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December 18, 2003
Sir Donald Bradman Oration
18 December 2003
Customs House, Brisbane
Oration delivered by Michael Parkinson CBE
There is a certain irony in me being invited to give a speech in the name of Sir Donald Bradman in that he was one of two men I most wanted to interview but never did.
Never got close. Never even met him.
The other one who got away was Frank Sinatra but at least I was introduced to that great man.
I was taken to a party hosted by Sinatra with a great friend of mine, the songwriter Sammy Cahn. Sammy said "I'll introduce you and once Frank has met you then I'm sure one day he'll do the interview." So I met Sinatra. "Frank this is Mike" said Sammy. "Hi Mike" said Frank. I circulated for a while. I was the only person in the room I didn't recognise. Time to go and I went up to Frank "Goodbye Frank" I said. "Goodbye David" said Frank. The Don even more elusive than that.
But why was he top of my list. Because he dominated a game more than any player before or since. Because he gave a nation pride and status. Because he was one of the first great superstars of sport and because for all his celebrity, remained a private and elusive figure. What more does an interviewer want? No player embodied the principles of the game more than Sir Donald Bradman. There has been no more ardent custodian of the games traditions.
So anyone making a speech bearing his name needs to be aware of the standards he set and to investigate if they are being tampered with. And that is what we will attempt to do tonight.
First of all I should present my credentials. The problem with television fame is it distorts everything including the real sense of who and what you are.
What I am is a frustrated cricketer. I would have given anything to have played professionally. My father, an even more ardent Yorkshiremen than his son, went to his grave believing me to be a failure. Just before he died he said to me "You've done alright haven't you lad?" I said I had. "Made a bit of money, interviewed all those Hollywood stars, hob-nobbed with the rich and famous" he said. "It's been good" I said. He thought a bit, then he said "but think on lad, it's not like playing cricket for Yorkshire is it?" What he was defining was the difference between fame and immortality.
He saw everything in cricketing terms. If he stepped outside and it was a lovely day he wouldn't say "nice day" or whatever. He'd feel the sun on his face and say "we'll bat".
In a restaurant he would ask the bemused waiter for the scorecard instead of the menu. He wanted to call me Melbourne because I was born shortly after we had won a Test match in that city. When my first son was born we had just won in Pakistan. He rang me up. "What are you calling the lad?" he said. "Andrew" I replied. "Thought about Karachi" he said.
He was a coal miner, a fast bowler with an action modelled on his hero Harold Larwood and a humorist and he taught me not just how to love the game but how to respect it.
He was not a neurotic man but he was obsessed by what he considered to be the greatest mystery of them all - how could Don Bradman's batting average be double that of Len Hutton. In other words how could anyone be twice as good as Hutton?
He took me to Headingley in 1948 to find out. Now to say that Don Bradman liked batting at Headingley is like saying Romeo fancied Juliet. It misses the point. Bradman loved batting in Yorkshire and the Yorkshire crowd adored him. His Test average at Headingley is 192. He made 33 when we watched him. Made up for it in the second innings with 170 odd.
There is an affinity between Yorkshire and Australia. It was a Yorkshireman, Captain Cook born in Whitby, who had the good sense to bump into this island.
A Yorkshire firm, Dorman Long, built the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Fred Truman told me that. We were gazing from the Opera House to the Harbour Bridge and Fred said "Yorkshire firm built that you know Parky". Then he said "this lot still haven't paid us for it".
So I grew up feeling a kinship with Australia and when I first came here in the late 70's I was not disappointed. Mind you I had a fine guide and mentor in Keith Miller.
Keith was my boyhood hero. He was probably the cricketer who inspired me more than any other. As soon as I saw him on that 48 tour of England I was smitten, a severe case of hero worship which, I am glad to say, has lasted to the present time.
It was Neville Cardus who described him as `the Australian in excelsis'. John Arlott said that if he had to choose one cricketer to hit a six, get a wicket or a blinding catch to save his life it would be Keith Ross Miller.
To my young eye he was the most glamorous man I had ever seen. Not only was he a swashbuckling athlete but he flew fighter bombers during the war and once, returning from a mission took a detour to fly over the birthplace of Beethoven, his favourite composer.
In modern parlance, how cool was that?
The war affected him greatly. I once asked him why he played in such a carefree manner and he replied that anyone who'd ever had a Messerschmidt up his arse would thereafter greatly enjoy the prospect of playing cricket for a living.
I played in the same team as him. In the 60's we both worked for the Daily Express in London and we had an annual fixture against the Daily Mail.
Keith had an interest in a race meeting at Ascot that afternoon and had arranged for a friend to stand by the sightscreen signalling the results as they came in. He was at first slip and I was at second. He was looking at his friend who was about to announce the winner of the opening race when the batsmen flashed at our quick bowler and the ball flew to my right hand.
It was too quick for me. I never moved. I gave it up.
At that moment miller took off, dived across me, made the catch, rolled over, gave me the ball and still gazing at his friend said "I wonder what won the 2.30".
What he didn't say, but he was thinking, was "we catch those in Australia".
I have always thought that the perfect medal to be struck to celebrate all that is meant by Australian cricket, would have Don Bradman on one side and Keith Miller on the other.
What they symbolize is the Australian character at its very best.
Bradman was of course, a genius. He also epitomised the Aussie battler, the man of few words but great deeds. Miller was the handsome, sunkissed playboy who laughed at life and didn't give a stuff.
Bradman was the outback and the fight against nature, Miller was Bondi Beach and a celebration of the good life.
Any country capable of producing two such singular men has reason to be optimistic as well as proud.
It was Miller and Jack Fingleton who introduced me to Australia. Jack was a great personal friend of mine, a man I admired as a fine writer of the game - one of the very best - and a man who I enjoyed for his droll Aussie wit.
I interviewed him three times on my talk show. Each occasion he wound himself up into a terrible state of nerves. On the first time he rang me up saying he couldn't sleep because he was worried his false teeth didn't fit properly. I said I couldn't advise him on the issue as it seemed to be a unique problem. He turned up to do the show on the ABC and I noticed he was speaking funny, that his top lip wasn't moving. He explained that in order to make sure his teeth stayed in place he had added a fixative to his morning toilet and had overdone it to the extent his top set were now firmly glued to his top lip. Using industrial solvents we managed to unglue him before the show.
The last time I interviewed him he rang me from his hotel room to talk about the show. We talked about how nervous he was and how he wished he could think of something original to say or do. Then he said: "Tell me Mike, has anyone ever croaked on your show"?
Dear Jack, he stayed with us in England and bought us a rose. "It's called a Geoffrey Boycott," he said. "Why" I asked. "It takes a long time to bloom," he said. It is still there, a reminder of a dear man. I think of him as much as I miss him, which is a lot.
He and Miller decided to hold a lunch in Sydney where I might meet one or two of their friends. At the lunch were Ray Lindwall, (Peg) Bill O'Reilly, Alan Davidson, Harold Larwood, Arthur Morris and Neil Harvey. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
In fact when I do die and if I do go to heaven I want the same dining arrangements.
So all this by way of explaining why I have always felt at home in Australia and why I have had a long and abiding admiration for Australian cricket and the men who play it. Since I started watching and playing the game more than fifty years ago much has changed. Significantly the most important and fundamental changes have occurred in Australia . World Series Cricket changed the face of the game, Kerry Packer and his acolytes, condemned at first as the anti-Christ and his followers, are now seen as the architects of the modern game. It wasn't simply they marketed and promoted the one day game as the fact that the very nature of the new game demanded different skills and, as important, level of fitness from players. It was the death of the old pro and the start of a time when only the fittest could expect to compete.
What one-day cricket did was expand the market, involve a new audience to the extent that in terms of commercial potential it has made Test cricket a sideshow. The traditional game, that which separates it from the rest - because it is the ultimate test - is not about to disappear - yet.
Cricket - Test cricket - is an awkward game to slot into the ultra competitive TV market of the third millennium and the trick in the future will be for TV companies and cricket executives to meet the challenge while not sacrificing either the unique quality of the game nor its integrity.
And if we really are mindful of the game's integrity, and if we believe that the duty of succeeding generations of people involved with cricket is to protect its reputation, then we must be concerned about what I perceive to be a growing problem in the modern game.
Bowling with an illegal action: chucking. This a particular bee in my bonnet.
It would be wrong to say there is an epidemic but I believe there are enough dodgy actions in the game to create a suspicion the problem might be a growing one. Even more worrying is the nagging thought that no one administrators, umpires, commentators seems able or willing to confront the problem.
They will tell you one thing privately yet are reluctant to go public with their doubts. The argument that certain players have been investigated in the past and cleared of chucking doesn't mean to say they don't chuck. Because a man takes a drug test and is clear doesn't mean he need never be tested in future.
I think there is enough disquiet on the issue to warrant the authorities taking a fresh look at the problem. There can be no leeway, no excuses medical or otherwise. Now I don't wish to embarrass my hosts and their guests by raising this contentious subject. On the other hand it seems to me to be particularly relevant to an occasion honouring a man who made his views on throwing very clear during a time in Australia when three or four bowlers were suspected of having illegal actions.
The world's a much more complicated place nowadays. Sporting decisions become political issues. There is the relatively new mine field of political correctness to negotiate. Nonetheless it would be wrong to compromise on this matter and I sincerely hope that those charged with the future of the game don't let it down.
It is no good administrators and the media criticising the conduct and attitudes of players and spectators when they themselves could be accused of sidestepping controversial issues. It is important cricket sticks to its principles. That it does not choose the convenience of political expediency.
If you want to know the consequences of negligence on such issues then I will ask you to consider what has happened to football in England . There you have a game awash with money and bereft of any principle. The culprits are some players, ill-educated and witless who behave without concern for the world around them.
They are helped in their misdemeanours by greedy managers, unscrupulous agents, inert chairmen and a palsied governing body. Much of it sanctioned, by a media dominated by former players, who are more intent preserving some misplaced sense of loyalty instead of doing what they ought to be doing which is exposing and condemning corruption - and I use the word in its widest sense - of any kind.
Cricket is not to be compared with soccer, except as an example of what can happen to a game when money distorts values and those who are paid as watchdogs act as lapdogs.
That said let me congratulate cricket Australia on the way it is promoting what it calls `the spirit of cricket', and it will be interesting to see how cricketers the world over react to the vexed question of behaviour on the field.
From what we saw in Adelaide there are signs the players are taking heed. A truly epic encounter in burning heat was made even more memorable because of the spirit in which it was played. So well behaved were the Aussies the umpires were pleasantly concerned and asked the management if everything was alright.
Sledging is not new. Fifty years ago, playing cricket in Yorkshire, I grew up on it. One of the great joys of cricket is the verbal banter between players. It's a long day not to have a word or two.
That's alright. There's a humour in it. But no-one expects to go to work to hear crude sexual allegations about their wives or mothers, or to be insulted by a fellow international cricketer using the vocabulary of the yob, nor, worst of all, to be the victim of racial abuse.
No one wants to neuter a player or a team's competitive instinct. On the other hand to win gracefully and with style is the most important lesson of all because it shows the athlete has not lost his sense of perspective, that he understands what he is engaged in is a game, a pastime, an entertainment and that set against the important things in life - like family, birth, loss, famine, cruelty, war - it doesn't matter. If a game has any purpose in the grand design it is because it doesn't matter except as an antidote to things that do.
This Australian cricket team is one of the best of all time.
But they have been described as `ugly Australians'. The social researcher, Hugh McKay has suggested the Australian public loves to see them winning but finds it hard to love them.
I am tempted to say here that if you don't want them we do, and that if manners are all you have to worry about we devoutly wish we had your problems. Moreover judging by the impeccable standards seen at Adelaide this week both Aussies and Indians can be proud of their contribution to a magnificent occasion.
It is good to see `cricket Australia' addressing the situation at grass roots by working on leadership training with young cricketers. It is this attention to every aspect of producing young cricketers that has given Australian cricket a clear lead on the rest of the world. We - the rest - must be careful the gap does not become unbridgeable.
Having a great Australian team like Steve Waugh's, is a joy to savour but the rest of the world must learn how to match a system which started under Allan Border, and reached its peak under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh.
The contrast in producing test cricketers between your country and mine is as extreme as can be imagined. Steve Waugh suggested the other day it might take England 50 years to catch up. There is a rumour he was joking. I don't think so. If I spoke for a day or so I would only scratch the surface of the difference and when you think of the problems of West Indian cricket and its decline you begin to understand that while this Australian team gives us reason to rejoice there is also a genuine concern about the future of the international game.
I would like to use this occasion honouring one great Australian cricketer and captain to pay tribute to another. Steve Waugh bows out of cricket at Sydney in a few days time. He can do so in the knowledge of a job well done.
If Test cricket is a different and better and more exciting game now it is because he made it so. No man born ever wanted to win more than Steve Waugh and yet he wasn't afraid of losing. What he hated was a boring draw.
As a player his record tells us he was one of the greats. But statistics tell you nothing of his remorseless and sometimes ruthless approach to his chosen occupation. He has made a significant contribution to the world of cricket and the highest compliment I can pay is to observe that had he been born in Yorkshire he would have been perfect.
And finally I take it as a sign from the gods that a speech in the name of the greatest Test batsmen of them all should have taken place in a week when we witnessed one of the great test matches. India won and deservedly so but cricket was the real winner.
What we saw demonstrated why test cricket is the ultimate examination of technique, temperament, nerve, sinew and intellect. Why, at its best, its rhythms build to an irresistible climax like a great symphony.
At such times I realise why cricket engages this spectator like no other game. Why it gives this cynical observer hope for the future. Why it deserves the title `Sovereign King of Games'.
© 2003 Cricket Australia
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