Gilchrist genius takes centre stage
What can you say of a man that makes 149 in a World Cup final? That he illuminated a game that ended in darkness? That he's a once-in-a-lifetime player? That he made a difficult art appear ludicrously simple? That we shall never see his like again? Words alone could never do justice to the incandescence of Adam Gilchrist's strokeplay, or capture the spirit of a man who batted almost ethereally on a pitch where other gifted players had to work hard for runs.
Even if he'd gone for a first-ball duck, Gilchrist would still be one of the first names on the team-sheet when someone sits down to pick an all-time XI. There have been great batsmen, and great wicketkeepers, but few have coalesced the two skills together quite like the man who moved across the Nullarbor Plain to Western Australia because he wasn't getting a game for his native New South Wales.
At 35, Gilchrist's halcyon years are behind him. The figures suggest as much, with just 656 runs at 27.33 in 25 one-day games before today and 815 runs at 30.18 in his last 20 Tests. But with the instinct of an ageing prizefighter up in lights at Madison Square Garden for the last time, he summoned all his skill and experience to deliver the knockout blows in this World Cup final.
His ten previous outings in the Caribbean had fetched him just 304 runs, a figure swelled by half-centuries against the Netherlands and Bangladesh. Comparisons can perhaps be made to Sir Vivian Richards who had tallied only 79 runs in three innings at the 1979 edition before igniting like a Catherine-Wheel for 138 in the final.
But where the Richards innings was a more measured affair, with Collis King supplying the pyrotechnics, Gilchrist blazed away from the moment that he picked up a Chaminda Vaas delivery and lofted it over the man at square leg. There was one chance, a tough return catch to Dilhara Fernando when he had 31, but apart from that and the odd miscue that fell safely, it was a resplendent innings, one that made Matthew Hayden, the tournament's top run-scorer with 659 runs, seem like a jittery amateur.
"It was a brilliant innings," Mahela Jayawardene said afterwards. "Unfortunately, I was the opposition captain looking at it. He did the same to us in a VB Series final at Brisbane last year. Our guys stuck at it, but it was just brilliant hitting."
The century that Jayawardene referred to, on Valentine's Day in 2006, was Gilchrist's 14th for Australia. Since then, he had gone 33 matches without reaching three figures, and he acknowledged afterwards that he owed his team a special performance. "It's been a frustrating sort of tournament for me," he said. "I was part of some partnerships without really nailing down a big score.
"The standards that this group sets are so high and if you feel you're not meeting them, you tend to put pressure on yourself and even doubt yourself. I got the belief to rise above that from my team-mates and the coaching staff. It's amazing how much that can lift you."
On the field, the reprieve from Fernando was all the encouragement that he needed. Later in the same over, he swung one down to the square-leg fence, following up with a thunderbolt that nearly took Hayden with it to the boundary. But Fernando's punishment wasn't complete, and a free-flowing swing sent the next ball over mid-on and perilously close to a fire engine.
A monstrous hit into the 3Ws stand behind the sightscreen at the Joel Garner End was the harbinger of bad times for Sri Lanka, and though Fernando nearly cleaned him up with a clever slower ball, any bubbles of hope were quickly dispersed with some stunning shots. A flat six over mid-off kept the fielder on the boundary interested for the longest time, but there was no hint of good fortune in the encore, a gorgeous drive straight past the bowler. When he subsequently edged Fernando for four in his next over, the rueful smile from the bowler revealed what many inside the stadium already felt. The game was up.
"As far as I'm concerned, he hasn't played a better one," Ricky Ponting said. "He hardly missed the middle of the bat all day. Matty Hayden, who's probably been batsman of the tournament, was looking shaky and scratchy and pretty ordinary at the other end. The one difference between the teams today was Gilly's innings. To be able to go out and play like that in a final says a lot about the bloke."
It says something about the man too that he batted with a squash ball inside his left glove, advice from Bob Meuleman in Perth that he acknowledged with a special gesture immediately after completing a 72-ball century. And if such a bountiful cake needed any icing, it came in the shape of the tumbling catch that ensured Glenn McGrath, the greatest bowler of our age and a good mate, wouldn't go quietly into the Barbados night.
Long before the farce-tinged end, the Australian fans were celebrating by singing along to Land Down Under, the Men at Work classic. While Gilchrist was out there though, they weren't watching a man at work. They watched genius.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo