Towards the end of last seasons Indian Premier League,Rajasthan Royals skipper Rahul Dravid was undecided about his future. The next edition was about 11 months away. This fact was registered with the realisation that he would have turned 40 by then.
It was easier to be playing IPL 2012 for Indias finest Test No.3 as he had retired from international cricket just a month before the season began. He went on to score over 400 runs,enjoyed sporadic success while opening the innings with a partner who was 15 years his junior and took the Royals to within a couple of wins away from the knock-outs.
But with his team suffering a 10-wicket loss to Mumbai Indians in the final game of Season 5,Dravid had doubts if he would return to IPL. Many a times during the campaign,he craved to be with wife and sons,who were suddenly showing keen interest in the game. The Royals support staff and even team owners wondered if it was Dravids final IPL outing.
The teams chief executive officer Raghu Iyer waited till August to get a confirmation from his captains availability. Rahul told me he needed one more month to take a call over his participation in the sixth edition, Iyer says. In September,to Iyers delight,Dravid decided to give the Royals another year.
Around the same time Dravid made a call to Paddy Upton,best known as the mental conditioning coach who,along with coach Gary Kirsten,was at the helm of the Indian Test team that was ranked No.1 and also won the World Cup.
During his stint with the national side,Dravid had spent several evenings with Upton talking about the world outside cricket. Music,books,surfing,karma and the true meaning of life; the conversations between the two men had no boundaries. Shared interests saw them bond.
In what is seen as his last season,Dravid wanted the like-minded Upton on board at Royals. He wanted to recreate a happy Rajasthan dressing room environment – similar to the one that prevailed in the Indian team during the Kirsten era.
Upton had completed an IPL season as performance director of the Pune Warriors when Dravid briefed him about the possibility of a vacancy as head coach with the Royals. The 44-year-old South African,without a second thought,threw his hat into the ring. There were three other capable contenders interviewed by a panel that included Englands 2003 World Cup rugby-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward.
With Uptons appointment confirmed,Dravid now had another problem that needed urgent attention – he had to be match-fit.
Earlier this month he played his first competitive game in nine months; for the Marylebone Cricket Club versus Sussex in Dubai. Opening the batting he made 26 in 33 balls with four boundaries.
Not since I was 12 or 13 did I have such a long break from matches and practice. It was nice to get back and be able to play. I started practice a month-and-a-half back,doing some fitness work and hitting some balls. The IPL is a lot different and tougher (from the MCC game) or from practice because the bowlers are much faster,better, Dravid says.
During his early net sessions at the start of the season,Dravid realised he was getting hit on the body quite frequently,something that didnt happen often when he was still an international cricketer.
On the second day of the Royals camp at the Rajasthan Cricket Associations academy grounds the ball sneaks in between an attempted flick and hits Dravid on the back of his calf. The Royals skipper limps off but returns half an hour later for another stint at the centre wicket. This time he is in T20 mode. On show: an inside out lofted drive,booming slog sweeps,the across-the-line heave and even an attempt at a scoop that results in the veteran tumbling and missing the ball.
The break from cricket is longer than school holidays. Getting back to school takes just about two months, Dravid says reflecting on the start of the camp.
Raghu recalls how in January he took the liberty to tell Dravid that the CEO of the team seemed fitter than the captain. It was said in lighter vein,Raghu assures.
The suited-and-booted and slightly filled out commentator has made way for the leaner version. For the first time in my life I had switched off from the fitness completely. I mean I was doing some basic stuff but nothing near those standards I had set. About two months ago I started getting back to fitness,took a break from commentary and started working towards getting match fit. Even my diet had become largely a lifestyle diet, Dravid says.
Once Upton joined Royals,Dravid had a comforting reunion with his friend,confidant and guide. So will Uptons presence make the last lap easier for Dravid? It is too early to talk about how much longer I will play. I can only think about playing in this edition of the IPL. I am playing this season as if it is my last season. last season as a player, Dravid says.
For Upton the opportunity to work with the man,who reminds him of his long-time associate and close friend Kirsten,was ideal.
When Dravid was appointed captain ahead of the fifth season,he had inquired if Upton was available but the South African had already agreed in principal to join the Pune Warriors.
In other franchisees I wouldnt have the freedom to go ahead with the philosophy that Gary and I had. I needed to work with a captain like Rahul. Gary and I,we cherish the partnership we had. When Rahul called,immediately I felt the same enthusiasm as when I work in partnership with Gary. Rahul is the single-most important factor in my work. I would liken it to working with Gary who is open and keen to try new things and is very happy to empower people. They dont define themselves as just cricketers. One of the things they happen to do is play cricket. Upton says.
The head coach of the Rajasthan Royals gives the example of the current South African side to highlight what he calls the vegetable-garden theory. Upton is a performance director and Kirsten is the coach with Cricket South Africa.
Rory Kleinveldt,Kyle Abbott,Faf du Plessis are kids who have come through and done extremely well as they are being freed-up. It is a bit like a vegetable garden where if you cover it with a large piece of wood at the top,the plants will not grow. The soil below needs to be fertile and the large piece of wood have to be removed. In the same way we want to see the youngsters grow to the best of their potential. Shane Warne had created that atmosphere and Rahul can create a similar happy atmosphere too. Unhappy teams dont win.
Former India Under-19 skipper Ashok Menaria elaborates on how Dravid and Warne are different in nature but have a similar approach to mentoring. Warne would tell you during the middle of the game that ‘you are the best in the world. When a player of his stature tells you that in front of 30,000-40,000 people your self-belief increases. Rahul will have a one-on-one session with you,which would take more time than than Warnes one-liners. But when Rahul talks to you for 30 minutes and tells you that you can be a great player,you believe him, Menaria says.
In a team that has several young and talented players,Upton and Dravid will have their hands full. This seasons recruits include Harmeet Singh,the left-arm orthodox spinner who was part of the U-19 World Cup winning team,and 18-year-old spinner Kumar Baresa,picked during a selection trial in Jodhpur and handed a Rs 10 lakh contract.
We wanted someone like Paddy because in a short time span of an IPL season there is only so much of pure hardcore coaching that can be done. In IPL,one or two good games can create a lot of hype around you. But it is important that young players know that the IPL can give you recognition but it does not guarantee success at the international level. Paddy is important because he can work on the mental skills of the players. For the cricketing side of things we have Zubin Bharucha (director of cricket) and Monty Desai (coach), Dravid says.
After being on road for close to a decade-and-a-half,Dravid relished the novelty of staying at home for most of 2012. But still he cant the deny that deafening roar from the stands was tempting.
I got used to the daily routines at home. Being at home,relaxing things I couldnt do as much as I wanted to earlier. But my family realises that I have a commitment with the IPL. They will join me at some point and are looking forward to seeing me play again, he says. And then suddenly the family man makes way for the cricketer in Dravid. I am really looking forward to the tournament. It is a nice tournament to play because it captures the imagination of the entire nation. It is also nice to go to some of the Test venues and play in front of packed houses.
Royals stick to tradition
Shane Warne’s inspirational leadership saw a rag-tag Royals unit,cobbled together with a shoe-string budget,win the inaugural IPL season. Royals continue to stick to their old formula. Season six will once again see the Jaipur-based side bank on the low-key combination of youth and experience. Dravid,like Warne,has in his ranks old-hand seniors and rank newcomers who can be potential stars.
Brad Hogg: Age: 42; Chinaman bowler; Western Australia Remains a handful in the with his variations. Selected for the World T20 last year,he was recalled to the Australian squad after four years.
Brad Hodge: Age: 38; Victoria; Right-handed batsman
Most well-travelled T20 player in the world,he has played for teams in India,NZ,England,Bangladesh.
Pravin Thambe: Age 42; leg-spinner; Mumbai
A veteran from Mumbai maidans,he has represented Shivaji Park Gymkhana,DY Patil and Orient Shipping.
Kumar Baresa: Age: 18; Chinaman bowler; Rajasthan
The son of a cobbler,Baresa,was selected after impressing in trials in Jodhpur and subsequently,Jaipur,in November. The youngster was given a Rs10 lakh Rajasthan Royals contract.
Sanju Samson: Age: 18,Wicket-keeper; Kerala
One of the three Kerala players in the team; the others being S Sreesanth and Sachin Baby. He has two first-class hundreds in eight games and the ability to clear the ropes.
Harmeet Singh: Age: 20; Left-arm orthodox; Mumbai
One of the stars of Indias 2012 Junior World Cup winning squad. Made a promising start to his first-class season in 2009 but has played only five games since.