Adam Gilchrist had never been so nervous at the start of a Test as he was at Edgbaston last summer. This was his Ashes debut and he had always been keen to excel in England, where he had played as a young man and enjoyed himself. The nerves showed; he dropped two straightforward catches in the first session.
Gilchrist has an equable nature, but he felt he had let himself down and reparation was required. Two days later he came in to bat when Australia were 336 for five. It was a crucial moment. If England could get rid of the tail quickly, they might make a game of it. The left-handed Gilchrist transformed that hope into fantasy. He put on 160 with his Western Australian mate Damien Martyn; his own hundred came up with an unorthodox flick over the keeper's head off glove and bat.
When he was last out, having hit five sixes and 20 fours in his highest Test score of 152, Australia were 576. He had humiliated the opposition, and set a pattern that was to repeat itself through the series, except at Headingley where Gilchrist, as stand-in captain, allowed the game to slip away from Australia. That was the only dark shadow over a memorable summer. England's fans, and no doubt their cricketers, felt contradictory sensations of fear and expectation each time he strode to the crease, but he soon became the Australian the crowd most enjoyed watching.
Adam Craig Gilchrist was born on November 14, 1971 in the small New South Wales town of Bellingen. His father taught in another small town, Deniliquin, before moving into schools administration at Lismore, a town, in the north of the state, that was not much larger. To the outsider, such places may not have had much to offer, but, for an aspiring cricketer, Gilchrist had a privileged upbringing.
His father Stan had been a good enough leggie, when a student in Sydney, to play for New South Wales seconds and he nurtured his son's ambitions. So did his mother, who bought him a pair of wicketkeeper's gloves for Christmas before he was ten. The first time he kept with them he broke his nose, but he made the best of it. When told that Rod Marsh had also broken his nose as a boy, Gilchrist declared this proved that it was his destiny to keep wicket for Australia. (Marsh later informed him that there was no truth in the story.)
As a batsman, he was taught by his father to watch the ball, give himself time, and play naturally. "I suppose that's the way I have always thought about it. Just try to hit the ball. That's what the game's about," he says. He decided he would be a professional cricketer at the age of 17 when he had to choose between university entrance exams and a cricket scholarship to England. He chose England, and played a summer for Richmond in the Middlesex League.
His higher education was in the Australian Under-19 team that swaggered through England in 1991, with Martyn as captain and 2001 team manager Steve Bernard as coach, and at the Academy in Adelaide, where he adopted his high-on-the-handle grip. He was promising, though not a prodigy like Martyn. Moreover, he was conscious he was not a natural keeper, and when he made his debut for New South Wales, aged 21, it was as a batsman, not an allrounder. When he failed to score many runs, Gilchrist wondered whether he should give up keeping; he decided, sensibly as it turned out, that by not keeping he would only increase the pressure on his batting.
It was clear, however, that he would have to leave his home state if he was to get on. In the mid-1990s, Australian professional cricketers could make a decent living only if they played Test cricket, and the first requirement was a secure place in a state side. In 1994-95, he found one in Perth, with his mates Martyn and Justin Langer. He succeeded a popular Test keeper in Tim Zoehrer, but he soon established a reputation as a cheerful colleague and a relentless competitor. He had to learn patience, too. Although he deputised for the injured Ian Healy in Australia's one-day side in 1996-97, and emerged a year later as a dashing opening bat, Healy still wore the gloves in the Tests.
Gilchrist's inexperience let him down in the 1999 World Cup in England, where his free style was undone by seam and swing until the final, when he scored 54. But this didn't prevent the selectors from dumping Healy in November 1999. Batting at No. 7, Gilchrist scored 149 not out in only his second Test, putting on 238 with Langer to provide an improbable win against Pakistan. He became a fixture straightaway; within nine months he was Steve Waugh's vice-captain.
The significance of Gilchrist's batting is that, after the specialist batsmen have established a platform, he is capable of putting Australia's score out of reach of the opposition. He is a breaker of wills. Of course, he knows failure, having scored two runs in four consecutive innings against India in March 2001 after starting the series with a century. But at the end of the Ashes summer his average was 51.30 from 22 Tests; against England, he had just averaged 68.00. He had also taken 94 catches and made seven stumpings - more dismissals per game than Healy, the record-holder.
However, the Ashes series also revealed a flaw. To combine batting, keeping and the captaincy has stretched the talent of cricketers like Alec Stewart too far. The evidence of the Headingley Test, when Gilchrist's slack tactics on the field allowed England an easy victory, suggested that captaincy may be a step too far for him as well. He need not worry. Name a wicketkeeper who has played as many match-winning Test innings. Adam Gilchrist has already come a very long way.