Rahul Dravid was feeling a sense of emptiness in a hotel room. Outside the door, a short walk away, was a street that he would normally love: open cafes, world cuisine, the buzz of international city, and the sights and sounds he normally used to soak up during his playing days. He was a commentator now, and in theory there was more time to explore but something was amiss. “I didn’t feel as if I was contributing something, you know,” he said once. And so, he got off the easy-life wagon of a commentator, and plunged himself into cricket coaching. It would still have made sense had he chosen to coach the Indian national team. But then he wouldn’t be the man he is. He chose the largely anonymous world of teenage cricket, and immersed himself in that world.
The U-19 World Cup is still a big deal in a country obsessed with early success but the path to it is shaded from the outside world: the long practice sessions, matches in empty stadiums, the hours spent along side teenagers with high levels of testosterone, who couldn’t be further away from the sane controlled world of Dravid. It’s a beat that even umpires shrug away with indifference, let alone weary journalists.
Don’t you get bored? The question didn’t startle him. Neither did he throw a spiel of a magical world. “Sometimes, yes, you do get. But more often than not, it’s been a rewarding job.” Shaping kids, the next generation, and just not skill-set pertaining to bat and ball, but beyond that about life itself.
Like opening a bank account. Dravid can get really animated when he speaks about the life of teenage cricketers whose families get so entwined with their cricketing future that they forget the rest. There is no sense of money management or development of other skills apart from cricket, or development of a personality that can equip a kid to deal with the adult world. What if something goes wrong in cricket? As Munaf Patel once put it, about some of his Indian teammates whose life revolved so much around cricket that they were unable to handle the downfalls or life in general: “Kya hai cricket, bhai? Ek injury aur sab khatam? Phir kya hoga? Zindagi bahut badi hai, apne aap ko sambhalne aana chahiye.”
Dravid worries about all this.
It’s not always worry and fret in the U-19 camp. Shubman Gill tells a story about how Dravid once shared a story about his cricketing prowess from younger days. What? Dravid talking himself up? Seriously? The story turns out to be self-depreciating in character. He apparently picked up three wickets in a final over of a game, sometime in his teens, to win the match. When you put it across to Dravid, he chuckles. And re-enacts it ball by ball. How the ball slipped out of his hands, and how to his surprise the first batsman hit it back to him. Then the next tried to heave it over midwicket but holed out. And there is this joy in his face that might not appear even when he is talking about the Headingly hundred.
To understand Dravid the coach, you have to imagine other legendary cricketers in his place, and guess how the kids would have reacted. Somehow, incredibly, there is no sense of awe or feeling of being overwhelmed in voices of any of the U-19 cricketers you speak to about him. And this is one of the greatest cricketers India, and the world, has ever seen. They backslap, joke, pull his legs, and make fun of his earnest demeanour. Not just when he isn’t around but even in front of him. You just can’t imagine another player of his stature having that kind of effect on the kids.
A player shares a seemingly ordinary story from 2015 that alerts you to kind of effect Dravid can have on the young ones. “It’s normal practice time, we have been training for two hours, and I hit a shot over square leg. I know Rahul sir was standing somewhere there, and I look at him. He has turned around, and followed the ball all the way where it landed, and looks back at me and nods his head.” Did Dravid say something insightful? You wait for the punchline. Nothing comes. And as you look quizzically at the player, he carries on: “I have been with other coaches, big players, who would probably not even have noticed the shot, or may be just looked at it in a way without much interest. Dravid sir looked all the way, and turned around and nodded.” It then hits you: at this stage, what such itsy-bitsy acts of encouragement can do to a kid’s confidence.
The face of Abhishek Sharma, India U-19 allrounder who played in the World Cup, will remain forever etched on the mind when one shared what the coach had said about him. ‘Hey the coach said that you are natural talent’. And Sharma took in a deep breath, the face contorting into a tense breath-intake before it relaxed into this indescribable blissness: that the coach believes in him, that he is good enough, that this is not all an internal dream, that he can indeed make it in cricket, that he isn’t wasting his life away. It wasn’t Dravid, but WV Raman, the NCA coach who has also worked a lot with U-19 players, that made one understand what the other cricketer was talking about Dravid watching his shot. A simple act of involvement — sometimes that’s all these boys are looking for.
Not that Dravid restricts himself to wholesome indulgence. In 2015, during a India A tournament that even Virat Kohli played before a tour of Sri Lanka as practice, the team lost wickets in a bunch, and at the end of it all had to confront an angry Dravid. He spoke his mind, told how disappointed he was with the batsmen, and how he expected better standards from a team of players who are just one step away from the national team.
He would tease Gill by recounting the father’s friendly dig to the player. Gill’s father would pull his son’s legs after he got out playing a aerial shot with: “Ho gaya chakka, maar di lift-u?” and once in an innings when he slowed down considerably between 40 to 80, the father had quizzed him hard about the reason for slowness. That phone conversation reached Dravid, who then re-used it on a few occasions to remind Gill about what was expected of him.
To say that Dravid is an earnest hardworking coach would be stating the obvious but it’s still pertinent to record it here. During the U-19 challenger tournament, held just before the team left for New Zealand to play the World Cup, the three U-19 teams were coached by the likes of Raman and Paras Mhambrey, leaving Dravid free to roam around thinking about the big-picture.
He was free to do his favourite activity: Grab a cup of cappuccino, push back in the chair, and just watch the cricket unhindered by the specific demands of the game. He wasn’t just sitting idle though. Two games were held in a day, at the Wankhede stadium in the ‘town’, and the other held in the suburb of Bandra. It’s Mumbai, and the city might not sleep but the cars are forced to sleep in the traffic snarl during the day. Dravid would watch an innings at Wankhede, and rush off to Bandra to catch the other innings.
Back at the team hotel for the evening to catch up on what transpired in the day with the other coaches and support staff. And of course, talks with the players.
U Mukhilesh, an off-spinning allrounder who played in one of the teams, is a good candidate to talk about Dravid’s influence. He was a cricketer who came into Dravid’s ambit just during that tournament as one of the 39 probables. He hasn’t been in any of the other regular U-19 teams that Dravid has helmed. It might have been understandable if Dravid had not made any overtures to him during the hectic tournament where he was supposed to be focussed on the identifying the final World Cup squad.
Mukhilesh himself was surprised by how much Dravid had noticed him in between shuttling around the city to catch both games. “In one of the games I had got out playing a big shot after being involved in a decent partnership with Riyan Parag,” he says.
At the end of the tournament, at the airport in fact, Dravid approached the youngster. “Do you remember that shot you got out to in the second game? You were batting untroubled along with Parag, and if you had just continued batting that way, you would have got lots of runs. These are rare opportunities at this level; don’t regret later. The biggest thing is to learn from these mistakes. Off spinning allrounders have a good chance in India – your bowling is good, just ensure your batting talent doesn’t go to waste. Convert those kinds of chances in the future.”
During the tournament, Mukhilesh remembers the constant words of encouragement from Dravid to the team. “Once he had a long chat and told us that this U-19 World Cup isn’t the be all and end all. It’s just one tournament. Those who don’t make it to the final squad shouldn’t feel disheartened. Keep working hard, keep getting runs and wickets, and remember, you will always be on our radar – first-class cricket will be the key. Only 15 can play the World Cup, and those guys aren’t the ones always who would make it big later on.”
Or the time when Dravid told them to work on life-skills. “Not just cricket, but use this period of life to learn about yourself – what makes you tick, what can make you a better person, what can make you ready to face the rest of life. Grow as a person.”
Even as he was sipping that cappuccino and chatting with couple of journalists about life in general during that challenger tournament, he yelped in pain when a player got out in the middle. The player in question was a part of the final puzzle to fall in place in the World-Cup team: wicketkeeper Harvik Desai, who incidentally would take a good catch and hit an unbeaten 47 in the World Cup final. Back in the challenger, the wicketkeeping spot was yet to be finalised, and Dravid was in anguish at Desai’s dismissal.
It was the final puzzle but Dravid had reached there after two years of careful planning. As much as it was possible, he weeded out the over-aged kids out of reckoning. He took teams to England and elsewhere to give as much experience as possible. It was during an England tour where he corrected Gill’s extravagant back-lift to help him score two hundreds, and it was not a surprise that Gill proved to be the batting star of U-19 world cup as well.
It was Dravid who spoke to Mumbai Cricket Association to suggest that Prithvi Shaw be picked for the Ranji team. And as Mumbai hype machine snowballed Shaw into next Sachin, it was Dravid who brought everyone back to ground by saying that Shaw still has a long way to go. It wasn’t meant to be put-down, but a reminder of the hard work left to be done. It was Dravid who asked the cricket board to include Sri Lanka as the fourth team in the challenger to add competitiveness. He was in constant touch with the junior selector Venkatesh Prasad to make sure there were no communication gaps.
Above all, he has spent quality time with the players, talked about stuff beyond cricket, and tried to inculcate a sense of discipline that can help them to cope with downfalls and stumbles in the future.
Discipline and goodness doesn’t mean being submissive on the field. Players like Abhishek Sharma and Gill talk about the home series against England when they found themselves at the receiving end of sledging. One particular incident riled them up. Last January, Rajesh Sawant, the team’s trainer, died in his sleep on the eve of the first ODI. Dravid was upset, and so was the team who couldn’t focus well in the match, and some players felt that the English celebrations on winning was over the top.
It wasn’t obviously directed against the Indian team but the adolescent kids took it to heart, especially in the light of the verbal barrage during the game. The players say that they had a chat with Dravid, who encouraged them to give it back. No abuse, but don’t be timid, was the message and the boys did exactly that in the remainder of the series. The series toughened up the team, and prepared them for what was to come in the next year.
Mentor in life, coach in cricket, and pursuit of excellence — no wonder Indian teenagers have won the World Cup. However, Dravid will surely let them know that this is just a beginning, just another day in cricketing paradise.