness have definitely improved,” he says. “People say there is a lot of cricket being played and maybe it’ll be tough for bowlers. But from a batting perspective I still think people can have decently long careers.”It’s off the field that he feels the challenges are, in terms of players spending time away from home; it adds to the pressures of international sport. But he remains confident that each player will deal with it in his own way, though some might find it more difficult than others. “It’s not ideal, but that’s the life of a sportsman. That’s the choice we make,” he says. “It’s one of the minuses, but there are a lot of plusses, too, such as getting to play the game that you love, the kind of job satisfaction that you get. Though it’s only for a certain period in your life, it’s a lifestyle that you choose to lead and you have to be committed to it.”
If you are forced to choose a single defining adjective to describe the man, it would be the word “intense.” Dravid is cricket’s version of Ralph Fiennes, with his craggy weather-beaten face and eyes holding shifting depths that few can fathom. Some say that you may discover a little about a man from the music he listens to and the books he reads. So, if one was to make off with Dravid’s iPod, what would one find? He laughs. “At the moment, there’s a helluva lot onmy iPod because I raid the team’s computers,” he says. “There’s no particular kind of music that I like to listen to. I like Sting, Bob Dylan, U2 and also Hindi songs.”
The day will come when he will walk off a field for the last time, the navyblue India cap casting a final shadow over his face and masking the emotion in those clear brown eyes. What will he take away with him? What will he leave behind? “I’ll miss the excitement of playing good cricket, the feeling that you get when you’re batting and in control of the game,” he says, his voice quiet and reflective. “I don’t know if anything else will replicate that feeling of being in the middle. I’ll miss the competition and being part of the team, an almost surreal world that cricketers live in, where everything’s looked after for us. I know that life outside of it is going to take some adjusting to.”
Perhaps it’s best to end with Waugh, not Auberon or Evelyn, but Steve. After Dravid had cut Stuart MacGill to the fence at Adelaide in 2003 to clinch one of India’s most famous Test wins, Waugh walked all the way to the gutter to fetch the ball and give it to the man whose strength in adversity mirrored his own. It was a gesture that Dravid will never forget. He has enjoyed the chats he has had with Waugh. After all, at the end of the day, every achiever wants to be recognised by his peers. “You want to earn their respect,” Dravid smiles. “It’s nice when journalists and critics write good things about you. Sometimes, a lot of stuff said in the press is not always, exactly correct. But your opponents know.”
After all these years, we should, too.
*This was the cover story for Sports Illustrated’s January 2010 Indian edition. I didn’t much like their edit, so this is my version.