Insider Series: When Rahul Dravid Took President Kalam by Surprise
After they lost to Australia in the 2003 WC final, President Kalam had hosted the Indian team at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The 2003 World Cup in South Africa was memorable for India — the tournament started disastrously, but the team fought back in spectacular fashion. They thrashed Pakistan at Centurion thanks to Sachin Tendulkar's masterclass against Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and then beat England thanks to Ashish Nehra's wonderful 6-wicket haul.
Though India stumbled to defeat against Australia in the final – losing by a big margin – the team was lauded for its spirited performance and invited by President APJ Abdul Kalam for a reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan, a rare honour.
As the team assembled in the lobby of Taj Palace hotel, there was visible excitement and expectation among players.
Though accustomed to the world of celebrity and adulation, even for them, being invited by the Rashtrapati was a first.
The team was smartly turned out for this special occasion, as the dress code was for everyone to wear the official blazer and India tie.
From the hotel to Rashtrapati Bhawan was a short ride and players occupied their usual positions in the bus. Sachin in front, next to the window on the left, captain Sourav Ganguly immediately behind him, Rahul Dravid on his right and so on. But some seats were vacant because Coach John Wright was away in New Zealand due to his father's illness and Harbhajan was missing, though nobody knew why.
His Punjab colleague Yuvraj Singh couldn't hide his delight as the team bus rolled up the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt. Climbing the steps to the entrance, dominated by a Mauryan era Nandi statue, he was awed by the magnificence and grandeur of the majestic building. Anil Kumble, an avid photographer (surprisingly without his camera that day), wondered whether it would have been okay to take pictures.
Captain Sourav led the team into the Mughal Garden where a host of cricket celebrities had already gathered. Among the A-list guests present were Tiger Pataudi, Bishan Bedi, Arun Jaitley, and the BCCI top brass led by President Jagmohan Dalmiya and PM Rungta.
Once the arrival of President Kalam was announced, the team lined up to be introduced to him. Sourav and Dalmiya greeted the president, after which the customary handshakes began. The president greeted everyone with equal attention, but paused to have a word with Sachin.
As he walked towards other guests, Rahul Dravid stumped him with a special request.
Pulling out a copy of President Kalam’s book Ignited Minds, Dravid requested him to sign it.
The president obliged, and scribbled a message, “You will Win,” with a flourish .
Once the usual drill at these formal occasions were over, President Kalam decided to have a quiet chat with the players. With team members sitting around him in a semi-circle, he spoke to them like a teacher does to a classroom. His message, almost a lecture to the attentive children, was simple yet inspirational.
Citing Vikram Sarabhai as his guru, he said science is useful for different purposes, it creates missiles and also advances healthcare which promotes happiness and wellness. Likewise, he said, sports should be used as a trigger to improve the health of the nation.
Apart from this general observation, in the sporting context, he gave specific advise to players. President Kalam stressed the need to be determined and to train the mind. He also appealed to players to work with children because they hold the key to the future.
The president hailed the achievement of the team in the World Cup, then posed a question that caught everyone by surprise.
‘What made Australia better,’ he asked in his trademark soft, straightforward manner.
An uneasy silence followed as players looked at each other, not sure what to say. After a longish pause, Sachin responded with a short answer about their first class cricket being more competitive.
Interaction over, it was time for photographs. PM Vajpayee and Mr Advani also joined the group during the end. Sachin presented the president with a bat signed by the team. This brought a memorable evening to a close, made special by the disarming simplicity, humility and charm of President Kalam.
(Amrit Mathur is a senior journalist, former GM of the BCCI and Manager of the Indian Cricket Team. He can be reached at @AmritMathur1.)
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