Rahul Bhai was always like family. He would keep fighting for the rights of the junior players. Those extra efforts always matter and leave an impact on people. Youngsters were very important to him. Look at the kind of players who matured under him—the ones that went on to lead India over the next decade. These included M.S. Dhoni, Irfan Pathan, Yuvraj, Piyush Chawla, Dinesh Karthik, Munaf Patel, S. Sreesanth and myself. Rahul Bhai knew that these seven or eight boys would be the face of the team in the coming years. And he made sure that we were nurtured well.
That kind of psychological boost, I have always felt, is needed for players to perform well, and I think the BCCI should take steps to ensure that. Especially for young players who have to stay away from their families and homes for lengthy periods of time. They can’t say anything to anyone. It is the captain’s responsibility to give them that space, like Rahul Bhai did for us.
Generally, when people talk about the Indian cricket team that has emerged over the last 10–15 years, the credit is usually given to Dhoni, or to Ganguly before him, for having built the team and taken Indian cricket forward. I have never quite agreed with that. I never say Dada made this team. He, and Dhoni, did lead and make an impact on it, that’s true. But the man responsible for making the teams for all three formats of the game is Rahul Dravid.
Rahul Bhai would often fight with selectors to include young talent in the Indian team. And one advice he would keep giving us was that we should go back to playing Ranji Trophy whenever possible, perform well and score heavily there, and then come and play for the Indian team again. He was an extremely match-oriented coach and player that way. He would himself keep playing multiple matches for his state in the Ranji Trophy. In fact, when we would practise at the NCA, I heard him complain a couple of times; he told us that we should instead be playing Ranji Trophy matches.
It’s something that is really missing from Indian cricket these days. We rarely see high-profile players show up for these domestic competitions even when they can. I understand when your schedule is such that you have no time to play for your state. But whenever you can, it should be a priority. That was what all the great players did.
Rahul Bhai as captain could be a very intense man. I honestly haven’t feared anyone more than him on and off the cricket field. We would see him at breakfast on the morning of the match: he would be sitting with a very serious expression on his face. At times, I wondered if I should just ask him to relax a little and smile. But I knew that this was his way of preparing for a game. He was in that zone where no nobody could bother him.
He was also particular about how we carried ourselves as cricketers. Rahul Bhai looked at playing for India as an honour. And he always believed that, as representatives of our country, we should be mindful of what we wear and how we present ourselves. There was this one occasion where I was guilty of crossing that line, unintentionally.
We were in Malaysia for a tri-series involving the West Indies and Australia. I walked into some shop in a mall and bought a new T-shirt. I was very happy with my purchase and walked out wearing it before bumping into Rahul Bhai. The T-shirt was a branded one: it had ‘FCUK’ written in bold letters right across the middle. I really had no idea what it meant or what it could be perceived as. I just liked how it looked on me.
Rahul Bhai gave me a proper dressing down right there in the mall. ‘Do you know what you are wearing and walking around in? You are an Indian cricketer. You cannot be out in public with that written on your T-shirt,’ he said. I had no answer. I tried explaining to him that I didn’t know it had a bad connotation. I was so taken aback and scared that I immediately went to the restroom, changed into something else and threw that T-shirt in the bin.
Rahul Bhai did loosen up a lot after he moved on from captaincy. Those last few years, he was almost a different man at times. He wanted to joke around all the time. I remember us sharing a lot of laughs in the slips when I started playing Test cricket. Mahi Bhai, Rahul Bhai, Lacchu Bhai (V.V.S. Laxman) and me. Always lots of laughter in the slip cordon.
He would smile a lot more and also wanted to spend time with younger members of the team; he would try and participate in whatever they were up to. One night in the Caribbean in 2011, he was more relaxed than I ever saw him before. In fact, he was having a blast and letting his hair down.
We had thrown a surprise birthday party to Mahi Bhai in Dominica. It was at the end of a long tour, on which we had won all three series. I remember being shocked when Rahul Bhai showed up in these tight jeans, sipping on a drink or two, and even dancing around. It was a side of him I had never seen before.
I walked up to him and said, ‘Rahul Bhai, aap theek ho na? Aapko kya ho gaya?’ And he just shot back at me saying, ‘Arré, Suresh, come on yaar, have some fun. Let’s enjoy this night.’
It’s a level of trust and closeness that I have not shared with too many people during my life and career. So, of course, Rahul Bhai was one of the first people I informed when I decided to retire from international cricket in 2020.
This excerpt from ‘Believe: What Life and Cricket Taught Me’ by Suresh Raina and Bharat Sundaresan has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.