Never say never again - Extract from Rahul Dravid, schools and lo

Never say never again - Extract from Rahul Dravid

- By Vedam Jaishankar

How many wicket-keepers in this group? Keki Tarapore, coach at KSCA's summer coaching camp asked the young boys on the first day of the summer camp in 1986. The trainees, about 20 of them aged between 13 and 18 years, had come from different backgrounds, schools and localities. They, along with dozens others, had enrolled for KSCA's summer coaching programme.

Harbhajan Singh

Till the late 80s, barring the Karnataka State Sports Council nets at Sree Kanteerava Stadium, there were few opportunities for youngsters whose school or club did not have a cricket coaching programme. This resulted in the Karnataka State Cricket Association's summer coaching programme being a big draw for youngsters.

The whole programme typically lasted 12 weeks. Each batch of trainees, though, underwent only four weeks training. There used to be a morning nets from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. for one set of boys and another between 3.30 p.m. and 6.p.m. for the second batch. Training usually meant a bit of jogging, sprinting, stretching, some fielding practice, hanging-ball practice and a bit of batting and bowling. It was not a strenuous course as such, but gave the youngsters an in-sight into the game, its rules and intricacies. Later, the cream of the camps was chosen for an intensive but short training stint.

The best part of the whole exercise was that the young boys got to play every day of the summer camp at the hallowed KSCA Stadium. Of course the initial nets itself was at the KSCA matting facility which fell outside the main arena. But the jogging, stretching and fielding practice were sometimes in the main arena. And just this stepping on to the hallowed turf on which Test matches and One Day Internationals were staged was in itself a big thrill for the young trainees.

Rahul who had had his first taste of formal coaching at the previous summer camp when he joined towards the fag end of the programme, was not particular about what he wanted to do.

"I looked around. When Keki asked `how many wicket-keepers in this group", not a single hand went up. I was just 13 years of age then. I said to myself, `what the heck, let me give it a shot.' So I put up my hand. I had never kept till then. But I was willing to try anything at that stage.

"So I kept. And I actually enjoyed it. It kept me involved in the nets. And because there were no other wicket-keepers in that net, I got a lot of practice."

This proved to be a lucky break for Rahul. He was quickly identified as a wicket-keeper cum batsman. However in his school junior team, he was not the wicket-keeper.

"We already had a wicket-keeper. It was only in my second year in juniors cricket that I kept wickets for the school. And even this because I was captain!"

"In fact I asked the boys if anybody wanted to keep. But nobody seemed prepared. So I donned the gloves."

The following year, when the St Joseph's Boys High School seniors team played in the Cottonian Shield, Rahul again did not keep wickets.

I was not particular about wicket-keeping. There was already a senior boy keeping wickets. I was scoring a lot of runs and was happy letting somebody else do the job. But when I became the captain of the seniors team the next year, we once again did not have a wicket-keeper. So what do you do as captain?

I grabbed the gloves and stood.

"The important thing though was that as a wicket-keeper, I had plenty to do in the nets. Otherwise just batting and hanging around would have been a big bore."

This extensive stint behind the stumps stood Rahul in good stead, for when the state under-15 selection took place, he got into the Karnataka team as a wicket-keeper cum batsman. During Rahul's first year in the State Under-15 team, Sujith Somasundar (who later went on to open the batting for India in one-day internationals) was the captain. Karnataka played their opening match in Bangalore, against Andhra - and lost.

Rahul flopped with the bat, but impressed with his wicket-keeping. This helped him get into the South Zone Under-15 team as the second wicket-keeper. He went on be a part of the South Zone camp as wicket-keeper-batsman.

The following year Rahul scored a lot of runs in Under-15 cricket and also kept wickets pretty well. This got him into the South Zone side and ultimately won him a berth in the national camp in Calcutta. His batting was falling into place and he was constantly among the top run-getters. Wicket-keeping was a value addition but was getting him plenty of recognition. However, once again things were about to change for Rahul.

"It was my entry into college that shook me out of my comfort zone. In school I was top dog. I was wicket-keeping, I was batting, and I was whacking the ball all over the place, getting lots of runs and dominating the show. Suddenly, four months later, I was in a different league."

In school Rahul had things going his way. He was the captain, scored tons of runs and generally did what he wanted. But all this changed when he joined St Joseph's College of Commerce. He was thrown into an ocean, or so it seemed.

"Here, I was, 15 years of age, competing not with boys my own age, but men, five to six years older. In the first year of college cricket I was dropped from the team. Of course I played for the PUC (pre-university college) team. But I was kept out of the main team. The captain, Satish Vishwanath (who had earlier played for State Juniors), who was in the final year, was also a wicket-keeper. He would not play me in the team. A lot of the guys in the team had played State juniors and Under-19. I couldn't get a look-in. Besides there was a guy called Sanchit Menezes who had played with me in school. He was my senior and he too was a decent wicket-keeper. So I stopped keeping for college."

This apart, Rahul was no longer enjoying wicket-keeping. He broke a finger while keeping and this took the fun out of the job. It also laid him off the game for a few weeks. Besides, he had grown taller and all the squatting and getting up as a wicket-keeper was not helping him any. However, as a batsman Rahul was in the thick of action. He was scoring plenty of runs and seemed to be enjoying the role as pure batsman.

"Even in inter-club cricket I could not keep for my club BUCC. The club already had Syed Kirmani and Sadanand Vishwanath competing for the wicket-keeper's spot. And if they were not around, NR Maaney, who was a decent former state juniors wicket-keeper, was the third choice wicket-keeper," explained Rahul.

Of course there were few to challenge him when it came to batsmanship. Irrespective of whether he played for school, college or club he would come in at number four and would score a lot of runs in style.

The added advantage for his teams to have Rahul in the side was that if the main wicket-keeper was injured or sick or could not keep for whatever reason, Rahul would stand in and do a pretty efficient job.

Even as his role as a wicket-keeper seemed to be tapering off, Rahul, although he was just 16 years of age, was already batting like a champion. He broke into the State juniors side on the strength of his batting alone. The State juniors wicket-keeper that year was Avinash Vaidya, who was later to become a national wicket-keeping prospect. Then there was Gopalkrishna, another young promising keeper and Vinay Badami (son of former Test umpire Satyaji Rao), who was also a good wicket-keeper - batsman.

"Thus I was not keeping regularly anywhere by now. The college team, the club team and the state juniors all had regular wicket-keepers and I was doing it just once in a way. And when you don't keep regularly, the sharpness goes, the momentum goes. So does the interest. So I told the selectors that I did not want to be considered as a batsman-wicket-keeper, but only as a batsman."

Rahul was just 16 then. But he was already sure that wicket-keeping was not his cup of tea. Fate, though, had its own plans for him.

Of course Rahul never had to keep in Ranji Trophy matches. Karnataka had Kirmani and later Avinash Vaidya. Thus nobody even spoke of wicket-keeping again to Rahul for the next seven years. He was scoring plenty of runs and had even started bowling before fate once again pushed him into wicket-keeping.

It started innocuously enough. Karnataka wicket-keeper Avinash Vaidya donned the gloves for South Zone in the national inter-zone Duleep Trophy tournament. It was the year 1995 and the main stars were busy with the home series against New Zealand. The series during October - November and also the Duleep Trophy that year, were run-ups to the Wills World Cup to be staged in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka during February-March 1996.

Rahul, like some of the other aspirants, was hoping to catch the national selectors' eye with some good performance in the Duleep Trophy. He had already slammed an unbeaten 145 for Board President's XI against the Kiwis before the start of the Duleep Trophy and knew that he was in with a very good chance.

Around this time, South Zone readied for their crucial game against West Zone at Alwar. It was then that Rahul was yet again forced to take to the big gloves.

"Avinash Vaidya injured himself on the morning of the match. Suddenly I was asked to keep. WV Raman was our South Zone skipper. I had not kept for seven years now and was naturally worried. Worse, the pitch was spinner-friendly and quite a bother. We had Sunil Joshi, Kanwaljit Singh, Anantha Padmanabhan and S Vasu in our ranks. All of them could be a handful on that track. But I took it as a challenge. We won the match and I must say I thought I kept well. We went on to win the Duleep Trophy that year and somebody mentioned my keeping," said Rahul.

That sowed the seeds for Rahul's greater stint with the gloves. For the following May, the main Indian team to tour England was selected. Nayan Mongia was the first choice wicket-keeper. In fact he was the only wicket-keeper. The selectors opted for Sanjay Manjrekar to do the second wicket-keeper's job.

That tour to England was Rahul's first major tour with the Indian team. He had played in the Singapore and Sharjah tournaments just a few weeks earlier. But a Test tour was something else altogether.

Early on that tour, as fate would have it, Mongia suffered a finger injury and could not keep in some of the side games. Manjrekar stepped in, but lost interest after a couple of games. It was then that the team selection panel fell back on Rahul to keep in a few games.

Yes, I was taken aback. But at that nascent stage of your career you are willing to do anything to get into the Indian playing eleven. I hadn't even carried a pair of gloves. I was that ill prepared for the task. In fact I was caught totally off guard. Anyway, I borrowed Nayan's gloves and tried to do my best.

It was a bit of a challenge as the ball wobbled a lot in England. Also because it was so cold at that time to the year, you had to collect cleanly, failing which the ball would sting the palm despite the gloves. And since I had had so little practice with the gloves, I was quite apprehensive. Luckily I did not keep in too many games!

But if Rahul thought his foray into wicket-keeping on his first major tour was a one-off thing, he, and a lot of others, was in for a shock.

Again it was not something planned. Rahul, after that 1996 tour of England hardly had another look at the gloves. As far as he was concerned, his wicket-keeping days were over (see also chapter on The Glove Poser). And so it was until the Sharjah tournament in April 1999.

The game was against traditional rivals Pakistan. Shockingly, five of the Indian players, Amay Khurasia, Ajit Agarkar, Nikhil Chopra, Vinod Kambli and wicket-keeper Nayan Mongia were down with viral fever. While four of the players sat out the match, Mongia braved the fever and kept wickets as there was nobody else around. But try as he did, he could not continue beyond the initial 15 overs. Just as the skipper Mohammed Azharuddin was wondering at his plight, somebody recalled that Rahul had once been a wicket-keeper. It was then that Rahul was forced to pick up the gloves yet again. Though he had not kept wickets seriously for three years now, Rahul did a pretty competent job.

In the next match, against England, Mongia, standing up, was struck on the face by an Anil Kumble delivery and had to leave the field. Rahul, who had to do duty again, called for a helmet with a grill face protector and stood for the rest of the match. He enjoyed himself so much in that match that he pulled off an excellent stumping to dismiss Graeme Hick off left arm spinner Sunil Joshi. Later, at a crucial stage in the match, he held a smart catch off Ajay Jadeja to terminate the dangerous Neil Fairborther's innings.

That Sharjah tournament was a disaster of sorts for Mongia. In the next match against Pakistan, another freak accident laid him low. Shahid Afridi, the well-built Pakistani opening batsman crashed into Mongia while unsuccessfully trying to avoid getting run out. Mongia, however, injured his neck in the incident and went off the ground for quite a while. During that period Rahul took over behind the sticks and once again did pretty well.

Immediately after the Sharjah tournament came the 1999 World Cup in England. Once again, Mongia was designated the wicket-keeper. He did duty in the first two matches against South Africa and Zimbabwe, both of which India lost. The third match against Kenya threw up the twist that was to ultimately spell finis to his career.

India batted first and ran up a mammoth total of 329. Rahul, coming in at number three scored a superb 104. Then, when it was the Kenyans turn to bat, Mongia injured his hand while failing to collect cleanly an express delivery from Javagal Srinath. The injury, in the ninth over of the innings required attention. The team doctor, Dr Ravindra Chadda bandaged the hand. This forced the team to fall back on Rahul to do duty as wicket-keeper too.

Rahul kept against Sri Lanka also before Mongia returned for the match against England. By now Rahul, without being spectacular or even brilliant, was seen as a decent wicket-keeper. He was keeping with the same competence as a Mongia on the decline or his replacements MSK Prasad, Sameer Dighe and Deep Dasgupta.

In fact, during the Aiwa Cup in Sri Lanka, Rahul replaced Prasad as the side 's wicket-keeper. Likewise, later, in South Africa he displaced Dasgupta.

Of course Rahul was not keeping wickets either for Karnataka or South Zone. This meant he was not getting sufficient match practice as a wicket-keeper. However the Indian team constantly depended on him to either substitute behind the sticks or occasionally to take over as the main wicket-keeper.

Luckily for Rahul, this was happening only during major one-day tournaments and not in Tests. His wicket-keeping ability was seen as a big boon to the team, particularly as it sorely felt the absence of a good all rounder.

Rahul's wicket-keeping was helping the team to have more options, particularly when it came to strengthening the batting line-up. Skipper Saurav Ganguly grabbed the opportunity and convinced him of the need to look at keeping in one-dayers as a means to strengthen the team. In any case, the wicket-keeping options available to the selectors were not so impressive that they could have done better than Rahul.

Thus in the couple of years leading up to the World Cup in southern Africa in 2003, Rahul was already making his presence felt behind the stumps also. By the time the World Cup came along, he had done enough work as a wicket-keeper to inspire confidence in the selectors and his teammates.

Rahul kept wickets splendidly in the World Cup. His undisputed batting ability also lent an edge to the team and helped it perform better than it had since 1983. Thus, reluctant as he was, Rahul, right through his career, from school days to his stint at the highest level in international cricket, was pushed into wicket-keeping for the greater good and glory of his team. Having said never at the age of 16 and stayed away from this aspect of the game for all of seven years, Rahul's career as a wicket-keeper (see also chapter The Glove Poser) had come a full circle.

Rahul at School..