Winning over the audience

PTI

Rahul Dravid has urged the ICC to cut down on the number of “meaningless” ODIs and instead focus on the 50-over format of major tournaments like the World Cup, besides exploring the possibility of day-night Test cricket. Here Arun Venugopal picks up extracts from Dravid's speech during the annual Bradman Oration at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

The global cricketing community has many reasons to rejoice with its most influential and relevant forces standing up for the betterment of the game in recent times. After Kumar Sangakkara's lecture shook people out of their comfort zones, Rahul Dravid's Bradman Oration serves as a panoramic understanding of, not merely cricket, but also the multihued society influencing the game. Dravid, in the process, had the unique honour of being the first non-Australian to deliver the oration.

Winning over the audience right at the outset, as most accomplished orators would observe, plays a decisive part in the success of any public speech. Dravid endeared himself to the gathering, not by resorting to glib-talk but with sincerity of thought and an acute awareness of the larger purpose of his discourse. The poignancy of the venue — Australian War Memorial in Canberra — wasn't lost on Dravid.

In one of his many moments of fine-spun brilliance, Dravid wondered aloud at the ridiculousness of placing cricket and war on the same pedestal. He might as well have been speaking about the exaggerated promotional gimmicks adopted by broadcasters. “When I was told that I would be speaking at the National War Memorial, I thought of how often and how meaninglessly, the words 'war', 'battle', 'fight' are used to describe cricket matches. This building recognises the men and women who lived out the words — war, battle, fight — for real and then gave it all up for their country, their lives left incomplete, futures extinguished.”

His fine understanding of Indo-Australian history and the ability to contextualise it would have done any seasoned diplomat proud. As Dravid traced the fact that India's first Test series as a free country was played against Australia, he reminded the audience of a much deeper emotional connection.

“Before they played the first Test match against each other, Indians and Australians fought wars together, on the same side. In Gallipoli, where, along with the thousands of Australians, over 1300 Indians also lost their lives. In World War II, there were Indian and Australian soldiers in El Alamein, North Africa, in the Syria-Lebanon campaign, in Burma, in the battle for Singapore. Before we were competitors, Indians and Australians were comrades.”

With the crowd having warmed up, the Indian ace — in a manner reminiscent of his adaptability on the cricket field — eased into the topic of one of Australia's and cricket's dearest sons, Sir Donald Bradman. Dravid, in a couple of enchanting anecdotes, summed up India's perception of Bradman — “He was striking one for all of us ruled by the common enemy (England)”.

He cited the instance of some Indian fans wearing black bands when Wally Hammond eclipsed Bradman's record for the highest Test score (334). Dravid's lighter side took centre-stage when he admitted to having doubts over the veracity of the incident (“We will never know if this is true but as journalists sometimes tell me, why let facts get in the way of a good story”).

The 38-year-old was pleased that, like Bradman, he batted at number three: “We're the ones who make life easier for the kings of batting,” he quipped amid generous applause. Dravid also acknowledged how The Don's approval of Sachin Tendulkar was akin to the honour of “passing on the torch”.

Bradman's thoughts on the qualities of the finest sportsmen, Dravid felt, had universal resonance. “That the finest of athletes had, along with skill, a few more essential qualities: to conduct their life with dignity, with integrity, with courage and modesty. Maybe those words should be put up in cricket dressing rooms all over the world.”

Despite acknowledging the steady rise in quality, and with it unprecedented adrenaline, of India-Australia contests, he was candid enough to say both the teams should have done things differently in the infamous Sydney Test in 2008.

The IPL's role in mending fences received mention as well. One of the more significant parts of the oration was his take on the popular notion of cricket in India — a fusion of money and power. Dravid chose to give a glimpse of the other side of the “one-dimensional, often cliched image.”

“In this last decade, the Indian team represents more than ever before, the country we come from — of people from vastly different cultures, who speak different languages, follow different religions. I went around our dressing room to work out how many languages could be spoken in there and the number I have arrived at is: 15, including Shona and Afrikaans.”

While outlining India's pluralistic framework and cricket's growing role in the society, Dravid urged naysayers to take a ‘behind-the-scenes' look into the making of a cricketer. The rise of the likes of Virender Sehwag, M. S. Dhoni, and Zaheer Khan, among others, from rural backgrounds was succinctly summed up.

Dravid attributed the poor crowds in recent matches to a lack of context and, most significantly, advocated the perils of alienating the average fan. “Everything that has given cricket its power and influence in the world of sports has started from that fan in the stadium. They deserve our respect and let us not take them for granted.”

Prioritising different formats of the game and embracing innovation, according to him, also shouldn't be shied away from.

He has urged the ICC to cut down on the number of “meaningless" ODIs and instead focus on the 50-over format of major tournaments like the World Cup, besides exploring the possibility of day-night Test cricket.

“It must scale down this mad merry-go-round that teams and players find themselves in: heading off for two-Test tours and seven-match ODI series with a few Twenty20s thrown in.

“Since about, I think 1985, people have been saying that there is too much meaningless one-day cricket. Maybe it's finally time to do something about it... anything makes more sense than seven-match ODI series,” he added.

He was realistic about the game attracting financial corruption and other threats from outside the game. Notwithstanding setting up of robust safeguards, he exhorted cricketers to “give up a little personal space and personal comfort.” “Even if it means giving up a little bit of freedom of movement and privacy. If it means undergoing dope tests, let us never say no.”

It was towards the end of the speech that Dravid's character shone brightest, one that reflected the unadulterated bliss of a certain kind of innocence: “I have sometimes found myself in the middle of a big game, standing at slip or even at the non-strikers end and suddenly realised that everything else has vanished. At that moment, all that exists is the contest and the very real sense of the joy that comes from playing the game.” It could be wishful thinking but if such an oration helps the people of either country understand one another better, then it's certainly worth the trouble.