This post by the author also appears in the Cricketcountry web site
By his prodigious standards it was a very short stint in the middle. The famed poker face often had ripples of animation run across it, accompanied by a twinkle in the eyes. There were also a couple of frivolous pokes, so uncharacteristic of his style – especially when Shane Warne entered the scene. However, when Rahul Dravid completed his latest innings, full of class and sparkle, the applause matched any he has heard for all the gems he has played across his fifteen year career. When the standing ovation quietened down, left swirling in the aftermath were the echoing thoughts stirred in the minds of cricket enthusiasts as well as the administrators of the game.
When Ranjitsinhji, the premier cricketing conjurer from the East, had vied for a place in the English side for the 1896 Ashes series, his claims had initially been blocked by the MCC President Lord Harris. Referring to overseas players as “birds of passage”, the diplomat had acted out his deep-rooted conviction that “while an Englishman had his duty and responsibility towards the Indian, the association should not be too close”. Ranji’s willow wizardry and the mystic magic that he brought to stroke-play finally won through, but it took more than esoteric oriental skills of batsmanship to drive through the bastions of White Castle.
One hundred and fifteen years later, it is intriguing to witness two men from the subcontinent stand at hallowed podiums and address the cricketing community in the prestigious MCC Spirit of Cowdrey Lecture and the Sir Donald Bradman Oration.
The world and the game have both come a long way.
However, on second thought, is it really that surprising?
Across the entire expanse of the cricket playing world, can one find two gentlemen more suited to deliver the speeches? Does there exist a brace of cricketers more presentable, whose erudition, articulation and command of the English language are as immaculate as the exquisite drives they essay between the extra-cover and mid-off while compiling uncountable runs in international cricket?
In a fascinating speech, the Indian stalwart displayed a wide array of versatile strokes covering distant corners of an enormous ground. He spoke about War, The Don, Indo-Australian cricket encounters, and ventured interesting opinions about the future of the game that will provide lots of food for thought to the International Cricket Council (ICC) and other governing bodies. At the same time, a significant portion of his talk dealt with cricket in India and what the game means to an Indian cricketer and follower.
One of the major messages that he passed on to the world was that despite the caricatures of the Indian cricketer as a “pampered superstar ... overpaid, underworked, treated like a cross between royalty and rock stars”, the reality remains diametrically different. The path of becoming a national cricketer is a treacherous razor’s edge with no reassuring safety net. And in spite of the financial security the cricketer attains on reaching the pinnacle of the sport, he does not normally live in mansions with swimming pools as the world would rather believe.
Given that the venue was the National War Memorial in the outskirts of Canberra, Dravid cleverly weaved the location into his speech. He began much like Kumar Sangakkara had done in his address, contrasting cricket with War – underlining how much more is the contribution of the soldier who fights for the country, “no matter how often and how meaninglessly the words 'war', 'battle', 'fight' are used to describe cricket matches”. However, while Sanga had made this the pivotal fulcrum of his entire talk, highlighting the turbulent conditions in Sri Lanka with emotionally charged rhetoric, Dravid quickly laddered on the War theme to point out that Indian ties with Australia went much further back than the inaugural tour in 1947-48. Way before the countries met on the cricket field, they had fought shoulder to shoulder against common enemies on battlefields such as Gallipoli, El Alamein, North Africa, in the Syria-Lebanon campaign, in Burma and in the battle for Singapore.
About the man who had lent his name to the lecture, Sir Don Bradman, Dravid’s words were not too many, but they perhaps combined to form the most sparkling chapter of the entire talk. In typical, humble, self-effacing humour, he contrasted Bradman’s batting style with his own, belittling his own recent Lord’s hundred which traversed almost a full day in comparison with The Don’s century before lunch in 1930. At the same time, he pointed out that as a No 3 batsman himself – ‘a tough, tough job’ – he was up against a standard which was ‘the benchmark for batsmanship itself’.
There was the delightful anecdote with which he perhaps won the heart of the Australian audience, when he pointed out how Bradman’s 254 against England in 1930 had coincided with the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru. He went on to relate how the synchronous events, and the connecting thread of fighting a common enemy, had been captured by KN Prabhu, the cricket writer and nationalist, who, according to many, was the closest an Indian scribe had ever got to the standard of Neville Cardus. Could any cricketer but Rahul Dravid have combined nationalism, cricket and reportage into one simple anecdote? I doubt it.
The maestro went on to mention how Bradman was the most beloved cricketer never to have played in India. He conjectured about whether Indians had sported black arm-bands when Wally Hammond had broken the Australian great’s world record score of 334. He recalled the exhilaration that the entire country had felt when the greatest batsman of all time had identified Sachin Tendulkar as someone who batted like him, thus figuratively passing on his magnificent torch to the Indian master. He ended his bit on Bradman with one of the great man’s quotes which – judging by the way our own Wall conducts himself – must be very close to his heart “… 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.”
PG Wodehouse, the master writer of humorous fiction, once mentioned that the best way to progress through a story was to phase out from a situation to the next one with the transitions as seamless as possible.
The master batsman displayed that he is as skilled in moving from one topic to another as he is in dealing with a change in bowling. Linking the time of Sir Don’s death with the beginning of the 2001 series between India and Australia, he switched to the recent history of the tussles between the two cricketing nations.
While remembering some closely-fought and excellent cricket series, he also expressed faith that the two sides had moved on from the 2007 Sydney Test match. In the style of an excellent diplomat – in the non-negative sense of the word – he spoke of how IPL had ensured that the Indian and Australian players shared the same dressing room. Tongue firmly in cheek, he observed that Shane Warne had also, at long last, grown to enjoy India, and no longer needed a steady diet of imported baked beans to survive in the subcontinent.
Next came the most telling part of his speech, during which, with a few emotionally-loaded strokes, he outlined what cricket as a sport meant to the country of India. With enthralling anecdotes of his under-19 days, he tried to demonstrate how the game can be a unique bonding factor in a nation of umpteen languages and cultures. I say ‘he tried to demonstrate’ because without being a part of the unique nation it is well-nigh impossible for another culture to understand the complexity of India. However, no one could have done a better job than Dravid did with the story of two youngsters batting at the wicket, one speaking in Hindi and the other in Malayalam, stitching together a hundred-run partnership without understanding a word of each other. To get to know India, to fathom the enormous diversities existing side by side in a single nation, one can hardly do better than to look at it through the lens of cricket. The game is a national identity and not a sum total of the multi-million dollar television deals that seem to make headlines today.
To show how a game has made it possible for the distant parts of the nation to come together, he spoke about Rajasthan – “a state best known for its palaces, fortresses and tourism” - going on and winning the Ranji Trophy, of the newly-formed state of Jharkhand winning the national one-day championship. He spoke about the advent of small town players – about Munaf Patel, about Zaheer Khan, about Umesh Yadav – how Virender Sehwag used to travel 84 km a day for proper coaching, how the roads leading to Munaf’s village had to be built anew once television crews and journalists started flocking there. How television coverage has actually made a lot of this possible by carrying the game to the remotest corners.
And while comfortable lives and security do await the ones who reach the top, the upward journey is a risk taken without contingency or mitigation strategies.
During this most passionate part of his speech, he also lyrically covered what the game means to an Indian fan, how a cricketer is known and popular everywhere, unlike all the other icons of a diverse nation, different even for the movie stars who can have restricted, regional appeal. In moving words, he recounted how a pulled-back curtain of a team bus always lights up the face of the fan who stands outside. The Indian team is recognised everywhere as the symbol of a united country, a symbol of hope, opportunities.
The audience was thus presented with a peek into the heart and soul of Indian cricket with the pulsating arteries thrown into the open. A glance at the glamorous world without hasty covers thrown on the grit and grime which litter the way leading up to grandeur.
Having displayed the flourish of oratory, his next phase was practical, full of good, common sense and a straight bat which, nevertheless, was not against improvisation. He expressed concern about the dwindling number of people in the stands, contrasting them with the days of yore with crowds spilling out of packed stadiums. All these observations were augmented with sound, and sometimes innovative, suggestions about what needs to be done. He talked about openness, transparency, regulations – prices that a cricketer may need to pay for preserving the game which has given so much to him.
He spoke of doing away with inconsequential one-day matches, thereby responding to the clamour that has probably been going on since 1985, but to take any new step firmly along a middle path.
For a cricketer cast in the classical mould, he was surprisingly enthusiastic about experimenting with day-night Test cricket and pink balls.
He also suggested the use of T20 as a domestic competition through structured official leagues.
The ideas were a mixture of equal amounts of simplicity and sophistication, underlining the deep seated practical wisdom which has made Rahul Dravid one of the leading thinkers about the game today.
During the final few minutes he spoke of what makes cricket sublime to him. A few instants when everything vanishes from consciousness and all that remains is the game in the middle, moments of endless joy that needs to be treasured for a lifetime. It may have been abstract – but we must bear in mind that this was the deepest realisation of someone who makes batting at the wicket or standing in the slips look almost like a spiritual endeavour. What he shared was the wisdom of enlightenment – of satori – that comes after decades of performing meditation in action. Even if we cannot comprehend the message in full, we can bask in the reflected light of its eloquence.
In 1947, when India played Australia for the first time, skipper Lala Amarnath confessed that the team had travelled to Australia to learn. When they faced the might of the home side in the first Test at Brisbane, Don Bradman scored 185. India, in their two innings, managed 58 and 93. Thus, the entire Indian team was effectively defeated by an innings and 34 runs by the great man’s score alone.
Now, 64 years later, during the Sir Don Bradman Oration, one No 3 batsman from India stood alone in a dapper navy blue suit, and won over an entire Australian nation – and the rest of the cricketing world – doing so with sparkling humour, insightful wisdom, moving emotion and cold hard facts.