For the Dravid family it was just another day. March 9. Friday afternoon. Young Samit was fussing over his food. Vijeta was coaxing him to eat. Senior Dravid was in a corner sampling a soggy snack. Brother Vijay was in a Red T-shirt tucked into his denims, the logistics man ensuring transport for home was organized. Mother Pushpa wasn't even around; it had been too late apparently for her to change plans to attend a seminar in Goa! Childhood friend Javagal was teasing Samit for preferring pasta over daal-roti. Another childhood friend Anil was just around, they were all in his office after-all!
I was the intruder in the corner and wondered if it was just me who was missing something? Hadn't it been just minutes since the second highest run getter in Test history- say that slowly- the second highest run getter in Test HISTORY- had finished his farewell press conference. Oh and there he was, Rahul. Shaking a couple of hands and seating Samit on a table that looked straight at the stadium his father considers second home. Not as a grand gesture though, just to ensure the kid gets lunch in on time.
And then Rahul spotted me. First impulse and I am only guessing here: How did this dude get in here? Mike in hand, camera in tow, didn't I tell them no interviews today? I assured him quickly. "Rahul, I know you don't want to do interviews. I am here to interview Anil. Will sms you next week asking for one", I said. "Yes, let me settle down, this has all been a bit hectic". I mumbled something inane, still staggered at how ordinary all this was. There was no obvious attempt at being regular. They were just being, well, the Dravids.
But this unexpected access must count for something! So my mobile phone was quickly transferred into Srinath's hands to take a picture. Rahul smiled, as he has a million times over these last couple of decades for countless fans. A photographer appeared from somewhere in the background. Rahul smiled again. I had my snapshot for posterity. I then shook senior Dravid's hand. "Sir your son is a legend". He had heard this before. Countless times. Smiled. "Have lunch Gaurav", I heard the familiar baritone of Anil Kumble, "No, Anil thanks- I ate", I lied. I needed to get out of there, these guys are eerily oblivious. Hello, do I need to distribute copies of Rahul Dravid's career profile? Do you know what just ended? "Have some garlic bread, Samit". I gave up.
Saturday was spent reading tributes; as much to re-realise the cricketer who had called time on his career after the ordinariness of those 20 minutes from the afternoon before. Thank you, Bhogle & Kesavan. Haigh & Bal. Brijnath & Vaidyanathan. Alter & Smyth. Yes, so this was a unique man as much as a unique cricketer. Yes, this was a big deal. What had ended was significant. It wasn't just a press conference and a lunch! The Dravids just weren't getting it!
Having been around cricket since 1997, I have inevitably run into Rahul Dravid on several occasions. I have interviewed him several times, produced a special series called "Super-skills" that he was part of and moderated a session at the Hindustan Times summit in 2008 where he was panelist alongside Michael Vaughan. But the engagement has been formal. Except one afternoon in London, where we had lunch after filming a couple of special shows while he was playing for Scotland, I have never met him socially.
Despite these infrequent interactions over these years, I have experienced two distinctly different personalities. For want of a better expression, at the peak of his international career, I felt Dravid was 'stuck-up'. He was overly cautious, trying too hard to carefully orchestrate each media interaction. I vividly recall being summoned on the evening before that Hindustan Times Summit. "So what will you be asking? Not this, this and that", he commanded.
At another time, having just finished an arranged interview with him, Akram and Jayasuriya as a precursor to the Castrol awards, I sent Dravid a sms: "We will be using a clip of this in the evening Rahul, and the entire show goes on the weekend". Within seconds my phone rang- Private number calling. An enraged Dravid was on the other end. "I told Castrol, no shortened clips and no quotes in scrollers. My interview has to be carried without any editing". He was so wary of the devious misquote and its imaginary consequences. Despite my assurances, he hung up far from convinced. I am guessing the Castrol PR lady got the next call, and it wasn't too pleasant!
For much of his career Dravid was a dull subject to interview. Unlike Ganguly and Sehwag who always offered a news point on a platter, Dravid said too much without saying anything at all. He was intentionally long-winded and perfected the art of avoiding taking positions on tricky subjects. Perhaps it was a fall-out of the Greg Chappell era, perhaps captaincy had been a burden or perhaps he just didn't trust the media. And it wasn't just me. Several journalists who knew him better, also complained bitterly about this trait.
But in recent months I met a changed man. As the team prepared to leave for Australia in December, Dravid met me for this interview in Mumbai. Not once was I asked to show him a list of questions. No subject was out of bounds. There were no conditions on editing clips. And there were plenty of laughs. I ended by asking if Adelaide would be his last Test. First bit of the reply was straight faced, "Adelaide will be the last Test I will play"....naughty pause..."In Australia". A boy-like laughter chased this comment as I caught my breath. Smart aleck Kalra then asked, "What if I edit that out at Adelaide will be my last Test". Pat came another riposte, "I will never give you another interview". More laughter.
I left that day thinking, Rahul Dravid is finally free. Of self-imposed shackles, of restraint, of this limiting caution he carried around all these years. Days later, that theory was confirmed as he delivered the memorable Bradman oration. No subject was taboo- from players opening bank accounts up for scrutiny to the dangers of a crowded calendar, Dravid was at his insightful best. If asked these questions in years gone by, Dravid would have either offered a straight batted 'no comment' or taken shelter in clever rhetoric. But now he was real. This was him: Bright, eloquent, funny, sharp and intelligent. I have a sneaking suspicion, the best of Rahul Dravid lies ahead...And maybe not just for his closed circle of friends!