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Rahul Dravid is a great cricketer and a greater human being, writes Raju Mukherji

I first met Rahul Dravid in Mumbai in 2005-06 at the inaugural edition of BCCI’s interstate T20 tournament, named after the memory of one of India’s master batsmen, Syed Mushtaq Ali. The match was at Wankhede Stadium and one of the teams happened to be Karnataka.

The day before the match at the pre-match meeting, where the teams meet the umpires and match referee, Karnataka was represented by their new captain Yere Gowda, as original captain Dravid was not certain to play. At the time he was leading India and the national team had just returned from a foreign tour. So, Karnataka manager Sudhakar Rao informed us that Dravid may not be able to arrive on time for the match.

Next morning before the toss, while the umpires and I, as match referee, were inspecting the pitch, we saw Dravid walking towards the pitch. As he came near, he exchanged pleasantries and was about to step on the pitch itself. I quickly blurted out, “Are you leading the team in this match?” He shook his head and said, “No.” I smiled and added, “Probably you have forgotten that as a playing member, you are not supposed to walk on the pitch. Only the captain has the prerogative.” Instantly he stopped and said, “I am sorry. Thanks for reminding me.” I replied, “Cannot blame you, Rahul. As the India captain you have got used to walking on the pitch before the match. Anyway, no harm done. Thanks.”

Suddenly the huge frame of Venkatesh Prasad appeared. He thought I was having a confrontation with Dravid. He raised his voice at me: “Do you realise you are arguing with the India captain?” Without a moment’s hesitation, the Indian captain cut him short, “Ref is correct. As an ordinary player I am not allowed on the pitch.”

This is the real Rahul Dravid. A man of courage and character. Courageous enough to accept that he was about to make a mistake. He had no qualms in saying so in front of the curator, umpires and others who were near us. And he revealed exemplary character to silence his colleague for being wrong.

That evening, after our match was over I went across to Brabourne Stadium, home of the Cricket Club of India (CCI), to watch another T20 match in progress. As I entered, Dilip Vengsarkar called me over to the seat beside him. On the other side of Vengsarkar was Dravid. Vengsarkar introduced me saying, “Meet my friend Raju.” Straight-faced, Dravid replied, “Met him this morning. A lenient match referee.” When Dilip furrowed his eyebrows to know what had transpired earlier, Rahul smiled and mentioned the incident. Dilip added sauce: “Even when he was playing, Raju always behaved like a match ref!” As the conversation flowed, Rahul mentioned he had liked reading my book, “The part about cricket being played during the days of the Mahabharata was an eye-opener.” I was astounded that he had found the time to read my writing. As if this were not enough, he added, “Rajan Bala told me to read your articles. I usually do.” I also came to learn that he was an avid collector of cricket books.

Later that season, our paths crossed again. This time, too, at Wankhede. The occasion was a Ranji Trophy tie between Mumbai and Karnataka. Before leaving Calcutta, I had taken a first-edition Cardus duplicate from my collection for Rahul. My wife Seema was mad at me: “Do you realise you would be giving the India captain a moth-eaten book? What will he think of you?” I told her, “If any player would realise the worth of the copy, it would be Dravid.”

How correct I was. The moment he had the tattered copy in his hands, he uttered, “Are you sure you want to part with this original-edition Cardus? This is a collector’s item.” The man did not bother about the non-glossy exterior. Here was a man who could buy new books from all over the world. But he understood the value of antiquity.

Another incident revealed the man all the more. At Mysore, Karnataka was hosting Punjab in a Ranji Trophy tie. Manish Pandey, a young batter, was playing an excellent innings and remained unbeaten on 80 at the end of the penultimate day, with his team needing around 50 plus to win. While they were doing their cooling-down drills, I called Pandey and asked him the reason for wearing light grey shoes. Skipper Rahul was embarrassed but asked me if it was possible to allow Pandey to continue with those shoes as he had no other pair. I told Dravid that if he felt it was fine, I would allow Pandey to continue with those shoes. Dravid replied, “No, no, I do not think these shoes are okay. He should be wearing white shoes. Will you please accept it if he puts white plaster on the shoes while batting?” I understood the problem, “Fair enough, skip. Out of sheer respect for you, I will allow it.”

The next day, Pandey got his 100 and Karnataka won the match. Afterwards, Dravid came to the referee’s room and thanked me, “You have opened my eyes. I found most of my lads do not possess proper white cricket shoes. I assure you, Karnataka players will wear absolutely proper shoes from the next match.” I was stunned. Here was a captain who had the courtesy to acknowledge even a minor problem and was willing to admit it in public.

Another incident revealed a new dimension of his persona. At Jaipur, Rajasthan Royals was involved in a match with Delhi Daredevils. It was an IPL match in 2012. As match referee, I walked in for the toss. The commentator was Sanjay Manjrekar. He asked me, “Sir, I just want to get the pronunciation of your name correctly. Is it MUKHERJI?” He proceeded to repeat my surname to get the pronunciation right. Instantly Dravid, the RR skipper, smiled, “No, his real name is not MUKHERJI. It is MUKHOPADHYAY. ” I was taken aback for a moment, then replied, “Rahul is right. As I am in tie and jacket I call myself Mukherji. In dhoti-kurta, I call myself Mukhopadhyay.” But how did this man from Karnataka come to know Mukherjis are actually Mukhopadhyays? Well-read and articulate, his awareness of the world goes far beyond the comprehension of most sportsmen.

Rahul Dravid is also a man of gratitude. He is known to have told the world repeatedly that Keki Tarapore was his coach, even though he has come under the guidance of far more famous personalities. I asked Shahvir Tarapore, international umpire and Keki Tarapore’s son, about Dravid’s relationship with his father. “My father was his coach at school and Rahul never let anybody forget that,” says Shahvir. “Dad used to feel a little embarrassed when Rahul often praised him publicly. But Rahul always maintained that the early coaches were the real coaches for they help to lay the foundation. To have a proper structure, you need a solid foundation.” How very true. But how many famous players—M S Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar excepted—would acknowledge that they should be indebted to their early coaches?

Dravid’s greatness as a batsman needs no elaboration. Completely selfless, he even volunteered to keep wickets for India. People who have not played the game would not realise how very difficult it is for a non-regular wicketkeeper to do this role and then to succeed at his primary job of batting as well. Rahul achieved the task most commendably and without a word of annoyance. And as a leader he proved himself time and again for India. He won Test series in West Indies and in England. Not many captains have achieved this rare feat. Initially with Karnataka and later with Rajasthan Royals, captain Dravid was highly proactive. He was their captain, mentor, coach. Players within his orbit progressed as cricketers as well as human beings. All those who have played under him, whether for Karnataka or Rajasthan Royals or at present for the India A team, have no qualms in acknowledging this.

For his part, Dravid remains the modest self he has always been. Never a word out of place. Never an act to raise any eyebrow. Never cared for publicity. Never flirted with controversy. Always remained a selfless, intelligent and articulate gentleman. In a cricket world that has lost its innocence, Dravid’s presence was a welcome consolation. He upheld the spirit of cricket and its traditional values on and off the field. He was probably the last of a rare breed: a great cricketer; a greater human being.

Kolkata-based Mukherji is a former cricket player, coach, selector, talent scout, match referee and writer

Photo: Dinodia Photo Library
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
March 2018