Memorable at the Memorial
Had the orator been entirely unmemorable, the 2011 Bradman Oration would still have lived long in the mind's eye of all those present. The War Memorial in Canberra provided a backdrop that was at once breathtaking and sobering, heavy with the kind of meaning seldom found amid 21st century cricket's ever more commercial treadmill of fixtures. As it turned out, Rahul Dravid 's meticulous, wide-ranging and fascinating speech was perhaps the most significant delivered since the Oration began, and proved very much the equal of a place that can rightfully be described as hallowed ground.
The pathos of the Memorial was first apparent as guests walked into the halls commemorating Australia's military history. Passing through wings devoted to the first and second World Wars, the assembly of Australian cricket's great and good, plus the entire Indian touring party, arrived to dine in Anzac Hall. Pre-dinner conversations were as much about the venue as the cricket, for it was hard for guests to ignore the sights and sounds all around. The room is dominated by an Avro Lancaster bomber aircraft - those with a restricted view of the stage could take plenty of solace in the uniqueness of the obstruction. They might also have noted that India's players were dressed resplendently in team blazers, a gesture of respect the team had not managed to accomplish for the most recent edition of the ICC awards.
Not long after all had settled in their seats, word was relayed that Dravid's speech would be delivered earlier in the night than planned, the better to accommodate the jet-lagged bodies of an Indian touring team that had arrived in Canberra at 3am that morning. It was a concession to exactly the sort of crammed and muddled schedule that Dravid would go on to examine in one of the more striking passages of his speech, and a cause for some hurried shuffling of dinner plates in the Memorial kitchen.
After a few words of introduction from Cricket Australia's chairman Wally Edwards, and enjoyable recognition of the men who took part in the 1945 "Victory Tests" in England, Dravid walked to the stand, to deliver what he had confessed to CA would be his first significant speech of any kind. There were a few early nerves, and some self-deprecation to win over the audience, plus the observation that before India and Australia had been cricketing foes they were military allies, under the umbrella of empire.
Much as Kumar Sangakkara had done in his famed Cowdrey Lecture at Lord's earlier this year, Dravid spoke in a way that reflected his character as much as the occasion. There were jokes, but only a handful, echoing the studious nature of the man. More abundant were thoughtful, considered observations, sculpted with care and precision like so many of Dravid's strokes for India in Test matches over the past 15 years.
He did not criticise India for its wealth and power in cricket, preferring to demonstrate how that wealth and its television offshoots had turned the game of princes and well-to-do businessmen into that of the people, whatever their language, background or financial standing. This was artfully demonstrated by an illustration of the diversity now found within the Indian dressing room. He did not swing heedlessly at the ICC, so often an easy target for angry words. Instead he counseled all administrators to look at why crowds had recently fallen even in India, and to ask themselves how the erosion of support for the game would hurt everyone, even if today they can still negotiate a fat broadcast rights contract for matches attended by no-one.
The balance of formats was addressed carefully, for the matter is at the same level of complexity that Muttiah Muralitharan once concocted for the world's batsmen. Test cricket, Dravid declared, had to be protected in the manner of its scheduling, while ODIs should be contested less frequently, and with more care. Twenty20, the game Dravid has most cause to view with suspicion as a batting classicist, has its best place as a contest between domestic teams or clubs. Given their own similarly held views, the heads of CA chairmen past and present could be seen perking up at this point. Dravid observed that all formats have a place, but not an equal one, for to maintain the present glut of fixtures would be to overburden the public and the players to the point of no return, be it financial or otherwise.
Finally, Dravid directed his words towards the cricket pitch, to the place he finds from time to time where the wider issues of money, attendances, formats and corruption are swept away. Every now and then, Dravid said, it was possible to feel the same rush of excitement that accompanied his first boundary, first catch, or first victory. The timelessness of such moments gave him pause to consider his link in the game's long history, and the role cricket's players and organisers must play in the preservation of its future. As he concluded, the room rose to applaud, having been kept enthralled for more than 40 minutes.
As the audience drifted off into the cold Canberra night, the nature of most conversation had changed. Where beforehand much of the talk centered on the majesty of the venue, now it was all about the content of the speech and the character of the speaker. Plenty of words were used to describe what Dravid had said, but among the most common of all was "insightful". Dravid had provoked plenty of deep thought, and it can only be hoped that his words will go on to inspire equally thoughtful action.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo