Rahul Dravid's storied career is in its final stages, and the Champions League Twenty20 2013 is likely to be his last outing as a cricketer. It's been a series of triumphant peaks in Test matches and One-Day Internationals with a few troughs in between, but Dravid will wind down with Twenty20 cricket, the game's newest format. It's already guaranteed to end on a successful note, Dravid having led Rajasthan Royals to the top of the table in the league stages.
After qualifying for the semifinal, Dravid took time out to speak to Wisden India in a freewheeling chat that covered the gamut from India's tour of South Africa and the importance of salary caps in the IPL, to Rajasthan's strategy at the auction table. Excerpts:
Your last few days of competitive cricket. Has anything changed in your thought process before a match or in the celebrations after a match? Clearly, the approach to training hasn't changed, you're still at every optional practice session.
It's not really changed too much at all. I have the kind of personality that I always look ahead than look at what's happened. It does help a lot, especially when you've done badly or you've failed. It's instinctive of me that I look at what's next, I look ahead a lot, and start preparing for that, in victory and in defeat. That hasn't changed on a personal level.
Maybe I cherish it more. I've never been one to have big parties and wild nights after we win. That hasn't changed, I don't do that now. But I think I've relaxed a lot more and I cherish the conversations and the time that we spend after games a lot more, whether it's in someone's room having a few drinks or down at the bar or the restaurant. I'm cherishing some of the friendships and the environment that we've created here, which is a pretty good one.
Looking back at the IPL from its start in 2008, how do you see the evolution of franchise cricket in India?
There's no doubt it's growing all the time. You must remember that when you compare the IPL with say some of the English Premier League sides, they've been around for close to 100 years. But it's remarkable how much people have started identifying with some of the teams they support in six years, especially in the cities you play in. You can sense that there is a fan following and it's growing. There are people who are not in the cities that have teams, and they too pick a particular team to support. It is still a little bit based on individuals also. So a lot of MS Dhoni fans will support his team, irrespective of where they are. People in Chennai will of course support Chennai Super Kings, but I'm talking of people outside the city. It is a little bit player based, but it's slowly moving from that to being a lot more about the franchise, and I think that will keep growing. It's still early days yet, and six years is not a very long period. But in time, I truly believe that if the IPL stays relevant and keeps providing good cricket, you will soon find that irrespective of where players play, people will start supporting particular franchises. Once they start understanding the culture of a franchise and what it stands for, you will start seeing a shift. It may take a bit of time, but I can already see it's moving in that direction.
Do you think every franchise has started developing its own unique identity?
There is uniqueness, definitely. Whether they're trying to develop it or whether it happens spontaneously, sometimes without thinking about it... Each one develops a certain kind of image or culture, or a brand so to speak, and it's slowly happening. You're finding that people are supporting that, outside of the cities that are playing. Obviously, a person from Mumbai will support Mumbai Indians, but this is more for those outside India and in the other cities. The IPL is only eight or nine teams and there are so many other cities and towns in the country.
At the start of the IPL in 2008, you had said 'If this was ten years ago, I'd have cracked it'. Six years on, you seem to have cracked it. How do you view your own evolution as a Twenty20 batsman?
The point I was trying to make about 'cracking' the format was that I was trying to tell people it's an important thing to have these multi-dimensional skills. There are three formats in the game now and a youngster coming up has to learn how to play in all three formats, to almost stay relevant. If Twenty20 was as important when I was a kid as it's becoming now, I would have spent time focusing on trying to be good at all three formats. I've played it for six years now, with some good years, some bad years, some good games. Overall, I've enjoyed playing it. The IPL is quite a tournament. It captures the imagination of India for two months. It's tough and intense. I mean, nothing can ever take away the satisfaction and joy I got from playing Test cricket. That will always be No. 1 for me. But I've really enjoyed being part of the first six years of the IPL and seeing it evolve.
What do you think is the role of an anchor in a Twenty20 match?
It's not so much an anchor, it's about a quality player being able to play quality bowling. If you look at the bowling attacks in most IPL teams, they have the likes of Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Mitchell Johnson playing for them. We have Jimmy Faulkner. You need to have a certain level of skill to be able to play that kind of bowling upfront. Just because you are a kind of big hitter in domestic cricket against domestic bowling doesn't guarantee you'll be able to do it at this level against that quality of bowling. It is a step up, without a doubt, from domestic cricket. It's a step below international cricket, but it's above domestic cricket. So you need players who have a bit of quality. I won't call it an anchor, but a player who has an ability to play some good fast bowling, good spinners and also play his shots. I also think there are different roles for each person. The skills that you need in people who need to play the first six overs against the new ball might be a little different from the type of guys you need at the back end of an innings. Even though it's a shortened format of the game, Twenty20 allows people with different skills to play in a team and play their specific roles. Obviously there's not too much time to waste balls, but if you look at guys who play well in the top six, they have a fairly decent amount of good cricketing ability.
One of the things that made IPL such a level playing field was the salary cap. Do you think player retention would hurt that? There's also the fact that franchises have spent years investing in players and fans have identified with them...
There has got to be a balance between the two. I think the salary cap is really important. It's vital to this league to have the cap and be strict about it. The beauty of the IPL, vis-a-vis the English Premier League, is that any one of the eight or nine teams can actually win the competition if you give them a level playing field. In the EPL, we're seeing the richer clubs and teams that can buy the biggest players are constantly remaining in the top three or four. Also in football, the pool is much larger. There are no restrictions on domestic talent, and you don't have to play seven English players. You can pick players from Brazil, Argentina, anywhere. I think it's a good thing that we have the seven Indian players rule. The world of cricket is a small one and when you have those restrictions, it's really important to have that salary cap in place. That gives everyone a chance, and makes every game competitive. Every evening people want to turn up, switch on the TV, and know that both teams have a decent chance of winning. That for me is exciting. If you knew which four teams are going to be in the semifinals, why would you wait for the league phase? It will lose its importance, because you'll say 'Let me just focus on the qualifiers, the semifinals and the final.'
I do understand that there should be a certain amount of retention. We have to strike that balance between having that retention, but also ensuring that then you have a strict salary cap and a level playing field. That means that for teams to succeed, they will not only have to rely on going out and buying just the best players, but also have to work on things like improving the skills of the players that they have, ensuring that they give domestic talent a chance. If a team can go out and buy 11 international players, how is a domestic player ever going to get a chance to play? And that was the beauty of it in the first year. Because of the strict salary cap, most teams had to play domestic talent. And that's where you will really see the growth of Indian cricket - when domestic talent plays with international players. If some teams have only domestic players and some teams have only international players, I personally feel it will not be as exciting for fans. And you won't find the great stories that you find in a Pravin Tambe, a Rahul Shukla, a Mandeep Singh, or a Sanju Samson. There are so many stories, but they're all based on domestic talent which has been given an opportunity to play with international players.
Rajasthan have been known to make a lot of unconventional picks. When you're sitting at that auction table, what are you looking for in a player?
That he's cheap (laughs loudly). I said that in jest of course, I don't think any player is cheap. I think there's a culture in Rajasthan Royals that has been there before I got here, so I've come into it. I've enjoyed being part of it and embraced it. They are quite clear about the fact that bottom lines are important, and there is a certain limit on what you can spend. You have to go out and then look for players who are slightly under the radar, not well noticed and bring them into this environment. The challenge is then to make them perform, to create an environment around these guys so that they can do well. Even if you take a lot of our domestic players, they are not new players - other than Pravin who has come out of nowhere and was someone we picked based on his skills. But the others have been at other franchises. We've picked them up, seen some potential and that's what we focus on. So when we're sitting there, we're looking at people who can come into this culture and bring something into it. We're looking at their personalities also, not just skills. Are they good for a team environment? Will they struggle staying in India for eight weeks? I mean, let's face it, it's not an easy time and a lot of international players are away from home. We have to balance all these things out. And I guess in some ways we do recognise that we probably will not be able to go for the high profile players, because we'll always be outbid. So then, the thinking and focus really shifts to looking for hidden value in players, who we know have potential, but probably need the right platform to do well. It doesn't matter what a player is valued at, in the end it's his performance that matters. The focus is on how we get players to perform. Whatever we've got, we've got, but are we smart in other things around the group in terms of strategy, tactics? Are we going to be clever, be the kind of players who can surprise people? Because we have to be. And there's a challenge and excitement in that, and that's brilliant. That's possibly why we see some of the biggest stories emerging from Rajasthan Royals. We are forced to put some of these young domestic talents in, and now it's really up to us to help them perform. It's not just about pushing someone in there.
You've said the team has gotten over the spot-fixing scandal and has no hangover of it. But personally, do you still feel a sense of betrayal?
I think that it was a great learning experience. It was a disappointing period. You feel a sense of sadness, not a personal sadness but for the franchise and at some level for the people who got themselves involved. They made some wrong choices, and it is sad. You feel bad for people who you know had great talent and great ability and could have had great careers, but because of some of the choices they made, they are finding themselves in difficult situations. I guess there are lessons to be learned. You've got to learn from things and really hope that other people are learning from it and things are being done so that these mistakes don't occur again.
Several people on the street have said the scandal shook them, but because Rahul Dravid is there at the helm, they have not lost faith in the franchise. While that must be nice to hear, does it sometimes become a burden to live up to the expectations?
While it's nice to hear, I don't actually walk around trying to be a paragon of virtue. I'm not saying to myself 'I have to do this and that'. Honestly, it's added no pressure on me. I haven't changed what I am and I just try and be what I am. There are certain things you do and certain values you have. But I don't feel any pressure of trying to live up to anyone else's expectations. I have to live up to my own standards and my own expectations. And I'll make mistakes, but I hope over the course of my career and life, I won't make that many mistakes. We're all going to look at things we've done in our career and think 'I wish I had done that differently or behaved differently'. I just hope that over the length of a career, there are few of those moments and lots more of things that I can look back and say, 'I was actually quite okay there. What I did there was quite good.' It's also not only about me. I think people have bounced back and supported Rajasthan Royals also because there are other people on this team who they will not doubt. There is a good culture in the team, and there are some good people around the group. While there have been certain people who have let themselves and everyone down, there are others who you know will stand up for what's right.
In your Bradman Oration, you mentioned the need to put the fans first. How do you think that should be done?
We need to ensure that the fans get to see good quality cricket in good quality conditions. If you prepare good wickets, and play in good conditions, the quality of cricket improves. And fans deserve to see a high standard of cricket being maintained. We need to look at facilities around the fans at stadiums and viewing facilities through television, media, internet. You need to ensure that people who love this game feel a part of the game, and enjoy the experience. That is really important. All three forms have different fans, and they need to know that we cater to each one of them. I mean, the fans of Test cricket should never feel that we are neglecting them to support another form of the game. There are fans of Twenty20 cricket and we need to ensure that we give them the cricket they want to see. We need to keep Test cricket alive, because there is a section of fans who love and worship Test cricket and have basically helped this game grow, and they are as important as anybody else.
Touching on the current Indian team, it is a fairly young side coming together. How important is it at this stage for them to go on a tour of South Africa?
South Africa is the No.1 team in the world and it's a privilege to play the No.1 team in the world. And it should be a great challenge for the Indian team. We all want the Indian team to do well, but even if you don't do well, the things that you learn from a tour like that, playing against opponents like that in a tough three-Test series, will be phenomenal. You cannot count those lessons or the value of what you learn. I know how it is. We went to Australia in 1999-2000 and lost 3-0. I failed badly, but what I learned from the trip made me a much better cricketer, because I knew what I had to improve on, what I had to work on. I think it's those kind of losses that sometimes help build teams and unite teams. I'm not saying India will lose, I think they probably have a good chance. They're a pretty good side, and the youngsters are quite experienced at least in international cricket, even if they're playing one-day cricket. But there's a lot to be gained from tours like that, and it is a great privilege to play the No.1 team in their own backyard.
What next, after cricket?
I haven't really decided. There's obviously a few options, and I'd love to stay involved in cricket in some capacity. Where it is and in what form it is, I haven't really had a chance to discuss with people. There's media. I don't think I'm going to get into administration at this stage, but media is an option. It's also got to balance out with time at home and how much I can do. There are a few options and things in the pipeline that I have dipped my toes in a little bit and had some experiences. And I've enjoyed it, being on the other side of the fence. In some ways, my role at Rajasthan here has been not only about captaincy, but it's been about also just strategy, planning, behind the scenes work - some kind of coaching as well. That's a side I've also enjoyed being part of, so let's see when that happens.
Two decades in the game as a player. If you close your eyes, and someone says 'cricket', what comes to mind first?
Oh, just the joy it gave me. The sheer thrill that this game gave me, and gratitude. The game gave me so much, and I've so much to be grateful for. It made me the person I am, it's given me security as a person, security financially. And I couldn't have asked for anything more.