It was a chilly, wet Thursday in Christchurch, a miserable day if you were a cricketer or a follower of cricket. It was also a warm, charming Thursday in Christchurch, a wonderful day if you factored in the intrepidness and lack of inhibition of the young Indian cricketer.
Thousands of miles away from his family and with celebrations of his 45th birthday the last thought on his mind, Rahul Dravid would have been a little disappointed that his charges had been denied a final practice game ahead of the Under-19 World Cup. The Indians were pencilled in to play Kenya as they sought to wind up their preparations for their tournament opener against Australia on Sunday (January 14); instead, they were driven indoors by the rain.
Indoors, however, was no deterrent for action.
Much of the attention is currently trained on South Africa, where Virat Kohli’s men are being exposed to the harsh realities of spiced-up tracks and charged-up pace quartets. Had things panned out differently, Dravid might have spent some time with the senior team if the BCCI/CoA had accepted the Cricket Advisory Committee’s recommendation in early July that the former skipper be appointed batting consultant for overseas tours.
Given what eventuated, the senior team’s supreme loss has become the junior side’s unfettered gain. So there is Dravid, in another part of the southern hemisphere, moulding his wards into potential stars of tomorrow. Knowing him, one is sure he won’t just be talking high left (or right, as the case may be) elbow, or playing the ball and not the bowler, or respecting the conditions. He is a life-coach and a cricket-coach rolled into one, a guide and a mentor, but also a friend and a confidant.
Even if he has been around different Under-19 teams for two and a half years now, it is inconceivable that the aura around him within the dressing-room has diminished one bit. And yet, if boys physiologically young enough to be his kids are emboldened enough to smash cake on his face, it means the invisible walls have been smashed down, with no little help from The Wall himself (horrible pun and all).
The stern-faced, sweat-dripping, grimly determined Dravid at the batting crease can only be found in the archives now. His animated celebration at the Eden Gardens on reaching three-figures against Australia in that magical Test of 2001 grabbed everyone’s attention because that was so unDravidlike. Between then and 2012, when he called time on the most glorious of careers, he lapsed back to political correctness, though, by his own admission, towards the later stages of his time with the Indian team, he let his hair down a lot more because “I stopped taking myself too seriously.”
Dravid flinging his cap in frustration and disappointment at Rajasthan Royals failing to make it to the playoffs of IPL 2014 is still seared in memory for the uncharacteristic public show of negative emotion by the most composed of individuals, but it lent further credence to his mental loosening up. He will never wear his heart on his sleeve like, say, a Kohli, but he is no longer the great internaliser whose face offered no clue to what was going on inside his intelligent, wise head.
The final proof, if you like, of the transformation of Dravid from stoic to cool came in Christchurch on January 11, 2018. As he embarrassedly bent down to slice the small cake and the boys huddled around him, there was no indication that this was going to be anything but an undramatic cake-cutting ceremony. Suddenly, the lads got into action; smearing the birthday boy’s face with cake that could be put to better use has become a very Indian dressing-room custom in recent years, but generally it is an act perpetrated by peers against one of their own. It speaks to the comfort levels of Prithvi Shaw and his mates that they felt they could show their affection for their coach by adopting a similar tack without sacrificing any of the reverence and respect they have for one of India’s finest, sincerest and most trustworthy cricketing sons.
To his credit, Dravid didn’t blanch. Perhaps he might have silently feared this dreaded moment, perhaps he was caught unawares. Either way, he lost neither poise nor equanimity. He took all the cake-love with the same composure with which he stood up to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, to Shane Warne and Saqlain Mushtaq. He then smiled delightedly for selfies, his arm around Shaw. Wonder what his one-time teammates made of it all. Wonder if they ever thought they would live to see this day, Jammy being given the cake treatment, and by the little ones, at that.
The time for fun and games is over, what with the small matter of the World Cup campaign almost upon the team. Dravid wasn’t a part of a World Cup-winning team, though he has been in two finals – as a player and the vice-captain in South Africa in 2003, as the coach at the Under-19 event in Bangladesh two years ago. He is, though, not the kind who will obsess to achieve as coach what he couldn’t as player. He will do everything possible to ensure that his wards go all the way, of course, but to him, trophies and titles at the Under-19 level isn’t an end in itself. It is this wisdom that the teens must feed off; a decade down the road, a majority of cricket followers will struggle to remember which 15 won the Under-19 World Cup. The true test of these young men will come when they seek to make the transition to the next level, which is where the Dravid helping hand as Under-19 (and India A) coach becomes a cherished ally.
Will the senior Indian team have benefitted from a ten-day crash course from Dravid? Will the sun rise in the east on the morrow?
The purpose behind the move to have him as batting consultant on overseas tours was to expose the team to the mindset, as much as anything else, that had made Dravid an all-weather batsman. Whether his brief interaction with the boys at the start of the England tour in 2014 at the request of Duncan Fletcher, the then head coach, made a difference can be questioned, but India did draw the first Test in Nottingham and win the next at Lord’s. India imploded in the final three Tests, topping 200 just once in the next six innings. Maybe by then, the Dravid tips had escaped hassled minds? Or maybe, we are reading too much into the Dravid effect?
Not that it’s something the man himself will lose sleep over. In his playing days, Dravid did everything and more than was asked of him. Emergency opener. Tick. Limited-overs wicketkeeper. Tick. Nothing has changed in retirement. There is a reason he is held in great reverence by champion sportspersons and the lay cricket fan. And who bigger than Abhinav Bindra, India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist, to lend eloquence to the sentiments of millions?