Rahul Dravid tends to move into his role of an orator with dignity, humour and considerable gusto © Getty Images
Rahul Dravid tends to move into his role of an orator with dignity, humour and considerable gusto © Getty Images

After his retirement from cricket, Indian batting great Rahul Dravid has been a much sought after speaker. Arunabha Sengupta writes that while he excels at oration, there is at least one favourite theme about which he repeatedly gets his facts wrong.

Rahul Dravid. Great batsman, exemplary gentleman and ideal ambassador of the game. All of that is true — there is no room for debate.

And after retirement, he has become a refreshing voice in the commentary box — unlike the ”everything was ever so better during our day” and the ”we know much better than the men in the middle” brigade we generally find behind the microphone. Much like his batting and bearing, his analysis has an aspect of sobriety around it, so down to earth that the characteristic cannot really be termed aura.

It is no wonder that Dravid has become a much sought after speaker in institutes — educational and otherwise. And he tends to move into his role of an orator with dignity, humour and considerable gusto.

“I have been told that the minimum marks required to come to BITS is 75 per cent in Maths and Physics. Luckily those standards do not apply in selecting your chief guest,” his self-effacing humour at BITS Pilani had evoked much laughter and thunderous ovation.

Similarly, at Sharada Mandir Annual Awards function, wit sparkled through his speech, “As I sat here, I looked back at fond memories of my school days when we had many chief guests for many functions. I tried to remember their speeches, but believe me I could not remember even one. That takes the pressure off me today because after many years when you look back, you won’t remember what I said.”

In his speeches Dravid is expected to do his bit to motivate the room full of young students. After all, his credentials amount to more than all the current day breed of  ‘professional motivational speakers’ but together. And generally his routine does a lot to touch the young minds.

In keeping with his image, Dravid often talks about the virtues of patience. Yet, therein he has stumbled — and by all accounts, has remained unaware of his errors.

When Dravid is bamboozled

He is Rahul Dravid, the man who has always let his deeds speak for himself. There is no reason why he should borrow his motivational words from the gimmicky, and often shallow, literature that constitute management ‘wisdom’.

The very phrase ‘management wisdom’ is, according to some, an oxymoronic construct. But, Dravid has made the mistake of falling for an oft repeated fictitious ‘consultant’s parable’ —on multiple occasions.

The message rings through loud and clear, the sincerity is there for all to see, but the facts are unfortunately wrong. That is sad and could have been avoidable.

Dravid extols the merits of patience with the oft repeated example of the Chinese bamboo. In both BITS Pilani and Sharada Mandir, he has repeated more or less the same story — and has perhaps done so elsewhere as well. It is obvious that he believes in the benefits of diligence and  persistence. But, he has not really been very meticulous in checking the facts.

In the Sharada Mandir function, a part of his speech ran: “My wife and I have built a new home with a lovely garden which houses lovely bamboo trees. I got reading on the Chinese bamboo and learned that the tree takes five years and three months to grow to its whole height of 80 feet. Yet, for the first five years, you only see a tiny green shoot, but in the next 90 days, it grows into a full-fledged tree. But in those first 60 months, it is growing its strong network of roots underground, to support the tree.  In an era of instant gratification, we settle for shorter trees, but remember patience has its reward. These are your years of growing that strong network of roots but be sure when you finally achieve your success, people will call it ‘overnight success’. If only they knew of the Chinese bamboo.”

More or less the same idea was repeated at BITS Pilani.

This has for long been a favourite fable of the motivational speakers and consultants. One of the first instances of the use of this fabricated piece of fiction was when “team building speaker” Ron Archer — yes, that is a profession — wrote it down in his popular 1996 book On Teams.

The parable has been reused often enough, flooded across motivational books and blogs littering the actual and virtual worlds. Even inspirational videos have been made with images of Chinese farmers, with Chinese five note music droning in the background, and the sage voice of the narrator eulogising the power of patience.

Archer’s story goes exactly as Dravid recounted it, “A farmer takes a seed, plants it, and tends it every day for a year. Then the farmer looks at the soil and still sees nothing: no sprouts, no signs of life. After four years, the farmer still has nothing to show for his labour. To the untrained eye he seems to be a fool, but the farmer knows that he will have to get to the third month of the fifth year when this seemingly dormant seed grows into a tree that is ninety feet tall. Four years nothing, three months 90 feet.”

One can see where Dravid got the idea from. It is indeed strange that this ‘90 feet within three months after five years’ bit has remained constant in what should have been an elaborate sequence of Chinese whispers. But then, this story has been reused by consultants and motivational speakers, and that is a group of people known to excel at copying and pasting. Only they generally present this lack of originality as the best practice of ‘not reinventing the wheel.’

There are several things wrong with this story

The first basic mistake Dravid makes is to refer to bamboo as a tree. It is not a tree, but grass — of the family Poaceae, subfamily Bambusoideae. There are over 90 genera and 5000 species of bamboo, but none of them can be termed ‘tree’ in the scientific sense.

Interestingly, Ron Archer also stumbles in this respect — his passage is titled ‘Lessons from the Chinese Bamboo Tree’ and the passage contains the words, ‘Making teams work is a lot like trying to grow the most difficult tree in the world, the Chinese bamboo tree.’

Gib Cooper, vice president of the American Bamboo Society and cofounder of the Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery in Gold Beach, Oregon, was pretty brisk in his response when asked about the parablea year after it was published in Archer’s book. When approached about the topic, Cooper snapped, “Bamboo is a grass, not a tree. There’s no such thing as a bamboo tree.”

Okay, maybe we are splitting hairs over insignificant technicality. However, there are many more ways that the facts presented are wrong.

Bamboo seeds have to be planted right away and cannot be allowed to dry out. Most grow shoots within a month. If  a planted seed does not grow a shoot above the ground within a few months, there is something wrong. If there is no sign of the bamboo shoot after a year, it is almost certain to be a dud. The plant will never grow. One can wait for five years, or ten, or more — there will be no bamboo plant shooting up as fruit of patience.

Cao Qungen of Hang Zhou, China, has a PhD in bamboo ecology and cultivation from the Nanjing Forestry University. When he had been contacted a few months after the publication of Archer’s book, he had scoffed, “It is just a story — it’s not true.”

However, the story has lived on and taken on the proportions of truth — as fabrications are prone to if repeated often enough.

Whatever Dravid has to say about the values of patience and the ethics of hard work are genuine and precious. However, they can be more than adequately borne by examples and anecdotes from his excellent career.

He has no need to soil his hands on the murky slush pandered as feel good stories in low-investment books on how-to, inspiration and so on. Those are for men who make a career out of these talks without possessing the credentials to back them up. As already mentioned, Dravid has more achievements than most of them put together.

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)