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Born in 1973, Dravid grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Bengaluru. His father Sharad was a food scientist in Kissan, a popular brand making jams, squashes and ketchups (hence Dravid’s early nickname ‘Jammy’) and his mother Pushpa an art lecturer in a leading college. A double-income family living in Bengaluru’s Indiranagar colony – a parallel could perhaps be drawn with the Gavaskar home in Mumbai. But while Mumbai’s Maharashtrian colonies were the heart of Indian cricket and Gavaskar had an uncle who played for the country as an early guide, middle-class Bengaluru was less of a natural cricket nursery. Indiranagar in the 1970s was a distant suburb with wide open spaces, ideal for tennis-ball cricket; today, it is the heart of the Bengaluru construction boom. Living in the neighbourhood were the likes of former India wicketkeeper Sadanand Viswanath and Prasanna. ‘As a kid just to watch Prasanna walking his dog in the locality was pretty special for us,’ recallsDravid.

The family did not have a legacy in the sport but Sharad was definitely a cricket enthusiast. ‘My father loved cricket and would spend hours listening to the radio commentary. When there was a Test match in Bengaluru, he would try and at least get tickets for the weekend so he could take my brother and me to the game. I guess that’s where my cricket dream was first nurtured with Gavaskar and Viswanath as early heroes,’ says Dravid, adding that a picture of the beaming Dravid boys with Gavaskar is a cherished memory. But cricket’s role was always secondary to education. ‘My parents were very clear: first came studies, then cricket,’ he says.

Like Gavaskar, Dravid also went to an elite Jesuit institution, St Joseph’s Boys’ High School. The school had a sporting ethos that wasn’t confined to cricket. ‘Our number one sport was hockey. We had peers like Sandeep Somesh and Anil Aldrin who played for Indiaand even I was good enough to be in the reckoning for the Karnataka junior hockey team. Cricket was seasonal, played for a couple of months in the year, nothing like Mumbai where you play round the year. I often joke with people that when Sachin Tendulkar was practising seven hours a day in Mumbai as a thirteen-year-old, I used to practise three times a week for fifteen minutes batting in the nets and the rest of the time I would play hockey, badminton or study,’ remembers Dravid.

Schools cricket in Bengaluru was also not as competitive as in Mumbai. As mentioned earlier, there was only one main turf wicket at the Chinnaswamy stadium, so Dravid grew up playing cricket on the matting wickets in the city. The practice made him a strong back-foot player from an early age, but while he scored runs at the under-15 level in Karnataka, it was nowhere near what his contemporaries were achieving in other parts of the country. In 1987, fourteen-year-old Dravid travelled to Cuttack as a backup wicket keeper-batsman for the South Zone team to play West Zone. ‘That is when I saw Sachin for the first time and was simply awestruck with the way he played. He was the same age as us but batting on a different planet,’ he says.

A year later, when Dravid attended a national junior camp in Kolkata, he was again made aware of the gulf between the cricket in Bengaluru and the level of the more well-trained boys from Mumbai.‘Vasu Paranjpe was the coach and I doubt if you had asked him who out of the thirty kids at the camp would play for India he would have mentioned my name. I was simply a big fish in a small pond called Bengaluru and had a long way to go,’ says Dravid.

Dravid’s school and club coach Keki Tarapore was an early mentor. The two had first met when Dravid was a thirteen-year-old; his father had taken him to a Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) summer camp. Like many coaches of top cricketers, Tarapore himself was an average player, having briefly represented Mysore in the Ranji Trophy in the 1940s. But he had a passion for teaching cricket. ‘He was a classical old-world coach who instilled values of discipline and hard work and taught me the basics of the game, especially the need to hit straight and keep the ball on the ground at all times,’ says Dravid. Hours would be spent on shadow practice or with a ball hung up on a string to ensure the bat came down straight, copybook training right out of an MCC coaching manual. This would stand Dravid in good stead in the future, as would Tarapore’s insistence that his students always be perfectly attired cricketers right down to polished white shoes.

Among Dravid’s schoolmates was Fazal Khaleel, who also played for Karnataka. ‘The first thing that struck us about Rahul was how focused he was even as a teenager. When he went out to bat, it was as if nothing else mattered but staying on the wicket and scoring runs. He could be boring to watch but his appetite for run-making even at the under-15 level was insatiable. I remember him scoring a double century once against Kerala as a fourteen-year-old and it looked like he was never going to get out,’ says Khaleel.

The parallels with India’s original run machine Gavaskar are uncanny. If Gavaskar could sit in a crowded train and read a book with utmost concentration, Dravid could do the same in a cramped local bus on his way to practice. ‘He was a damn good student, someone who could compartmentalize his life; he was able to juggle his life between cricket and academics with ease while the rest of us struggled,’ remembers Khaleel. When other teenagers in their group would party, Dravid would prefer an early night and an extra half-hour in the nets the next morning. ‘Rahul told me once, “I just want to give the next five years to becoming the best cricketer I can be.” He wasn’t the most talented junior cricketer but he had an extraordinary level of commitment to the sport,’ says Khaleel.

His school principal Father Dennis Coelho remembers Dravid as a model student, studious and self-motivated. ‘We even let him miss classes when he had a major cricket tournament because we knew he would always catch up with his studies,’ Coelho says. It wasn’t easy, though, especially in a family where both parents were working. He would have to get up at the crack of dawn to take the bus or cycle to the KSCA nets which were five or six kilometres away, finish at 8.30 a.m., then eat breakfast on the run (sometimes just an apple!) and rush to school with his kit bag, school books and lunch box. ‘I guess I just wanted to play cricket badly enough not to think about any of this as hardship,’ says Dravid.

But the first major transformation in his cricketing life would come only at St Joseph’s, the result of something as simple as finally buying a motorcycle. ‘In school, I used to travel by bus or bicycle to practice, which was never easy while carrying a heavy kit bag. In junior college,it became easier because I was suddenly more mobile as a result of the motorcycle.’

His parents had enrolled him in commerce, itself a difficult decision since most Bengaluru students with an interest in cricket usually opted for an engineering course. ‘Engineering colleges used to actively support cricket since you had only one yearly exam and you could play cricket round the year and then mug for the exams in the last two months,’ says Dravid. Many Karnataka cricketers including Kumble studied engineering. Dravid chose commerce instead with the clear understanding with his parents that if he didn’t succeed in his cricket dream by the second year of his B.Com. course, he should be ready to apply for a chartered accountant degree or an MBA programme.

But his parents needn’t have worried. At seventeen, barely a year into college, Dravid made his first-class debut for Karnataka. He scored 82 in that match and followed it up with three consecutive centuries. His boyhood hero Viswanath had retired and was now a selector. His first captain, Kirmani, was hugely encouraging, and he was surrounded by other talented young men like Kumble, Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, all of whom shared that fierce ambition to succeed. ‘I think it helped to have many senior cricketers around us in club and first-class cricket who were always available to guide us,’ says Kumble. ‘When I first played for Karnataka as a nineteen-year-old, my captain was Roger Binny who smiled, put his arm around me and said “Callme Roger”.’

A golden cricket period was about to unfold in Karnataka,culminating in three Ranji titles in a decade. As many as eight players from the state represented the country in the 1998–99 season. Karnataka had lived under the shadow of Mumbai for years but was now the new powerhouse of Indian cricket. ‘Dravid was the key factor in our rise because he gave our batting the solidity it needed so our strong bowling attack always had runs to play with,’ points out Kumble.

It wasn’t just on the cricket field that the balance of power had shifted by the late 1990s. Mumbai was the country’s undisputed commercial hub while Bengaluru was typecast as the somnolent garden city, ideal for retirement. But through the decade, as the IT revolution gathered steam, the laid-back city of pensioners was embraced by the innovative vigour of the young. The Infosys and Wipro of India’s Silicon Valley were ready to challenge Mumbai’s hegemony over the stock market numbers’ game just like Karnataka’s cricketers dared Mumbai on the field. Entrepreneurship, like cricket, was bridging the geographical divide and Bengaluru was refashioned as India’s start-up capital.

However, breaking into a strong India side wasn’t easy for Dravid, who played more than 50 first-class matches over five years and scored more than 15 centuries before finally edging closer to an India cap. He even did a one-year correspondence MBA course as a backup just in case he couldn’t fulfil his Indian cricket dream. But such was his desire to play cricket and for constant self-improvement that he never let his guard down. He spent two summers in Chennai in the mid 1990s, playing for India Cements and living in rented accommodation with five other cricketers – his singular ambition of getting more exposure to turf wickets in the city. ‘In hindsight, I guess the extended grind in first-class cricket helped improve my game and made me mentally stronger and more mature. I was ready as ever to play for India at twenty-three as I would have been as a teenager,’ he says.

The long apprenticeship was finally over when Dravid was picked for the Indian team to tour England in 1996. But even he couldn’t have anticipated the journey ahead. The shy, scholarly boy from Bengaluru was about to pass his most rigorous exam yet.

***

Like all cricket fans, Dravid’s father Sharad had paid homage at Lord’s on a visit to London, taking a picture of himself in front of the pavilion. Young Dravid had been reared on cricket nostalgia, on stories not just of the 1983 World Cup triumph at Lord’s, but also the folklore of the world’s most famous ground. ‘I went to Lord’s knowing that these were the gates through which Bradman and Gavaskar had walked, that this was the ground which had been witness to some of cricket’s great moments,’ he says.

As a student of the game’s history, Lord’s was perhaps an appropriate place for Dravid to make his Test debut. His first Test cap was serendipitous. On the eve of the match, senior batsman Sanjay Manjrekar suffered an ankle injury and pulled out. ‘If Sanjay had not been unfit, I doubt I would have ever played the Lord’s Test or any Test in that series since I was only a reserve batsman. I guess it was pure destiny,’ reminisces Dravid.

When he walked out to bat for the first time, the team was in deep trouble. At 202 for 5, India was still well over a hundred runs behind England. Dravid was the last recognized batsman, a twenty-three-year-old batting at number seven since the team had picked an extra batsman after the batting collapse in the first Test. If he had any reason to feel reassured it was the fact that there was another Test debutant at the other end. Six months his senior, Sourav Ganguly was already on his way to a remarkable debut century. Dravid had known Sourav since their under-19 days, and the duo had batted together for India-A as well. ‘I guess having Sourav as a partner on debut who was himself batting so well increased my comfort factor and helped settle the nerves,’ says Dravid.

For the next few hours, the debutants restored Indian pride. Sourav scored a majestic 131 as the duo added 94 runs. Dravid himself missed out on a century, scoring 95 before being caught behind the wicket. He walked without waiting for the umpire’s signal, an early measure of the man’s value system. He had missed out on a slice of history, a debut century at Lord’s, but 95 wasn’t a bad start. ‘I guess there was a bit of disappointment at coming so close but also the realization that I had managed to take the first step up,’ says Dravid. His innings had been trademark Dravid, built on firm defence and strong on-side play with a display of unflappable temperament. ‘I think the first thing that struck anyone who watched Dravid bat that day was just how calm he was. It was as if he was born to play Test cricket,’ says Sandeep Patil, then the Indian team coach.

Dravid did not look back from that day in Lord’s. He may not have scored a hundred on debut but he had begun a flirtation with England that would blossom into a full-blown romance. In 13 Tests in England spread over four series in the next fifteen years, he scored 6 Test hundreds and 4 fifties at an average of almost 70 runs an innings. That is easily the most impressive performance by an Indian batsman in the original home of the game.

If Gavaskar built his reputation in the West Indies, it was in the English summers that Dravid carved a special place in the hearts of connoisseurs. His technique, built on a big stride forward and assured back-foot play, was ideally suited to handle the vagaries of swing and seam in English conditions. He played the ball late, knew exactly where his off stump was, and was rarely caught on the crease.

‘I guess I just fell in love with England from the very beginning,’ Dravid says, explaining his success in the British Isles. The English way of life seemed to suit his temperament and quest for privacy – he could soak in the game’s ethos, go for long quiet walks in parks and relish London’s cultural cosmopolitanism. In 2000, he even signed up with English county Kent and three years later spent his honeymoon playing cricket in Scotland.

His Kent colleagues have fond memories of their Indian visitor. As Ed Smith, his county colleague, wrote in a tribute on Dravid’s retirement, ‘When Rahul Dravid walked into the dressing room of the St Lawrence ground in Canterbury on a cold spring morning, you could tell he was different from all the others. He did not swagger with cockiness or bristle with macho competitiveness. He went quietly round the room, shaking the hand of every Kent player, greeting everyone the same, from the captain to the most junior. It was not the mannered behaviour of a seasoned overseas professional but the natural courtesy of a real gentleman. We met a special human being first, an international cricketer second.’

Dignity with timeless steel, as Smith puts it, came to define the Dravid persona. A year after his memorable debut, he had scored a maiden Test century in the ‘bullring’ of the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, again in difficult conditions. Mental toughness was already his calling card. In a one-day game on the same 1997 South Africa tour, he smashed Allan Donald, arguably the world’s fastest bowler then, over his head for a six. It was an incredible stroke of courage and audacity from a batsman supposed to be a strokeless wonder. As Donald let off a string of expletives, Dravid looked on impassively. That was the moment the world knew they were watching the rise of a special cricketer.

‘Did you know that Rahul’s father was undergoing a serious operation in Chennai when he was playing that game in South Africa? But such was his focus that not only did he play the game, he was our highest scorer. He took the evening flight out to Chennai after the match. That is when we knew what true courage in adversity is all about,’ recalls Srinath, his Karnataka and India senior.

Dravid’s performance in that South Africa series set a new template for Indian cricket, the beginning of the era of batting glory, no longer defined by the dependence on a single individual but thriving on durable partnerships. The 1990s had seen the ascendance of coalition politics at the Centre where no one major party could run a government without the backing of smaller groups. On the cricket field, Sachin had been the lone ranger so far but now he had a comrade to share the burden, a cricketer blessed with similar guts and commitment. Jammy was now rechristened ‘The Wall’, solid, immovable and impenetrable.

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