It was at the second event that I nearly punched someone, whose hands were all over my face and body as soon as we stepped out of the car. Just because I was with him, it was assumed that I too was some sort of a star, and not a young journalist trying to finish off the biggest interview of a fledgling career. As I wrestled away and looked towards him, he was being mobbed. Scratch that. Manhandled would be the apt word.
As I seethed with rage, he went about his business as though nothing had happened. He shook hands, spoke to people and signed at least two dozen autographs. Had the selfie been around then, we might have been stuck in the store a lot longer. Only once did he get flustered. Just as we were in the car and ready to drive away, a middle-aged man thrust a currency note and pen at him, asking him to sign on the image of Mahatma Gandhi. “I can’t do that,” he said. “Please get me a piece of paper.”
As the interview wound down an hour later, I asked Rahul Dravid how he managed to stay calm, especially when there was such little respect for his personal space. “They do it out of affection,” he said with a shrug. “Indian cricket means that much to them.”
As the years passed and the accolades grew, he didn’t change. Instrumental in every major Indian Test win for half a decade, he was the natural choice to take over from Sourav Ganguly. Long before Greg Chappell arrived with his tough-love methods, John Wright was telling anyone who cared to listen that Dravid was the man to take Indian cricket to the next level.
But because of what transpired with Chappell, the job that no one should have grudged him became a poisoned chalice. We don’t often speak of historic Test series wins in West Indies and England, or of the maiden Test win in South Africa. Instead, the Dravid years are invariably associated with that World Cup failure in Trinidad.
By the end of it all - in England in 2007, with no coach around, he would even supervise the availability of balls for net sessions - his form too suffered. But even as he withdrew into himself and the cocoon his family offered, the way he behaved didn’t change. He would respond to messages and calls and was unfailingly polite even when saying no.
His vulnerability in those years taught me a great deal about what life must be like at the cutting edge of professional sport. As the runs dried up, I would almost always send messages before matches, telling him that his luck would change. Many sportspersons cultivate relationships with the media in the lean times, and then promptly become recluses if and when the glory years return.
But when his career graph stopped sliding, with a century in Mohali against England - “If they had dropped me after that Test, I wouldn’t have had any complaints,” he told me later - he remembered those messages. “There were times when you believed in me more than I did in myself,” said one. I was one of many. Ricky Ponting had sought him out after the 2008 series in India, and told him that it was only a matter of time.
When the curtain came down, with a disastrous series in Australia mere months after a three-century summer in England, he called everyone he knew well in the game and informed them before the final press conference. He left with no scores settled, no points made. Media work, in the age of instant and often strident opinions wasn’t really for him. With the Under-19 boys and the A team, he really is in his element, doing with them what he credits the late Keki Tarapore for when he was a teenager finding his way.
Many top sportspersons have been compelled to pretend to be paragons of virtue because it made cold commercial sense. A few of them are Indian. Dravid never had to put on an act. He really was a nice guy, the sort of bloke even the opposition seldom had a harsh word for. Whether he was a gentlemen, or a man from another age, depends on your perspective. But with him, what you saw was always what you got. His embarrassment at being awarded more money than the Under-19 players and support staff doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. This is the man who wouldn’t sign on a currency note, who knew the value of things.
He was a special person to know as a player. He’s no different as a coach.
First Published: February 8, 2018, 1:30 PM IST