May 3, 2013

What Richards and Gilchrist did for modern batting

Their styles were completely different but the result was always the same: quick runs and defeated bowlers

Viv Richards: delighted both purists and hedonists © Getty Images

One was raised in the country town of Bellingen in New South Wales, the other on the tropical island of Antigua. One was the son of a schoolteacher, the other of a prison guard. One's accent is a nasal, all-Aussie strine; the other has a lilting Caribbean patois, like rum punch in a hammock. Culturally they were different yet they shared a love of one thing: hitting a cricket ball so hard it nearly caught fire. They were left and right, black and white, yin and yang. They are cricket's greatest master blasters.

I speak, of course, of Adam Gilchrist and Viv Richards, who thrilled two generations of cricket fans. Richards retired in 1991, aged 39, after 17 years of Test cricket. Gilchrist, who like so many kids of his generation venerated the great West Indian, made his first-class debut for NSW in 1992. Both men changed the "accepted" way batsmen bat.

Richards walked out with a strut that said: "I'm comin'". He'd swing the bat like a sword, loosening his powerful shoulders, knowing eyes were on him. It was theatre, machismo and menace. He'd take guard and wander down the pitch, patting it down, chewing his gum and eyeballing the bowler.

Gilchrist walked out with purpose, twirling the bat in his hands and taking guard with his Aussie twang: "Two centres, thanks, mate." He'd look around the field, adjust his box, bang his bat on the crease and face up, grimacing with determination. It was less obvious, but Gilchrist too relished the confrontation.

Where Richards was right-handed and imperious, delighting both purists and hedonists, Gilchrist was a left-handed thrashing machine, his high grip gaining tremendous leverage, his forearms and wrists throwing the bat like a mechanical whip. Gilchrist swung at the ball like a dervish. Richards caressed it. The result was the same.

Richards' balance and footwork were pure, beautiful things; he'd keep his head still and rely on his wonderful eye and timing as the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Mike Procter roared in, looking to dislodge the felt West Indies cap he never replaced with a helmet. Summing up length in a nano-second, he'd languidly hook or pull, on-drive or cut. And as the ball raced to the fence he'd cruise up the wicket, looking at the bowler again, smiling slightly, eyes hooded, the coolest guy in the neighbourhood. The tough guy. The man.

Gilchrist, conversely, was a nerd. With his sticky-out ears and skinny-lean frame, he was Shane Warne's embodiment of the "Richie Cunningham type", the kid you took home from school, who your mum said was a lovely boy. He married his childhood sweetheart and captained his country, celebrating with the best of them but never "crossing the line"; the teacher's pet, the anti-Warne.

Both men are in most judges' Best Ever World XI - Richards at No. 4, Gilchrist as keeper-batsman. Richards was sorely missed by West Indies, his retirement the beginning of their decline. Gilchrist's departure wasn't as cataclysmic for Australian cricket. But it hasn't been great. For so long Australia knew that even if they were 150 for 5 they were still a chance of making 400 when Gilchrist came out.

In the second Test against Pakistan in Hobart in 1999-2000 - Gilchrist's second Test - he and Justin Langer chased down 369 after the side were 126 for 5. He finished 149 not out. In 2002 in South Africa, he smashed the then fastest double-century of all time, in 212 balls. No one had ever thought it possible for a No. 7 to do this.

The West Indians, meanwhile, just knew Viv always had a good chance of scoring runs, and of scoring them quickly and brutally, so scarring some bowlers that they'd be beaten before he walked out. Viv Richards could beat some bowlers just by being Viv Richards.

Gilchrist: a left-handed mechanical whip © Getty Images

Richards' signature shot was a nonchalant and exquisitely timed front-foot swipe across the line that sent good-length straight balls over midwicket. Former Australian paceman Rodney Hogg told me once, "Viv was the best batsman I bowled to by a mile. When I was young I was taught if you bowl at off stump, short of a length, put a bit on it, then you were a pretty good show; that most batsmen would defend or get out. Well, Viv would smash you over midwicket. So you'd be walking back to your mark, thinking, 'I've just bowled my best ball and he's hit it for six. Where am I going to bowl the next one?' And the answer was: 'f***** if I know.'"

Richards remains the owner of cricket's fastest Test century, taking 56 balls to plunder three figures against England in 1986. Gilchrist owns cricket's second-fastest Test century, taking 57 balls to reach the mark against England at the WACA in 2006.

Gilchrist hit 100 sixes in Test cricket, still the record ahead of Kallis (97), Sehwag (91), Gayle (89), Lara (88) and Cairns (87). Richards is next with 84.

So, safe to say they could bat - and throw the bat - more than a bit. And today when you turn on your computer and head to ESPNcricinfo and find a photo of AB de Villiers in golden pads and a golden hat, reverse-sweeping for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in a T20 win over Pune Warriors, you think: times have changed.

It was Richards and Gilchrist who changed them.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here