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The Karnataka boys

As two batsmen from the state ignite Team India's Test series, a look at the changing dressing roomfrom Rahul Dravid's time to now

Nair (in green) on the PlayStation with his Indian team captain and teammates.
Nair (in green) on the PlayStation with his Indian team captain and teammates.

Rahul Dravid and Pepsi. They just don’t seem to go together. Maybe Rahul Dravid and fine wine or Rahul Dravid and a cup of steaming coffee, with a literary masterpiece in tow. But when he first made it to the Karnataka Ranji team dressing room in 1991, all of 18, the thing that excited him the most was the unlimited stock of Pepsi. A young Dravid was hooked, till, of course, he was pulled up for his caffeine-induced addiction and asked to take it easy.

“We didn’t have access to soft drinks at the U-19 level," Dravid recalls with a chuckle, “And here I was, with all this cola! I ended up having a little bit more than I should have. One day Raghuram Bhat (one of the senior members of the Ranji side) took me aside and told me it’s time I cooled down on the cool drinks."

Twelve years later, Bangalore, as Bengaluru was called, had changed, though not quite dramatically yet. The IT boom was still in its nascent stage and much like elsewhere in the city, the Karnataka dressing room too was on the threshold of breaking free of its unhurried traditions. A 16-year-old youngster entered the Karnataka Ranji team, one who with his outgoing personality stood out, in his own words, like a “rebel". His indulgence though was of a different kind. No fizzy drinks for Robin Uthappa. Ferrero Rocher was his poison.

Already, his chunky frame had earned him the nickname of “Warthog", but not many were aware of the real source of it, till a chance discovery by his roommate. “I was rooming with (Sudhindra) Shinde and at that point I loved my chocolates. I had a box of Ferrero Rocher and I would love gorging on them. Despite him telling me to come out and hang with the others, I remained in my room, enjoying them. He suddenly came into the room and asked me, ‘What’s that smell?’ And then he saw the packet of chocolates. Till this day I get ragged about them," says Uthappa.

Come 2010, Bengaluru had become very much the cosmopolitan, frenetic city that it is today. But not every society welcomes change with open arms, as K.L. Rahul, India’s in-form opener, him of the man-buns and braids, would soon find out. “People would always be commenting about my hairstyles and clothes," he says, with a smile. “So I would often wait till everyone left, then sneak out, or wear a cap so as to not get grief from coaches or senior players."

Rahul shows off his latest hairdo.

Back in the 1990s, long lazy lunches were a rule rather than an exception in Bengaluru. Driving to Peenya in search of a dhaba did not seem a daunting prospect. It was around this time that writer Anita Nair moved to the city. A “formal" city is how she recalls it.

“There was a certain cultural lineage that was passed down that was quite sacrosanct, till about the mid-1990s," says Nair. “Then the IT boom brought with it a whole influx of people, who brought with them various things; the way they dressed, the way they spoke. Change was inevitable."

The Karnataka dressing room wasn’t to be left behind, well, not completely anyway. In fact, Dravid believes, what hastened the revolution was the influx of players from other parts of the state, which brought a lot more variety.

“The demographic of the Ranji team has really changed," explains Dravid. “Previously, the players would mostly be from south Bengaluru or Malleswaram. Now you have players from the mofussil areas, from other states, who have made Bangalore their home and have all blended into the city."

Uthappa is from Coorg, Rahul moved to the city from Mangaluru when he was 18, Manish Pandey was born in Nainital, Dravid himself is from Maharashtra. “But we are all as Kannadiga as anyone else," says Dravid.

That’s also made the Karnataka dressing room a slightly more easy-going setting. Not like when Dravid entered it as a nervous youngster.

“You had legends like (Syed) Kirmani there, people I had grown up watching only play at the ground or on TV," Dravid says. “But the level of exposure that the kids today have, in terms of the number of matches they play before they even reach the state side, makes them more confident."

Most of the current Karnataka team have played junior cricket together at some level and, with the Indian Premier League, have already played alongside the biggest international stars—and the confidence comes through. “We know we are good enough to be there, that’s why we are part of the team," says Rahul.

But there is a charm in the fact that the younger lot still look up to the seniors with awe and admiration. “That’s the beauty of Karnataka cricket, isn’t it, that you don’t have to look too far to find your idol?" says Rahul. “You have to just go up to the likes of (Anil) Kumble, Dravid, (Venkatesh) Prasad, (Javagal) Srinath... and even though you may talk to them for only 10 minutes, the feedback you get will always be useful."

The change in the city’s image, from being traditional, sedate, gentlemanly, to one that’s hip, more brash and more global, has found expression in the dressing room too: Tattoos, Twitter and long manes apart, there’s House and R&B, hip hop, often with a Kannada song thrown in. Karun Nair likes EDM and PlayStation, and his Twitter feed is full of photos of him playing games with his teammates (and Dravid as well).

“I think a lot of it is to do with social media. In our time you didn’t have Twitter or Facebook, so there was a very clear demarcation between personal and public space," says Dravid. “Now the lines are almost blurred. So you get to know these young players a lot more personally. The players today have a lot more freedom to be themselves. In our time, we would often be playing a part, but today’s players are more themselves."

And it’s the desire to express themselves that comes through clearly. “Earlier, they just recognized you as a cricketer, but now if I go out people will recognize me as a personality: They will look at me and say he’s stylish, he carries himself well, he is someone good to go and talk to, not just as a cricketer, but as a person," says Rahul.

What the present lot have proved though is that even if they approach the game and the dressing-room etiquette differently from the days of Dravid and Kumble, the will to win as a unit remains as strong as ever, as they have proved in the last few years, with an abundance of titles to their names. Like Uthappa puts it, it’s an attitude that very much represents the city as a whole.

He says, “Like the city, we are a lot more expressive, and a blend of many things. Vinay (Kumar) is the stalwart, Stuart (Binny) is the fun type, I am a mix of both, (C.M.) Gautam and (Abhimanyu) Mithun bring in a lot of harmony. And it’s important it stays this way."

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