March 06, 2008

Adam Gilchrist - Jewel in the Australian crown

By H Natarajan

Adam Gilchrist rode into sunset on Tuesday leaving behind him a rich treasure-trove of memories that even amnesia-hit folks will find it hard to forget! His multi-skilled excellence was so uniquely brilliant that he would have been the overwhelming choice as batsman-keeper in any all-time best World XI – Test or ODIs.

Why did the great man leave when he still looked good to carry on? He was the highest scorer for Australia in the tri-series with 322 runs – including a fantastic 118 against Sri Lanka on his farewell appearance on his home turf at Perth. And his runs came at the same devastating pace he scored right through his career. But Gilchrist found that the emotional fuel tank was near-empty as the wear and tear of hectic traveling was affecting his mind and body. And that was symptomatic of the times, despite making his appearance late on the international stage.

Gilly has been pushing himself for a while now. He had, in fact, wanted to quite alongside Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath after the Ashes series last year, which would been akin to the blows Australia received when Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh quit at one go.

John Buchanan reckons that Australia will be impacted more by the exit of Gilchrist than that of Warne and McGrath. While Warne and McGrath were bowlers, Gilchrist brought high value both behind and in front of the wickets. Confirmation of that high worth came in a poll conducted by Cricinfo last year that saw over 10,000 people vote Gilchrist as the ninth greatest all-rounder in the last hundred years.

At No 7 in the Test line-up, Gilchrist was to Australia what Fort Knox is to the United States of America. His reassuring presence low down in the order was a mental challenge for the opposition who could not breathe easy even after getting five top of the order batsmen cheaply. A case in point was the 1999 Hobart Test against Pakistan. Arriving at the wicket at 126 for five, Gilchrist, in tandem with Justin Langer, made the seemingly impossible possible by taking on the might of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Azhar Mahmood and Saqlain Mushtaq in a partnership that was worth 238 runs. Australia reached the target of 369 in imperious style with Gilchrist contributing an unbeaten 149 off 163 balls.

Gilchrist’s innovative brand of batting changed the face of modern cricket. He was, in particular, a huge inspiration for ‘keepers like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Mark Boucher, Kumar Sangakkara who saw the willow as a lethal weapon of destruction. Today’s, it’s unthinkable of teams picking a keeper purely on his ability to keep wickets. If it’s almost a requisite of the contemporary game that the ‘keeper is an all-rounder, then much of the credit goes to Gilly for redefining the game.

He will also be remembered for playing the game in the true spirit, choosing to walk when he knew he was out than wait for the umpire’s decision. He approach seemed an anachronism in a modern game pock-marked with theatrics and hypocrisy and where players use every trick and tactics, both inside and outside the book, to mislead the umpire.

The Aussies, historically, are known for the rabid stance against walking. The great Barry Richards once said that the only time an Aussie will walk is when he runs out of gas! Gilchrist was one of a kind – a throwback to the pristine past. He chose to be a gentleman among hardened men who believed in winning at all costs and showed that one can be a tough pro without having to be a poor role model. The man, nicknamed “Church”, could well be anointed as “St. Adam”!

Gilly was a fantastic ambassador and I dare say that Australia would have projected a much positive image had he been leading the side. The leader sets the tone and there is no denying that the cricketing world views Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting as Polar opposites.

It really came as no surprise when he was voted as the "World's Scariest Batsman" in a poll of international bowlers. Nobody knows that better than bowlers around the world who have felt the remorseless and relentless savagery of this dexterous Western Australian destroyer. His strike-rate is amongst the highest in both forms of the game - 96.94 in ODI and 81.95 in Tests.

Gilchrist scored the second fastest Test hundred – in 57 balls, a ball slower than Viv Richards’s record – two years back at Perth against England. He also held the record for the fastest double hundred in Tests – off 212 balls, against SA at Jo’burg – for a month before Nathan Astle came up with an extraordinary fourth innings double hundred in the 2002 Christchurch Test. Its knocks like these that saw him emerge as the fastest Test run-scorer of all time in a scientific research conducted by Wisden.

As a ‘keeper, Gilchrist may not be in the same class of Ian Healy. But he was top class – no questions. And if there was one moment to highlight his class and confidence it was his stumping to dismiss Craig McMillan off paceman Glenn McGrath to a delivery bowled at 136 kmph in an ODI at Wellington in 2005.

The “c Gilchrist b McGrath” line in the scorecards was as monotonous as the “c Marsh b Lillee” line in the past. The Gilchrist-McGrath effected 90 dismissals, five behind the “Marsh-Lillee” combine.

Marsh himself is a huge admirer of Gilchrist which is best reflected in his lavish praise sometime back when he said: "I never saw Bradman bat, but it's hard to imagine he could have been any more destructive than Gilchrist. The thing about Gilchrist is he can change the course of a match in an hour. And he doesn't just do it once or twice, he does it regularly. Effectively he gives Australia an extra player - and what a player."

What a player, indeed! A total of 96 Tests without a break which saw a world record 414 dismissals, 17 centuries and 5,570 Test runs at an average of 47.60 - it hovered over 60-plus halfway through his career. His ability and frequency to strike the ball long earned him the distinction of the first man in Test history to hit 100 sixes. He also plundered 16 ODI hundreds from 287 ODIs. Gilchrist was a big stage player. He is the only player to chalk up 50-plus scores in three successive World Cup finals – all three being match-winning efforts. His 149 in the 2007 edition is the highest in any World Cup final. It was in that year that 39% of the 168 players who represented Australia in ODIs voted him as the greatest player to ever represent their country in the abridged version of the game.

Gilchrist was truly a jewel in the Australian crown.