Robust, ruthless, riveting
When he walked even though the umpire had ruled him not out in the semi-final against Sri Lanka in the 2003 World Cup, Adam Gilchrist took a quantum leap to become my favourite cricketer. He had always hovered around the top - along with Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh, Jacques Kallis, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Rahul Dravid - but this extraordinary gesture was the clincher. It revealed that cricket was not just a sport but rather a way of life for him. I am an emotional, conservative sort in such matters.
While the commercialisation of cricket has been good, there is a great deal to be said still for integrity. Alas, this quality is altogether too rare in the current game. Therefore, a player who thinks and behaves differently is one to cherish.
And, by god, Gilchrist is an Aussie too! By his own admission, his decision to walk did not go down well with his team-mates. Ricky Ponting, if I remember correctly, was candidly critical of Gilchrist after that match, and there were rumblings of dissent from others too. But Gilchrist has been unfazed, indeed even more convinced that he would do it again.
I know of scores of cricketers who would scoff at such an ethic. The craving for success blinds most of us to the need for honesty. Gains in the here and now are considered paramount, but Gilchrist's story holds out an example; and a moral. Shortly after the World Cup, I am informed, he signed a record A$2 million deal with sports-goods manufacturer Puma. Yeah, good guys win too.
But enough philosophising. Gilchrist does not need a moral certificate to establish his credentials. What makes him an all-time great is the plain and simple way he plays his cricket. The logic of his batsmanship is uncomplicated, unfussy: the ball is meant to be hit, the bat is a wonderful instrument with which to do so. Very, very few players in the history of the game have done this as easily or exhilaratingly. At the last World Cup I asked Wasim Akram which batsman he found the most difficult to bowl to. He named Tendulkar, Lara and Waugh, for obvious reasons, but rounded off his assessment with fulsome praise for Gilchrist. "He can hit the first ball he faces, or the best ball you bowl, for a four," said the great Pakistani.
That's two fantastic virtues about batsmanship in one short sentence. Perhaps no more are necessary to describe Gilchrist's cricketing prowess. Akram, of course, had had the earliest experience of Gilchrist's ability. Pakistan were touring Australia when Gilchrist made his debut in 1999, scoring a rousing 81 in the first Test and a spectacular, match-winning, unbeaten 149 in the second after Pakistan had all but sewn up the match. Within a couple of weeks of playing international cricket, Gilchrist had quelled the uproar over Ian Healy's ouster from the Australian side and given ample notice of his own genius.
I watched that innings on television and wondered if it was a fluke, such was the derring-do and fluency. It seemed improbable that a batsman so young in international cricket could bat with such abandon, even if he had his wicketkeeping skills as a buffer against failure. But a little over a year later Gilchrist made another swashbuckling hundred, this time in Mumbai against India, which dispelled the doubts. Australia were in deep crisis when Gilchrist joined Matthew Hayden, and the two left-handers broke the shackles with a truly awesome display of power-hitting. What impressed me most about Gilchrist was his refusal to surrender even in a grave situation. He was cool, but only in demeanour. In his batting he was robust, ruthless, riveting. There is no better way to play the game. Gilchrist struggled on the slow turners in the subsequent Tests of that series as the Indian spinners bowled flatter at him and he forgot to use his feet. But the Mumbai hundred had established him as a man with pluck, passion, and the mental strength to tide over any crisis.
|It is simplistic to say that Gilchrist is an exciting batsman. There are a few such around in contemporary cricket. But I doubt anyone bats with the same abandon or the same sense of certainty in strokeplay|
A year later he played one of the more remarkable innings in cricket history - a hell-for-leather 204 to set up a win against South Africa. As he reveals in his book, Gilchrist was then going through deep emotional turmoil with the licentious press insinuating that his child was in fact his team-mate's. To turn a crisis into a personal challenge and then into personal triumph appears to have become the hallmark of Gilchrist's career. As mentioned earlier, he was a contentious replacement for Healy; now, apart from sundry blazing innings in Tests, he has also become arguably the best batsman in one-day cricket. When Steve Waugh, while eating ice-cream, made up his mind to open with Gilchrist, he was taking a huge gamble, which must now rate as a historic decision, for Australia have won two successive World Cups since.
It is simplistic to say that Gilchrist is an exciting batsman. There are a few such around in contemporary cricket. But I doubt anyone bats with the same abandon or the same sense of certainty in strokeplay. He is lean and sinewy, with strong forearms that swing freely in his high back-lift and follow-through. Quick of eye and reflexes, he can adjust in a nanosecond to play off the front or back foot. He is orthodox in the sense that he drives through the line, but he is otherwise a tremendous improviser. I also rate him the best cutter and puller in contemporary cricket.
I have not dwelt too much on his wicketkeeping because that is a given, otherwise he would never have made it to this level. Only Clyde Walcott, the big-built West Indian, exceeds Gilchrist's batting average, but Walcott faded out as a wicketkeeper quickly and concentrated only on his batting. Gilchrist keeps wicket with greater athleticism (though he may lack Healy's finesse at times) than any other keeper, and bats with the aplomb of a master. His strike-rate of 82 in Tests, 94 in one-dayers makes him perhaps the most dreaded in the world.
Find me a More Valuable Player.
Ayaz Memon has written on cricket for over 20 years, during which time he has covered a number of tours and six World Cups. This article was first published in 2004, in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine