Rahul Dravid has called for cricket's players and administrators to tackle the game's challenges by taking decisions that would always "respect the fan." He was delivering the annual Bradman Oration on Wednesday, the first cricketer from outside Australia invited to do so in the ten-year history of the event.
The 40-minute speech, delivered at the Anzac Hall at the National War Memorial, Canberra, urged the game's stakeholders to remember that "everything that has given cricket its power and influence in the world of sports has started from that fan in the stadium." Dravid said players needed to think of the fans when they played the game, in terms of conduct, intensity and integrity. Administrators, he believed, needed to keep the viewing public in mind when they tried to handle the trickiest of the challenges, balancing the three formats in cricket.
"They [the fans] deserve our respect and let us not take them for granted. Disrespecting fans is disrespecting the game. The fans have stood by our game through everything. When we play, we need to think of them. As players, the balance between competitiveness and fairness can be tough but it must be found."
Dravid said he had been surprised to see grounds half-full during the India v England ODI series in October which to him was an indicator that there had been a "change in temperature" in Indian cricket over the last two years. "Whatever the reasons are - maybe it is too much cricket or too little by way of comfort for spectators - the fan has sent us a message and we must listen…Let us not be so satisfied with the present, with deals and finances in hand that we get blindsided."
The administrators' biggest challenge in terms of retaining public interest and support of the game all over the world was, he said, to work out a sensible road-map for the game's three formats. An alternate plan giving every game context and relevance would have to be worked out because, "the three formats cannot be played in equal numbers - that will only throw scheduling and the true development of players completely off gear. Cricket must find a middle path," he said.
"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." Dravid described Test cricket as "the gold standard" and the form that the players most wanted to play, ODI cricket had kept the game's revenues going for three decades while T20 was the format the fans wanted to see. Despite the popularity of T20, Dravid said, "Test cricket deserves to be protected, it is what the world's best know they will be judged by".
"Where I come from, nation versus nation is what got people interested in cricket in the first place. When I hear the news that a country is playing without some of its best players, I always wonder, what do their fans think?"
He said the popularity of Test cricket could be reflected not so much in packed grounds but how its most loyal fans followed the scores. "We may not fill 65,000 capacity stadiums for Test matches, but we must actively fight to get as many as we can in, to create a Test match environment that the players and the fans feed off. Anything but the sight of Tests played on empty grounds.
It was where the administrators had to ensure that teams played, "Test cricket that people can watch," and ensure that Tests, "fit into 21st century life, through timing, environments and the venues they are held in." He supported discussions around day-night Tests and a Test championship, despite anxieties over its financial difficulties. He spoke of playing a day night first-class game for the MCC in Abu Dhabi which left him convinced, "day-night Tests is an idea seriously worth exploring. There may be some challenges in places where there is dew but the visibility and durability of the pink cricket ball was not an issue."
Dravid also said that a Test championship would encourage every team and player to deliver strong performances in every match, with context provided for every Test. At the moment, there is an ICC Test rankings table but the inaugural Test championship will not be held until 2017, when Dravid will be 44 years old. The ICC had hoped to bring the championship forward to 2013 and use it to replace the Champions Trophy, but commitments to the broadcaster and sponsors meant that could not be done. Dravid said he was against the idea of scrapping ODIs altogether but believed that events like the World Cup and the Champions Trophy should be the focus, with other ODIs contributing to rankings for those events.
"Since about, I think 1985, people have been saying that there is too much meaningless one-day cricket," he said. "Maybe it's finally time to do something about it ... Anything makes more sense than seven-match ODI series." More context for matches might also help draw crowds back to the game. Dravid said he had been surprised to see the lack of spectators at an ODI series featuring India this year and he described the sight of empty stands as "alarming".
Dravid said that even if fans were watching on television, the experience was not the same. And that, he argued, could have consequences in the long term. "Whatever the reasons are - maybe it is too much cricket or too little by way of comfort for spectators. The fan has sent us a message and we must listen. This is not mere sentimentality. Empty stands do not make for good television. Bad television can lead to a fall in ratings, the fall in ratings will be felt by media planners and advertisers' looking elsewhere.
"If that happens, it is hard to see television rights around cricket being as sought after as they have always been in the last 15 years. And where does that leave everyone?"