Why are the gals going crazy over Rahul Dravid?

Prem Panicker in Bangalore 


The ullulating cry, rising from a couple of hundred feminine throats, is constant, demanding, deafening. 
Rahul Dravid, with the positioning sense of a chess grandmaster, places himself as far away from the stand on the right of the pavilion at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium as possible for it is in these stands that the female fans, mostly young collegians by the look of them, are gathered. 
The new star of Indian cricket -- and make no mistake, even with Sachin Tendulkar present at the ground, it is Rahul the fans want -- is very visibly embarrassed by this public display of adulation. 
So great is Dravid's appeal that it rubs off on anyone with whom the star has even a tenuous contact. Thus when, after a brief conversation with him, I walk out of the ground to the pavilion for a drink of water, I am peremptorily called over to the stand where the females are. "Do you know Dravid?" "Can you get me his autograph?" "We want him to pose for some pictures, can you please ask him to come here?" 
I plead my inability. And, in turn, ask just what it is about Dravid's game that attracts them. "Oh, he is soooooooooo cute!!!" gushes one young collegian. "Yes, but how about his game, do you watch him play?" "Yesssss!" goes the girl. "He has a way of pouting when he bats, it's so sexyyyy!" 
I give up, and walk away. 
Meanwhile, Dravid's star status -- and his own reaction to it -- seems to provide his colleagues much amusement. Ajay Jadeja -- another favourite of the girls -- in particular takes delight in ribbing his team-mate. 
From where he is giving catching practise to Nilesh Kulkarni, Azharuddin and Kumble, Jadeja suddenly yells out Dravid's name. And when Rahul looks towards him, Jadeja points immediately behind him, to the female contingent, and grins, "Not me... THEY are calling you!" Rahul suddenly gets interested in the fielding practice at the other end of the ground, under Madan Lal's supervision, and heads off in that direction... prompting laughter from Jadeja and Azhar and a wry grin from Kumble. 
One thing is very clear -- the camp does extend from 7 in the morning to 2.30 in the afternoon, but if the impression you get is of a bunch of grim, dedicated cricketers honing themselves relentlessly to a state of match-fitness, forget it. This is a very relaxed, all-friends-together kind of camp, an opportunity, apparently, for some casual male bonding in salubrious conditions. 
The early morning session is perhaps the only time when there is a business-like look to the proceedings. At 7.30 sharp, fitness expert Tej Kishan Kaul whistles his charges into the middle of the ground, splits them up into groups of ten, and puts them through a two hour spell of exercises that begin slow, and develop in time into lung-busting, muscle-stretching levels. 
The mandatory stretching and limbering up is followed by step workouts, with the players being made to run up and down the pavilion steps to Kaul's time-keeping claps. 
Follows a rather unusual business, involving each group standing in a line, a foot of space separating one from the next. A long heavy iron pipe is hoisted overhead, and all the players in the line hold on to it with both hands. At a call from Kaul, the players strain to push the pipe forward, and at the next call reverse direction and pull back. Sort of like tug of war, only with a pipe and overhead, instead of at waist height. 
Then there is some business involving plastic chairs, over which the players straddle, stretch their calves, and such like... and that in turn leads on to a series of short sprints... and on to... 
Like I said, it is relentless, and exhausting. And judging by the expression of the players, a regimen they are most definitely unused to. 
That coach Madan Lal goes through the workout with his wards is a given, Madan being a bit of a fitness freak. What provokes my own amusement is the sight of the orotund Ali Irani being put through the same paces as the boys. "He is going to be with the boys, so let him learn the exercises, then he can keep an eye on them when they are doing it," explains Kaul, rather grimly. 
Something in his tone of voice seems to indicate a sense of dissatisfaction, so I probe gently. "See," explains Kaul, a graduate in physical fitness, biomedicine and related aracana from Leipzig, "physical fitness -- competitive fitness -- is not acquired in nine days. And whatever the gains are here, if the boys don't keep it up, if they go back to their lax routines once the camp is over, then this whole thing will become a waste of time." 
Does that mean Kaul is advocating a permanent fitness trainer for the Indian team? "Definitely," he says. "Cricket is no longer an amateur sport. For a player to perform to his potential, he has to be very fit, both physically and mentally, at all times. Having a nine day camp, then forgetting all about it for the next few months, is not a solution. I think a physical trainer should be attached to the team, 365 days in the year." 
Even during the off season? "Certainly. What I would do, if I were the permanent trainer, is, at the end of the season I would give each player a schedule of workouts for him to do at home. And I would tell him that on specified days, I will visit him to test his condition over specific parameters -- speed, endurance, hand-eye coordination, strength... the routine wouldn't be designed to keep the players at match fitness, but to maintain them just below that level, so when the new season begins, a short, strenuous camp will lift them to competitive levels again." 
Coach Madan Lal, seated in a nearby chair keeping an eye on his wards as they go through batting and bowling practise in the nets, nods agreement. "Cricket is a professional sport today, you know, it is not enough simply to make money on sponsorships and such things. The professional spirit you show when it comes to such things should also be there in your training and in everything you do on the ground," Madan says. 
Which prompts me to ask Kaul what shape he found his charges in when he landed in the camp. "Well, they are okay for say club cricketers -- but honestly, they were way below the level of international sportsmen when I took over here." 
And in nine days, he hopes to make the side take the quantum leap into the big league? 
"Look," Kaul says, sounding a shade defensive, "I have been asked only to prepare them for this Asia Cup. What I am doing is giving them a set of exercises that will work on muscles they don't normally bother about. Right now, their way of working out is very amateur, each person does his own thing. That is why they have all these niggling injuries. What I am doing is strengthening the injury prone areas of each player, also helping them build speed and endurance -- at least, as much as is possible during such a brief camp." 
Clearly, the trainer -- who while at work seems dedicated and dead keen -- is cynical about the whole idea of instant fitness. 
"I have been telling the Board we need a full-time fitness coach, what more can I do?" shrugs Madan Lal. 
Is Kaul good enough to fill that role?, I ask the Indian manager. Or do we need to import someone more au courant with modern technology? I mean, iron pipes, plastic chairs and such are hardly state of the art equipment, are they? 
"Kaul is doing well with what has been provided to him. If they haven't given modern equipment that is not his fault," says Madan Lal. "It is not a question of Indian trainer or foreign trainer, it is a matter of getting someone who knows his work and appointing him on a long-term contract." 
Obviously, Madan Lal is rather unhappy at not being given a full time trainer for the team. 
This prompts me to ask J Y Lele, who admits that a request from the team coach is before the BCCI, pending a decision. "We are looking into it," says the newly installed Board secretary. 
But surely the issue of whether or not to appoint a trainer -- something we've been hearing about for over a year now -- does not merit debate and discussion as, say, the question of whether India should go in for nuclear weapons? 
"It is not a matter of simply saying yes or no," says Lele. "A person has to be picked, budgets allocated... these things take time." 
How much time? 
"We will be deciding soon," says Lele. 
How soon? I persist. 
"I have just taken over, there are other things also on my plate, I cannot give you a definite date, sorry," says the Board secretary, now seeming a bit miffed by my persistence. 
I wander back out to the ground. It is now 11, and the change from the professionalism of the fitness workouts is as startling as the silence following a thunderclap. In one part of the ground a plastic stump has been set up. A few of the players are lined up away from it. One by one, they run forward, field a ball rolled towards them and take a shy at the stumps. 
I watch for 15 minutes and see only two direct hits -- one, ironically, by Madan Lal himself while the other is by Kambli, who promptly breaks into a little jig. Each of the hits is greeted with ironic cheers from the fans thronging to watch the fun. Meanwhile, the players who fail with their throws seem totally unabashed. A shrug and grin about covers their reactions as they lope gently back to take their places in the line again. 
At another corner of the ground, Jadeja is slamming balls up into the air for his team-mates to practise high catches. After a while, Kumble -- leading the "boys" in the absence of Sachin Tendulkar who has returned to Bombay, en route to London for the meeting of international captains -- asks Jadeja to give slip-catching practise. 
Surprising -- the three who make the slip cordon are Azharuddin, Dravid and newbie Nilesh Kulkarni. Azhar -- natty in Versace training trousers and t-shirt -- is as good as ever, earning cheers from the crowd for some remarkable takes. Dravid is safe and sure -- but what he is doing practising slip catching when he never stands in that position, I have not a clue about. As for Nilesh, one thing is for sure -- the slip cordon is definitely not his spiritual home. The tall, gangly lad appears to have problems getting down in time to take low catches. Which, again, makes me wonder, why make him practise for the specialist position, when he clearly isn't cut out for it? 
In any event, there is an air of casualness about the whole thing, players wandering off and on at will, laughing, joking, waving to the crowd and indulging in little byplays with each other. Not quite what you would see if, say, the Kiwis or the South Africans were on the field and gearing up for an important tournament at the start of the season. 
"We are not used to hard work," sighs Kaul. "The boys, they say, arre, eight hours non-stop, yeh kya hai. They should realise that they will be playing eight hours non stop, so it is a good idea to train the same way." 
A break for refreshments, and the "serious' business begins as Dravid and Ganguly take their places in the two nets. Each batsman faces two medium pacers and two spinners for 20 minutes, before giving place to the next. 
While the likes of Prasad, Kuruvilla and Kumble are obviously bowling well within themselves, newbies Nilesh Kulkarni and Debashish Mohanty look dead keen, apparently trying to impress everyone with their abilities. 
Nilesh is a gangly lad with a loping run in, a high arm action and a rather pronounced loop in the air. If his bowling at the nets is any indication, he does not rely on flight so much as his height, bringing the ball down steeply, hitting the deck and getting bite and turn. 
"His angle is what makes it difficult to go out and hit him," says Sidhu, whose penchant for going down the track to spinners is a trademark. "He has a good loop, and gets sharp turn when he really hits the deck." 
Nilesh is visibly shy and unusued to journalists chatting him up. "I had a good Ranji season last year, played well especially in the final, helped Bombay win," he says. "No, I didn't think about getting into the side, I don't think about such things... I just go there and do my best." 
Debashish Mohanty, bowling to Ganguly, comes across as a brisk medium pacer with a slingy type of action. Given that, his stock ball is obviously the one coming in to the right hander. Occasionally, he runs in close to the stumps and makes the ball go the other way off the seam but the change of approach makes that easy to spot, and Azhar -- batting after Ganguly -- clips him comfortably off his pads each time Mohanty tries the away swinger. "He is young, he can learn with experience," says Madan Lal when I ask him what he thinks of Mohanty. 
The debutant himself has little to say -- in fact, he seems to shy away from questions. "I am happy to become the first Indian player from Orissa," he says. "What can I say? I hope to do well, if given a chance." 
Does he think that with Kuruvilla and Prasad in the squad, he will get to play? "I don't know," he says. "I hope to get a chance to prove myself." And with that, off he lopes to chase after a ball he didn't need to field -- an obvious ploy to get away from being asked any more questions. 
Meanwhile, those not directly involved with batting or bowling are taking it easy, signing autographs, chatting up visitors... 
The most in-demand players among the fans are Jadeja, Ganguly and Sidhu. A section of the male fans yells for Kumble to come over and sign their slips of paper, but the Indian vice-captain these days seems to have a perpetual scowl on his face, and is in no mood to oblige. 
Dravid, meanwhile, finishes his stint at the nets. And walks back towards the pavilion -- the cue for his fans to start their yelling again. 
Dravid glances hesitantly in their direction, shrugs, hands his bat and gloves over to a security type and walks over towards the stands to oblige the autograph hunters. 
Flashbulbs click, autograph books by the dozen are thrust under his nose.. Dravid, eyes down, signs them mechanically, occasionally glancing up to respond to a question. And having signed a couple of dozen autographs, he breaks off abruptly and runs briskly up the ramp leading to the players room. 
The cry is shrill, disappointed... there are dozens more autograph hunters left unsatisfied, while the lucky few sport big grins. 
Oblivious, the new-found star of Indian cricket vanishes into the interior of the dressing room... and as if on cue, a majority of the girl fans begin trickling out of the stand and towards the exit... 
"No, no, I am not a sex symbol or anything," grins Rahul Dravid when I twit him about this later. "They only want our autographs... not just mine." 
Yeah, right! 

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