A legend and an entertainer

AP

It will not be easy for Australia to find a replacement for Gilchrist. The wicketkeeper-batsman is a once-in-a-lifetime player, writes S. Dinakar.

The walker has sprinted his way to greatness and beyond, redefining the role of a wicket-keeper-batsman. Adam Gilchrist is a legend and an entertainer.

Taking a stroll down City Centre in Adelaide on a quiet Sunday, Kumar Sangakkara called Gilchrist “a pioneer”. The feisty Sri Lankan wicket-keeper-batsman is known to speak his heart.

While M. S. Dhoni was growing up in Jharkhand, Gilchrist was India ODI captain’s idol. The man can cut through barriers.

Indeed, Gilchrist raised the bar, set new standards. People who change the face of their job in one way or the other have to be immortals.

In his home city Perth, they call Gilchrist “a good bloke” first. Then, they talk about his cricketing achievements. He is aggressive on the field, but respects the values of life.

This has been a special summer in Australia. As Gilchrist nears international retirement, every match involving Australia has been a celebration in itself. The other night, a WACA filled to the brim was on fire. In his last international match on his home ground, Gilchrist had willed himself to a valuable hundred. The scenes of joy that followed were as memorable as the century itself.

The whole of Australia now ponders life after Gilly. Emotionally, it will be tough to fill the void.

On the field of play, Australia will be stretched to find a bigger match-winner, for 16 of Gilchrist’s 17 Test hundreds fetched the baggy greens victory. On the 16 occasions that he blazed to an ODI hundred, Australia won.

Gilchrist is special with the gloves as well. Someone as accomplished as India’s wicket-keeping great Syed Kirmani rates the Australian very high. “He moves well, on his toes, and drops little.”

Gilchrist has a world record 416 dismissals in Tests. And 37 of his victims were stumped. As they say in these parts, “Gilly can strike like lightning.”

If Gilchrist’s attacking batting stems from stunning hand-eye coordination and bat speed, his ’keeping is a lot about anticipation and footwork.

Looking at cricket’s history, England’s Lesley Ames comes closest to challenging Gilchrist as the greatest wicketkeeper-batsman of all time. Ames was a fine ’keeper and an accomplished batsman down the order. His 2434 runs in 47 Tests came at 40.56, and he took 74 catches and effected 23 stumpings.

There may have been better ’keepers than Gilchrist — Allan Knott, Bob Taylor, Rodney Marsh and Syed Kirmani have their place among the wicket-keeping legends — but as a package Gilchrist is supreme. He is sharp and swift; whether holding catches off Brett Lee’s thunderbolts or reading Glenn McGrath’s subtle variations or teaming up with Shane Warne and his tantalising leg-spin. He is tall, is not copybook in his takes, but stays balanced and focussed.

He does have long, fast hands — the manner in which Gilchrist stood up to the pacemen in the 2007 World Cup was remarkable.

Says former England captain Tony Greig, “He did great things with the bat, with the gloves. For me, I do not think there is anyone else like him.”

The Aussie did not wilt under the immense workload of batting and ’keeping. Beneath his smiling exterior, Gilchrist is physically and mentally tough.

Gilchrist, for all practical purposes, was a specialist batsman. He saved a place in the side, gave the team greater flexibility. The concept caught on with all the sides and we now have ‘batsman-wicketkeepers’ aplenty.

In contemporary cricket, Sangakkara comes closest to inheriting the Gilchrist legacy. The Sri Lankan can build monuments with the bat and is a much improved wicket-keeper. Such is his value to the Sri Lankan batting at No. 3 in Tests that the team-management does not want to burden him with additional responsibility of ’keeping.

Adam Gilchrist is very sharp and swift behind the stumps.-AP

Sangakkara still keeps wickets in the ODIs where he grapples with the wizardry of Muttiah Muralitharan and does a good job of it. With the bat, he is technically sound and has flair. But then, he is not as destructive as Gilchrist is.

South Africa’s Mark Boucher is a fine ’keeper and a combative lower-order batsman. With the willow, he lacks the influence of Gilchrist. The Aussie can swing matches even before the opposition gets to realise what hit them — at No. 7 in Tests and opening the innings in the ODIs.

In Australia’s astonishing string of Test victories under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, he has been a pivotal figure. The bowlers would have worked their way through a strong Australian top and middle-order before running into Gilchrist on the rampage.

Tactically, Gilchrist was suited for the No. 7 slot. He could demolish a tiring attack or disrupt the rhythm of a rampant bunch of bowlers who had made major inroads. He is left-handed and dangerous.

Apart from having to shift their line against him, the bowlers also faced a batsman with a wide range of shots. Gilchrist can drive in the ‘V’ from a high grip on the bat handle. If the length is shorter, he employs the cut and the pull. He uses the sweep effectively against the spinners. Once their length is disrupted he charges down the track and unleashes the lofted strokes.

A blithe spirit and a natural, the pressures of the game have little impact on him. He plays his game the simple way that sends fielders on leather hunts and orchestrates huge momentum shifts.

Psychologically, the bowlers are forced to switch from a wicket-taking mode to a run-saving one. Changes are made in the field placements and it becomes a different ball game.

Wicket-keepers can be natural leaders and Gilchrist led Australia to a famous ‘Final Frontier’ Test series win against India in India in 2004. His tactical sense surprised many.

Gilly has been a part of three successive Australian World Cup triumphs. He was a winner but played the game in the best of spirits; he ‘walked’ during a crucial stage of the semifinal against Sri Lanka in 2003.

And in the 2007 World Cup, he displayed a great sense of occasion like champions do. In the final, Gilly turned his lacklustre form around by stopping the bat from turning in his hands. Gilchrist used a squash ball under his gloves and smashed a World Cup-winning 149.

There cannot really be a replacement for Gilchrist. He is a once-in-a-lifetime player.