The making of the Rahul Dravid philosophy

Is that me in the sky? | Source: Crictracker

“Reading, I found, was a good way to take my mind off things.”

If the ‘thing’ you’re taking your mind off is facing a 150 km per hour cricket ball bowled from 22 yards, reading might not be the best help. But it did help Rahul Dravid. It helped him craft his everlasting personality, on and off the field. One book, in particular, got his eye at a very young age. And through its words, the great man built his philosophy.

I picked up “Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a story” by Richard Bach not because I’m interested in seagulls. Or for the accompanying pictures by Russell Munson. Not in a million years did I think I would be reading a story about a seagull who wants to fly. Don’t all seagulls?

Rahul Dravid has not written an autobiography. I think that’s by design. So, in order to peer into the mind of one of India’s most respected figures, I tried to read the book he recommends to “anyone in any pursuit of excellence.

Dravid read the book as a 16-year old, eight years before he made his debut. He says the seagull’s quest for excellence ‘inspired’ him. He’s always described it as the finest book he’s ever read. Consider this excerpt from an interview,

“It [Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a story] resonated a lot with me and what I was trying to do at that stage [16-year-old, young cricketer]. Maybe, it was [sic] just came at the time in my life when I was keen on pursuing cricket and making it a profession. [I was] quite single-minded towards it.”

More than inspiration, the book set the groundwork for Dravid’s career. Not just the career behind the crease, but also the career we see behind the screen. The calm, stoic, and mentoring personality of the man is instilled in the book. What he was in his playing days, and the coach he has become, not just to young crickets, but young Indians everywhere, is the path the seagull took.

To my surprise, there’s so much one can learn about the cricketer from the seagull.

When I hear the word “seagull” my mind is immediately drawn to a scene from Finding Nemo. The scene where the pelican saves Nemo’s dad and Dory from a flock of seagulls. The seagulls perched on fishing boats make a sound resembling the word “Mine.” Even though seagulls roam in a flock, they fight individually. There’s no concept of teamwork, just survival by consuming measly crumbs.

In the movie, seagulls are presented as hollow-brained birds chasing food. That’s exactly what Jonathan Livingston did not want to become. Bach, in describing what Jonathan is running, or rather flying away from, writes,

“How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there is a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly.”

It’s almost as if Jonathan is directly addressing the seagulls in Finding Nemo. He could be yelling, “Stop chasing the pelican, the clownfish, and his blue friend. Get off the sailboats, look to the Sydney skies, and Fly! Fly my brothers. FLY!”

Jonathan’s last three words — “excellence and intelligence and skill” is perhaps the perfect description for Dravid’s batting. But that’s no all he got from the story of the seagull who loves to fly.

Seagulls fly only if it serves a purpose. And the purpose is simple — fly to eat. If there’s no food, there’s no need to fly. But Jonathan wasn’t like other seagulls.

Jonathan loved flying. He flew high and low, slow and fast, from sun up to darkness. He taught himself loops, slow rolls, the point roll, the inverted spin, the gull bunt, and the pinwheels. His obsession with flying earned him the scorn of other gulls.

Days after his talents, or his antics, were displayed to the flock, he was shunned. His fellow gulls saw him as an outcast. The Elders of the council exiled him to the far cliffs. In solitude, his love for flying grew deeper and deeper. He did not regret chiding the norms of the flock. He did not care for the company of his kind. He only wanted to fly, and he found it alone. Bach writes,

“What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself alone; he leaned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had paid. Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull’s life is so short, and these gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.”

Dravid’s obsession is similar. His love for batting is evident in how he speaks about the sport. In a 1999 interview with Karan Thapar, he said his passion to excel at cricket overshadowed anything else in his young teenage life.

“I remember, all my friends would go out to the movies or…go out and party and stuff and I’d be busy practicing [cricket]…But, I never really felt that I was deprived of anything….I was always more happy to be on a cricket field…The joy and enjoyment I got out of playing that [cricket] really compensated for anything that I missed out anywhere.”

In the same interview, Dravid was asked what cricket means to him. He recounted a shirt he’d borrowed (borrowed being the word of choice and not taken) from an Australian producer. This perfectly summarized what cricket means to him — “Cricket is life, the rest is mere detail.”

Since cricket is ‘life,’ Dravid’s obsession with the sport went beyond the field, even in his playing days. He’s known for taking the bat into his hotel room, while in the room, he grips it, taps it on the floor, and visualized playing the game. Hotel guests, staying next door, have even complained about ‘noises coming from his room.’ His wife, in an article, describes Dravid’s obsessive, but natural approach,

“When I travelled with him for the first time, in Australia in 2003–04, I began to notice how he would prepare for games — the importance of routines, and his obsession with shadow practice at odd hours of day or night. I found that weird. Once, I actually thought he was sleepwalking!”

Dravid’s love for cricket is evident like the seagull’s love for flying. To Jonathan, it doesn’t matter if it's a storm or a breeze. To Dravid, it doesn’t matter if it’s a cricket field or a hotel room, or with his head poked out of a car’s sunroof while shooting an advertisement portraying a ‘Gunda.’ It’s natural to hold a bat and play a shot.

Soon after being exiled, Jonathan enters a new world. This is a different world with a double star sun and a green sky. But that’s not the only difference between his old world and this one. In the new world, he meets other seagulls who love flying more than anything else.

As obsessed as Jonathan was with flying, he had a lot to learn, but now he had people to learn from. Great as he was at flying, he had an instructor — Sullivan and sought the advise of the Elder Gull — Chiang.

Sullivan instilled in Jonathan the importance of practice. He told Jonathan that he was a ‘one-in-a-million bird’ who excelled at flying. Not because he was lucky, but because he had the desire to relentlessly learn and practice. Sullivan, addressing Jonathan, said,

“You have less fear of learning than any gull I’ve seen in ten thousand years.”

Jonathan’s desire to learn is clear to see in Dravid himself. He’s always remarked himself to be a ‘student of the sport.’ Never one to admit he’s mastered a shot, a pitch, or a format. Even though he’s scored over 10,000 test match runs, his desire to keep learning is undying.

Even though he was a master batsman, he felt he could always learn more. As a youngster, he was a wicketkeeper-batsman. But, he’s said, as his batting improved, wicket keeping took a backseat. As former India captain Sourav Ganguly recalls, Dravid donned keeping gloves when called upon. He was willing to re-learn wicket-keeping to provide a much-needed balance to the side standing on the other side of the stumps.

Dravid was a premier batsman, but that didn’t shy him away from bowling. In a 1997 interview, he said he bowls regularly in the nets, encouraged by Madan Lal and a young Sachin Tendulkar. Curiosity also made him take tips from Harbhajan Singh to learn off-spin, despite Dravid admitting he could never get the ball to turn. He ended his career with five international test wickets of his off-spin.

His desire to learn is not limited to cricket either. Several people who’ve interacted with Dravid note his keenness to learn about their crafts. Whether it’s a director’s approach to advertisements, a writer’s approach to writing, or a comedian’s approach to comedy. He’s always curious. Dravid, speaking about his love of learning from others said in the Breakfast With Champions interview,

“The best evenings or conversations are when I can ask other people things about what they do…. you get to learn something. Otherwise, I’m just giving [sic] having to talk about cricket all the time.”

It’s no surprise that Rohit Brijnath, a veteran Indian cricket journalist described Rahul Dravid’s curiosity, simply as, “Life intrigued him, even yours.”

Jonathan was not content with just flying. He wanted to fly fast and believed he could always fly faster. He thought each ‘new world’ he encountered was a test. If he passed the test, he could advance to another world. In his pursuit of finding perfection he wanted to go from world to world until he reached, what he called, ‘heaven.’

Discontent with his lack of progression from this world, he went to Chiang for advise. The Elder Gull told Jonathan that perfection and heaven are closer than he thinks. He said,

“Heaven is being perfect…You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.”

Once again, the Elder’s advice fell not just on Jonathan’s ears but Dravid’s as well.

As a batsman, Dravid was known for his unwavering concentration. His defence against legions of bowlers. There are several clips on the internet of Dravid standing tall, timing every ball to perfection, only to do it all over again, almost exactly.

Gideon Haigh, the astute Australian cricket journalist writes of Dravid’s resilience at the crease,

“He [Dravid] batted as a river runs, at an immemorial pace. You could tune into an innings of his at any time and be unsure whether he had batted six hours or six minutes.”

This ability to stay focused in dire straits is an arduous task. One requiring supreme concentration. So, how did the great man manage it? Considering the sort of person Dravid is, we imagine his approach to be formulaic and detailed. But it’s quite the opposite. His ability to concentrate is simple. He just does it. Being in the moment, concentrating on the next ball, not the next run or the next century; this is the only way to reach perfection.

In an interview with Woorkeri Raman, the coach of the Indian women’s team, Dravid was asked how he’s built his unwavering concentration. Dravid, echoing Chiang’s words, says,

“The best way to concentrate, or the best way to learn how to bat for [a] long time, is to do it.”

After elite cricketers finish their playing career, they seek comfort. Many become commentators, analysts, administrators, or even brand ambassadors. They live off their fleeting legacy, rarely achieving anything after it.

Even if they go into coaching, they wait for opportunities at the highest level. Either the national level for pride or franchise level for pay. Only a few drop into the lower rings of coaching. Dravid did. Once again, following the seagull.

Jonathan returns to earth, to the far cliffs. Here, he finds other exiled seagulls. He takes six outcast seagulls under his wing and teaches them. But his teaching is not limited to just flight. Beyond the physical act of flying, he teaches his students how to think about flying. In one of his lessons, he says,

“Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip is nothing more than your thought itself, in a form you can see. Break the chains of your thought, and you break the chains of your body.”

Jonathan’s teachings went beyond the details of flying. How to position your wings, how to handle the winds, how to turn in the air. These are important skills that a student must learn. And Jonathan did teach them this. But he also taught them how to think about flying and how to think about life.

Dravid, once again, imparted this holistic aspect of teaching even before he began his coaching career. In a 2012 interview, soon after he retired, he was asked about how talent is judged in India. When looking at ‘talent,’ he said, we look at pure skill, but a player’s mentality is ignored. He said,

“I think we judge talent wrong…what do we see as talent?…We judge talent by people’s ability to strike a cricket ball, the sweetness, or the timing of a cricket ball. That’s the only thing we see as talent, as pure talent…Things like determination, courage, discipline, temperament, these are also talents….So, when we judge talent, I think we’ve got to look at the whole package.”

True to his words, Dravid imparted this holistic training when he became the coach of the under-19 Indian cricket team in 2016. His would-be coaching ability did not go unseen. Many a teammate, junior and peer alike, viewed and valued his mentorship. They knew his ability as a coach could equal, if not exceed his ability as a player. In fact, on the eve of his retirement, the aforementioned Haigh wrote,

“Dravid’s greatest impact on cricket might lie ahead of him. And that would be a story worth telling.”

Mentoring a group of youngsters in a sport you know so well is never easy. Anyone highly skilled in a craft always looks at others who aren’t as skilled as lacking something simple.

Like a writer with his words, a pianist with her keys, or a cricketer on the field. Everything is so effortless, it’s almost second nature when you’re a master. For a man with the fourth-highest test runs, teaching an 18-year old the right stance, footwork and backswing might seem too simplistic. But not to Dravid.

In 2018, two years after he became the coach of the under-19 team, India won the under-19 world cup. As much as the country was celebrating the team’s victory, they were lauding Dravid’s mentorship. The evergreen voice of Indian cricket, Harsha Bhogle, in describing the triumph, and Dravid’s role, said,

“Sometimes when you’ve been one of the greats of the game and you go down to another level…you can sometimes get a little impatient… and wonder why things are not coming to them the way they come to you. But if you don’t have an ego, and if at heart you’re a giver, then you have the ingredients of being a very good coach…and I think that is what Rahul Dravid has.”

When someone is so good at what they do, they’re often termed ‘special.’ “You were born to write,” someone might tell Salman Rushdie, or “She was born to sing,” is a justifiable remark to label Lata Mangeshkar, and certainly, “He was born to play cricket,” is a phrase often used to describe Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli.

‘Special’ is not always a good thing for those who aren’t. The term ‘special’ is an obstacle, preventing people from realizing their potential, even used as a cop-out. People look at a Tendulkar or a Kohli and say, “He’s a natural, there’s no way I can do what they do.” At times, they hide behind it. They say, if it’s about the talent you’re born with and not the talent you build, then is there any point in trying?

Looking at Jonathan fly, these were the questions in other seagulls’ minds.

When Jonathan and his students returned to the flock, at first they were treated as outcasts once again. Curiosity got the better of some gulls. Many approached Jonathan, asking him to teach them his ways. But seeing his speed, flair, and skill, they labeled him as a ‘special seagull.’ One of them said,

“How do you expect us to fly as you fly? You are special and gifted and divine, above other birds.”

Even before attempting to fly, they created a barrier. They admitted to themselves, Jonathan was a natural and since they weren’t “special and gifted and divine,” excellence would escape them. He was born to fly, they might’ve whispered, we can never be like him, no matter how hard we try.

Jonathan knew he was not special. He’d given every feather to fly. He was willing to leave his flock if it meant fulfilling his desire. He sought the help of instructors and elders to hone his skills. Now, he was teaching fledgling birds how he was not special.

Since a young gull, he relentlessly practiced his craft, till he became a master at it. He never saw himself as special, as born with anything different other than a desire to fly. In his reply to the gull questioning his divinity, Jonathan said,

“Look at Fletcher! Lowell! Charles-Roland! Judy Lee! [his students] Are they also special and gifted and divine? No more than you are, no more than I am. The only difference, the very only one, is that they have begun to understand what they really are and have begun to practice it.”

Being ‘special’ or having ‘talent’ is not the separator, practice is. That is what Jonathan believed, and what Dravid does.

Focusing on talent as a natural ability stifles and even stops our potential. We often look for excuses beyond effort. When it comes to sport, we question our natural abilities, resources, time, or blame obstacles out of our control. But we never question and try to improve ourselves.

Dravid, at first, questioned his ability. He’s often said he wasn’t the best batsman in any team, be it his school team or the national team. But what separated him is his determination to fight, practice, and eventually better his skills. In an interview with Bhogle and Sanjay Manjrekar, Dravid said,

“There were times when I did complicate this game…I wasn’t the most prodigiously talented cricketer…I had to work through that lack of talent…of natural flair…So maybe right from a young age, I had to fight for things, I had to earn them. Runs never came easy for me. That’s the sort of foundation of this thinking…and trying to get better all the time.”

Hero-worship is inevitable. In a country like India with a zealously religious population, and a feverish following of cricket, cricketers are treated like Gods. This can be the curse of excellence. From seen as extraordinary but human, cricketers are seen as beyond human. The same was true for the seagull.

Jonathan’s flying ability was unparalleled. He was by far the most skilled seagull in the air. No matter how much he said it was a fruit of his practice and not a gift of nature, the other gulls did not believe him. They stood in awe of him like they were watching a God. They called him the “Son of the Great Gull” and said he was a thousand years ahead of his time. Jonathan knew he was no different; he knew he was nothing special.

Fletcher Lynd, his first student and the only seagull who could keep up with Jonathan, agreed. He said,

“Well, this kind of flying has always been there to be learned by anybody who wanted to discover it...We’re ahead of the fashion, maybe. Ahead of the way that most gulls fly.”

Dravid’s humility, even with his level of mastery, is so evident, it’s almost visible. There is a reason why this humility is associated so closely with his personality and not as much with peers of his generation. Dravid was not the ‘little master,’ or the ‘God of the offside’ or the ‘fiery opening batsman.’ He was, and still is called “The Wall,” but he’s often embarrassed by it, always maintaining, “Can you just call me Rahul?”

Perhaps it’s once again by design that he’s India’s ever-loved-under-celebrated sons.

When Dravid retired there was no massive farewell, no immediate outpouring, no guard of honor, no stand named after him, no movie made about him, and no fan with the words, “Miss you Dravid” drenched on his body. It was a simple goodbye for Rahul. This is what he wanted and what the seagull did as well.

It is no wonder that Rahul Dravid is seen as the gentleman. He’s was a simple guy who chased excellence, loved his sport, never stopped learning, and helped his peers. He did not chase perfection, did not claim to be special, and was nobody’s God.

Jonathan did not want to be remembered as a God, he wanted to be remembered as a mere seagull who loved to fly. If he was remembered as a God, he would be praised, worshipped, but never emulated. They would make him a deity, establish an altar for him, chant songs in his name, and conduct rituals in his honour. But they would never do what he loved doing. They would never fly. Because flying is for the Gods.

Before he breathed his last, Jonathan looked to his students and said what could’ve so easily come out of Dravid’s mouth when he retired and perhaps did. Jonathan said,

“Don’t let them spread silly rumors about me, or make me a god…I’m a seagull. I like to fly.”

If you were to ask Rahul Dravid how he would like to be remembered, I like to think he’d say, “I’m an ordinary man, I like to bat.”

Writing as opposed to keeping the thoughts locked in my head.