Wall Salam!

In my book, no cricketer, including the likes of Sir Donald Bradman, Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, can ever achieve one important honour that Rahul Dravid has. And that remarkable record which can never be erased, ladies and gentleman, is that he was the first top-flight sportsperson that I happened to interview.

It was in February 1997. I was a young obscure reporter, and he a fresh-faced earnest cricketer, (while he is stuck with his earnestness and freshness even today, I have, however, managed to rise to the level of being an old obscure reporter), and he had come to Chennai just a day after smashing Allan Donald in an one-day match and getting severely verbally abused in return at Durban.  Dravid was in Chennai to be with his dad who was undergoing a pretty major heart operation. Thanks to a contact in the company —-  yes,  the very same company that deals in conflict of interest — I managed to get him for an interview at the foyer of a popular hospital where his father was being treated.

Remember those were pre- feverish news channel days.  Had the TV news channels been around in the profusion that they are now, I could not have button-holed Dravid for a talk, because he would have been busy denying news reports that he was in Chennai due to a messy fallout with Sachin, while the selectors would be frantically asserting that Dravid’s father wasn’t picked for the South African tour solely on the grounds of fitness  (‘Also, C K Nayudu hasn’t been dropped. We couldn’t pick him only because he is dead’).

Anyway, with no TV channels around, it fell on my young shoulders to ask the silly, tasteless, stupid questions that we journos are duty-bound to pose to celebrities. Here was a man who was jetlagged due to the long-haul flight from South Africa, bleary-eyed as he had played an emotion-sapping game barely 24 hours ago and  tension-filled with his dad undergoing some serious treatment. Considering the solemnity of the situation, my first question was pretty sensible and sensitive: What were the precise expletives that Donald used on you? Were they just plain swear words or were they racially-tinged, too? The nation wants to know the full truth, Mr Dravid!

No, I didn’t say the last line, as you know I am not: Arnab Goswami. But I think I put Dravid in a jam much before they put him on a jam bottle cover.

When I look back, Dravid could have been pardoned if he had used on me the same language that Donald let loose on him, or, for that matter, the language that Virat Kohli uses on everyone on every conceivable occasion, including when after scoring a century.

Dravid did not tell me what Donald actually unleashed on him verbally, but he did give me a lot of material for a, what we in journalistic circles call, ‘good copy’, which I proceeded to mishandle due to my inane overzealousness. Though I don’t recall much from that piece, what I remember is the final flourish to that essentially cricketing report: ‘Rahul Dravid seems a typical mother’s boy, who will be grow up to be every mother-in-law’s dream.’ Don’t ask me what that means, but I think due to that line I now share space with the legendary Sir Ian Botham in the halcyon club of people who managed to bring in that rare mother-in-law reference in a cricketing context.

Anyway, after this early exchange, I understood Dravid to be a studious and cerebral cricketer, and when I later read reports that during the tour of Pakistan, he was interested in visiting the sites of Indus Valley Civilisation ruins, I was not really surprised, but I must confess that I was shocked that there were reporters who knew that the ruins of Indus Valley Civilisation lie in modern-day Pakistan. Because, we newspaper scribes, in general, can’t make out the difference between the sites of Harappan Culture and a  DLF project.

After so many years of following Rahul Dravid’s career with utmost intent and interest,  I can tell you that Dravid has that one extraordinary quality that we seasoned cricket writers, with a lot of insight, celebrate in a player: A nifty nickname that readily lends itself to puns in headlines. I may not know much about cricket, but from what little I know of journalism and journalists, I can tell you that Dravid would be even more unsung were it not for the fact that he was also called ‘The Wall’. If he had been called, say, ‘The Rubberband’, the puns would have all fallen flat (Without any argument, you will concede that a line like ‘The Wall is a monument’  rings better than ‘The Rubberband is a monument’), and we newspapermen would have moved on to other players possessed with the cricketing talent of a handy name.

It’s when I have to round up this piece, I wonder whether I have trivialised a solemn occasion of the cricketing retirement of a great player. But cricket, for that matter sports itself, is essentially a trivial pursuit, but enriched and enhanced in meaning by some of its players.  On that score, Dravid has given me happy memories, and if I don’t celebrate them with some jokes, albeit silly ones, what will I match them with?

It’s difficult to bid farewell to someone who has always fared well. And Dravid, may you have the last laugh always. As a humourist, I can’t think of anything apter to say.

By the way, since all the puns and smart Alec lines associated with ‘The Wall’ has been done to death, I am unable to end this piece with any new ones. Perhaps I should re-tail some of the old ones, which will be apt also considering the fact that the Tamil word for ‘Tail’ is actually Wall.