Head coach Rahul Dravid’s chance to change his persona

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A leading man facing unprecedented pressure extending beyond the field, a coach looking to kickstart the stint by shedding his good boy image, and a buoyant pacer primed to breathe fire into the attack against an opposition led by a dogged man ready for tough contests and tougher conversations at home.India’s tour of South Africa is set to be the stage for overarching narratives.

If Rahul Dravid were to trade his bat for a pair of boxing gloves, brandish a drooping moustache and grow long sideburns, he would still not acquire the meanness or ruggedness of a pugilist. Or for all his perfectionism, would struggle to slip into his favourite movie character, Gabbar Singh from Sholay. For, there is a deeply entrenched un-erasable image of Dravid as mellowed and measured, dignified and graceful, with the bat as well as words. A good-boy image, as Dravid himself describes.

There have been times when he felt imprisoned in this image. He tells Gaurav Kapoor in an episode of Breakfast with Champions, in half-jest and half-seriousness: “I am trying to create that image that I am not a good guy.” He pauses before abruptly putting on a stern, dour face, only for the mask to peel off. He giggles, self-mockingly to imply that anger doesn’t come naturally for him, and tells why he wants to burn the good-boy image that adorns the heads and hearts of a generation of cricket watchers. “If you get labelled as a good boy, as someone who does everything correctly, when you make one mistake, that gets highlighted even more. ‘Oh, he threw his cap!’”

The cap-flinging incident, which when it happened was compared to the sighting of Haley’s Comet, came after Rajasthan Royals, the Indian Premier League team he was coaching in 2014, lost a humdinger against Mumbai Indians, thereby losing their play-off chance. “That’s the image I want, that I am human,” Dravid says. The incident inspired the cult Indiranagar ka gunda advertisement. The ad worked because it was Dravid, because he has rarely lost his temper on the field, because he scarcely got dragged into scandals, or merely because you could not imagine him losing his temper, on the field or on the road.

Undoubtedly, in his one-and-a-half-decade international career, Dravid has lost his cool several times, demonstrated his anger and dislike, argued and antagonised, perhaps irked and shouted too. Yet, when one thinks of Dravid, those images barely stick out. Maybe, it’s how he wants the world to see him too. He reflects on the cap incident as “not the proudest moment of my career,” and that he felt “so terrible when the cap was going out of my hand.” The good-boy image is as natural as it is nurtured.

Yet, this garb has concealed both his strengths as well as flaws. Like an impenetrable armoury, it has obscured the true legacy of his captaincy, just as it has shrouded his fallibilities. As an extension, it could continue to influence, if not dictate, how one judges his coaching, irrespective of how his stint turns out to be.

Not given his due

It was the gift and curse of his captaincy. His greatest achievement as captain — the series wins in West Indies and England, the first-ever Test triumph in South Africa, or the Multan victory as a stand-in — is often attributed to the comeuppance of India’s seamers. Johannesburg win is credited to S Sreesanth; Trent Bridge to Zaheer Khan, Multan to Virender Sehwag, and Kingston to Dravid the masterful batsman. Other accomplishments like the nine-game unbeaten streak in ODIs, India’s best at that time, and the 17 successful run-chases at a time when India were poor batting second, have been consigned as academic footnotes.

Conversely, his darkest hour — India crashing out of the 2007 World Cup in the group stage — is considered entirely the pinnacle of India’s mess under coach Greg Chappell. His captaincy is neither praised, as say that of Sourav Ganguly or MS Dhoni or Virat Kohli, nor criticised as that of Sachin Tendulkar. Worse, he enters discussions on neither India’s best captains nor its worst.

So much is made of Ganguly guiding India through the dark days of the match-fixing scandal to the brave new dawn of victories, of moulding an identity of indefatigability, and of nurturing a crop of youngsters – from Zaheer to Yuvraj Singh, and Sehwag to Harbhajan Singh. Dravid, too, took over the team at a difficult time, just after the Chappell-Ganguly soap opera had played out, when apparently a lot of senior players were disgruntled, and wanted to get the script they wanted for the final chapter of their careers, when there were more aggressive small-town youngsters with an in-your-face attitude cropping up.

Under Dravid blossomed a fine group of young seamers. Under him Zaheer made his comeback from the brink; Sreesanth, RP Singh and Irfan Pathan blossomed. And larger than them, Dhoni emerged. Sehwag once recollected an incident that changed Dhoni’s career. “When we were in Pakistan and MS Dhoni was a newcomer, he played a shot and got caught at point. Dravid was very angry with MS Dhoni. ‘That’s the way you play? You should finish the game.’ I was myself taken aback by the storm of English from Dravid, I didn’t understand half of it,” Sehwag recalled in a Cricbuzz video.

“But when MS Dhoni next came in to bat, I could see he was not hitting shots much. I went and asked him what was wrong. He said he did not want to be scolded by Dravid again. ‘I will finish quietly and go back,’ Dhoni said,” Sehwag added.

Dhoni and Yuvraj were to don lead roles in several of India’s heady chases during that time as well as in the coming years. Add Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina to the group, and India’s 2011-World Cup winning core was assembled during Dravid’s tenure. Riding the wave of youngsters and the experience of veterans, he winkled out a better win percentage (53) than both Ganguly (52) and Tendulkar (31) in ODIs. Under him, India experimented, played aggressive cricket and, at the best of times, it was genuine fun watching the team, until it all burst in the Caribbean in 2007.

It was the nadir of Dravid’s captaincy, yet he showed stoic grace in duress. He stood behind his players, and even took some out for a movie to defuse the tension. “He came up to me and Mahendra Singh Dhoni and said, ‘look, I know we all are upset, let’s go for a movie.’ We went for the movie and then we had half an hour to ask him things. He said, ‘yes, we lost this World Cup, we wanted to make a difference, but this is not the end of it; life is much bigger; we will come back tomorrow,’” Pathan recalled to Star Sports.

Instances to regret

But the World Cup defeat would, undoubtedly, be a blot on his captaincy. Though Chappell was painted the villain, Dravid’s ineptness, seldom discussed or dissected, too shines through. That the team had too many discordant notes was a fault of both the coach and captain. Slotting Tendulkar at No. 4 might have been primarily Chappell’s decision, but Dravid could have interfered and briefed him about how the public would have viewed it, in case the move backfired. It did.

As an Australian, Chappell would have been averse to hero-worshipping, but Dravid could have, perhaps, helped him understand the Indian culture better.

More so, as Dravid has always asserted in press conferences that he was the one who called the shots. “At the end of the day, I take the call. Whether to decide to bat first or bowl first, or who plays in the XI, is finally my call. It always starts and ends with me,” he once said in Johannesburg, defending his decision to bat first on a spicy wicket, as opposed to popular bowl-first wisdom in South Africa.

It was not the first time his decisions after winning the toss had been scrutinised. Whereas the decision in Johannesburg worked gloriously, his ploy to insert England in Mumbai in 2006, floored miserably as India lost the match, to spoil the 100th Test of his career. Dravid owned the mistake in the press conference, but still it reeked of tactical naivety.

There were also instances when Dravid presumed that his methods would work for his colleagues too. Like when a batsman was struggling for runs, he gave him a book to read when a pat on the back or a chat of encouragement would have sufficed. But Dravid’s rationale, as he explained later, was, “that was the way I grew up and played my cricket and there’s no reason why others can’t cope.” He grew up in the upper strata of the middle class in a metro, but there were those from Ranchi and Rae Bareilly, Kochi and Bharuch, whose understanding of life and sport were different. Later, in his last tour as captain, Dravid took his teammates to an opera, which had some of them apparently disenchanted.

During that tour, he emphasised on changing the country’s cricketing culture. “Our cricketing culture has to change, to some extent. It is an athletic game now and we have to instill these processes into our young cricketers. Our (National Cricket) Academy has got to become more professionally-run and we must manage our own contracted players much better,” he told The Times. Years later, the NCA became a breeding ground of India’s finest next-generation players. Dravid was a visionary, who not only thought deeply about the game, but also visualised how it would change. His five-bowler ploy didn’t win many believers, but it became Kohli’s default mode.

By the end of the tour, captaincy was a crown of thrones, though India won a Test series in England after 21 years. With the clarity of thought that had emblazoned his batting, Dravid relinquished his position. “I enjoyed the captaincy, I loved it, but it can get tough after a while and some of the enjoyment can go away,” Dravid told BBC. “So I thought it was the right time to step aside.’’ The frankness was appreciable, though it’s unclear what was gnawing at him.

Quietly ended his roller-coaster captaincy ride, with neither adulation nor recrimination, both swept under the good-boy garb, or lost in the larger role as an exemplary batsman he had donned for his country.

Behind the veneer, there was a streak of ruthlessness too. The ruthless appetite for perfection, to blunt the fiercest of attacks, to win games and take bold decisions (like declaring with Tendulkar six runs short of a double hundred in Multan). A trait that endeared him to Steve Waugh, whose ears he picked during a dinner in 1998. “Rahul wanted the extra edge that would elevate his game to the next level,” Waugh later said. Their relationship blossomed to friendship, and later Waugh chose him to pen the foreword of his autobiography.

He would take all of these virtues that defined him — dignity of nature, devotion to the game, composure of demeanour and ruthlessness in decision-making — into his coaching. Dravid would take that slice of good-boy image too.

It’s hard to think of a more unanimous choice for a coach in cricket history, but it’s also where his image would face the sternest test, where he will be judged on series wins and trophy counts.
Times have changed too —- there’s the impatient and unflinching gaze of social media, suspicious of history, 280 words that speak louder than a thousand. The demands of the nation too have changed — solitary Test wins would not suffice, a hundred or a five-wicket haul barely lights up their days, but India wants to be invincible, home and abroad. Dravid would not be able to survive on goodwill and fond memories alone.

And as with his good-boy image, when he makes one mistake, it would get highlighted even more. Maybe, in the end, the coaching stint would liberate him off the perception-prison.

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