Whether at his prime or not, watching Rahul Dravid batting at the nets was like watching a diligent sculptor at his work, beads of sweat dripping down his brows, the deep eyes peering through the helmet grille, dissecting to the finest detail the ball in flight, the bat, the feet and wrists perfectly synced to obey the snap-second commands of its owner. He has never made it look like a chore, but rather basking in the sometimes repetitive monotony of batting at the nets.
Dravid, the mentor, is a more relaxed soul. He is bit of a drifter, changing his vantage point after almost every delivery, wandering around the nets, taking frequent swigs of water, and ooh-aahing, when his batsman or bowler had done anything eye-catchy, clapping in appreciation of something he has noticed, occasionally simulating a back-foot defence with his water bottle, or gesturing something to his assistants Pravin Amre, Paddy Upton and TA Sekhar.
Then after the session, he takes some of his young batsmen for what seems like a hearty chat, at least that’s the impression you get from the loud peals of laughter.
The atmosphere during the Delhi Daredevils’ practice was as relaxed as it could be, something you didn’t generally associate with the struggling Daredevils sides of the recent past.
It must be too preposterous to say that Dravid has turned the Daredevils’ flailing fortunes around in such a short spell, less than a month into taking over reins-after all, we are just into the third week of the two-month league, and the narratives have yet to take a definite shape. But there is a general feel-good vibe around them, an irrepressible camaraderie.
And like most of the sides that Dravid has guided/coached/mentored, Daredevils are refreshingly youth-centric, best borne out by their top four.
At 24, Karun Nair is the eldest of them; Quinton de Kock is 23, both Sanju Samson and Shreyas Iyer only 21 each, making them by a country mile the youngest top-four of the league. Their combined T20 experience is just 275 matches, in a league where there are wind-beaten pros like Chris Gayle, who has featured in 246 matches, or Brendon McCullum, whose tally is 223 or David Warner, who has made 207 appearances.
Or compare them to their opponents on Saturday, Mumbai Indians-whose top-four have a collective experience of 667 matches.
It just shows how differently Dravid thinks, and how he convinces the people around him to trust his pattern of thinking. Of course, people will heed to the advice of as prolific a cricketer as Dravid, or ex-cricketers of similar stature, but the reason we are even bringing this conversation is the reason that his wisdom is paying off. In that sense, he is a non-conformist, or even a measured radical.
So, as during his Royals’ days, even under-rated players have turned up with match-defining performances. Karun Nair is perhaps a case in point. There has been a general tendency to typecast him as a one-dimensional batsman, more suited to the rigours of longer versions, a bit of stereotyping which Dravid himself had to endure in his early days. His strike rate in the shortest form begs to differ-122.59 in 53 matches isn’t mediocre by any standards. He was a regular fixture of the Rajasthan Royals line-up, for whom he had scored four half-centuries in 23 innings.
Against Delhi last year, he made a match-winning 73 not out off 50 balls. But still, his abilities were less eulogised until the unbeaten 54 against RCB. Even in the auction, there wasn’t much of a haggling for him, despite having an assured domestic batsman in their roster would help a team better distribute their overseas resources.
And had he been bought by any other team, chances are that his appearances, at best, would have been intermittent. But here, he is prospering, leaving other teams to wonder why they let him off him.
Karun’s association with Dravid dates back to their Rajasthan Royals days. The influence the latter had on him dates further back, like any youngster growing up in Bangalore in the early 2000s.
As a teen, he has watched endless reels of the master technician at work, making every effort to look as Dravide-like as possible. Karun admits Dravid hasn’t tweaked his game much-though he has a mentor who not only understands his potential, but also knows how to maximise his capabilities.
“I have been lucky to be mentored by him (Dravid) for the last few years. For any youngster to have him in the team is an inspiration. We are just trying to make the most of him being there and get as much out of him as possible,” he says.
Not just Karun, Dravid has had long associations with Sanju Samson and Shreyas Iyer. During a trials with Rajasthan Royals back in 2013, Dravid was straightaway impressed with the reticent Kerala-boy.
He went and told young Sanju that he felt he had special talent, and thus unfolded a warm mentor-protege bond. Shreyas, who was part of the India ‘A’ squad, too had credited Dravid for helping him smoothen a few rough edges. De Kock, hitherto inconsistent for the Daredevils, too has prospered. “The best thing about having Rahul as a coach is that he lets us play our own game. Normally you get one or two coaches who tell you how to play, but he just lets us be and express ourselves, which is how I like playing,” he had said after his century at the Chinnaswamy.
Even the Daredevils’ rivals can’t but envy. Observed Kieron Pollard: “It doesn’t take much guessing whose brains are at work. In Rajasthan also there was a young team and if you look at the person working behind scenes, Dravid has done a magnificent job with youngsters throughout India and they all are gravitating towards him.”
And like his batting at the nets, he hasn’t made it look like a chore.