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Craftsman and Cavalier

January 26, 2008.

Adam Gilchrist has given more outright joy to followers of the game than any cricketer since Sir Garfield Sobers. He will be missed as a cricketing force, as a contributor and as an entertainer.

Throughout his career he has played with a gusto that has set him apart from the common run with their facts and figures. The sight of him lifting a boundary catch when quick runs were needed – and departing with something akin to a hop and skip – reminded spectators that cricket is just a game and ought not to be meanly played.

Except on the dark days that occasionally encompass even the brightest lives, he retained this attitude, impressing crowds with merriment even as he slayed bowlers with swashbuckling strokes.

Yet to characterise Gilchrist as a cavalier is to underestimate his craftsmanship and his contribution. Guarding the stumps was his primary duty, a role he carried out with an athleticism and skill that spoke of substantial skill and unfailing stamina. It was no easy task to replace as superb a gloveman as Ian Healy, into whose hands the ball nestled like a bird in a nest. Gilchrist met the challenge with aplomb, not so much ignoring the hisses that greeted him as turning them into cheers by sheer weight of performance and freshness of character.

Standing back to fast bowlers, he was superb. Even now, in this sudden, dismaying and inevitable hour, it is possible to remember him flying through the air to take glides down the leg side, glove outstretched, landing with a thump and emerging with the ball with the sort of pleasure detected in a child who has found a plum. At these times he transformed innocent glances into remarkable snares.

Adam Gilchrist

Adam Gilchrist, ex-Australian opening batsman and wicketkeeper.
Photo: Luton Anderson (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Doubtless it helped that he is a left-hander but then his work in the other direction was not much worse. He was a capable, as opposed to gifted wicketkeeper.

Standing over the stumps to spinners, Gilchrist was reliable. Over the years Shane Warne had less reason than he imagined to regret Healy’s departure. Until the last few rugged months, Gilchrist did not miss much. Often he’d wear a helmet to counter the Victorian’s prodigious spin, and his work behind the pads was admirable. He holds the world record for Test victims. He must have done something right.

But it is in his secondary responsibility as a batsman that Gilchrist will be remembered longest and cherished most. Simply, he changed the role of the wicketkeeper, changed the way batting orders were constructed. Previously keepers had been little, cheeky fellows built along the lines of jockeys who advanced their tallies with with idiosyncratic strokes sent into improbable places. By and large they did not alter the course of an innings. Gilchrist was having none of that. Instead he became two cricketers, a dashing and dangerous batsman and a polished gloveman. Throughout his career Australia has been playing with 12 men.

Others may reflect upon his thrilling innings at the top of the order in fifty-over cricket, not least the dazzling hundred in the last World Cup final. But then, he attacked because he must. In Test cricket he attacked because he could. He refused to be bogged down by bowling or inhibited by pressure, and did not allow a frown to cross his brow except when an injustice has been observed or an uncharitable remark had upset him, and then he spoke his mind with the same directness that marked his batting.

Gilchrist was a magnificent willow-wielder. Released from worry by his work behind the sticks, he was able to express his temperament at the crease. Fortunately he had the range of strokes needed to meet the occasion: the swing of a swordsman, an ability to assess the length of the ball in an instant, plenty of power, and a wide range of strokes off both feet. Always he looked for opportunities to score, giving ground to defence only when every alternative had been removed. It took fierce reverse-swing or probing spin offered early in the innings to unsettle him. Otherwise he was not easily troubled let alone dismissed.

Yet it is not the keeping or batting that defined him. Throughout his career Gilchrist played in his own time and by his own lights. Although it could cause misunderstandings, his decision to start walking was not a gimmick calculated to improve his popularity. Rather, it was a conclusion reached almost by accident, whose merit he swiftly recognised. Likewise his reluctance to appeal for anything and everything upset the bowlers. Accordingly he was obliged to tread the fine line between serving the interests of the team and applying his personal code. Occasionally he was chastised for swaying too far in one or other direction but these were trifling matters that will not mar his reputation. No-one is perfect.

Above all, Gilchrist was a sportsman. Nothing held against him would have raised a murmur from someone else. Cricket will miss his smile and sense of fun and also his panache with the bat. Australians will miss the sight of him walking through the gate when the team was in trouble or else when quick runs were required. Everyone will remember the dynamic hundred struck in Perth against England.

Every significant passing produces a hundred memories. Gilchrist’s also brings forth a hundred smiles. He has been a mighty cricketer who did his best to serve the side, entertain spectators and improve the way the game was played. The amazing thing is not that he occasionally faltered. The amazing thing is that he so often succeeded.

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