Adam Gilchrist, cricketing knight


THERE is too much cricket, and thus too little memory of it. An abundance of flickering images, a profusion of encounters, a surplus of statistics, but so little recall. What did Sachin Tendulkar do 10 innings ago, the mind stretches to recollect. It is all quite insane.

Controversy stirs us, as do great innings, but often it is the smaller moments, a finely drawn vignette, that tells us more about men and this game and where we stand.

In Australia, this past month, from a distant continent, one man has asked for our attention and his name is Adam Gilchrist, a genial fellow who needs no parachute were he to fall from a plane for his ears will do the job.

His 204 from 212 balls in South Africa, a whirlwind come visiting a cricketing stadium, has everyone in Australia whispering reverentially.

Yet, when I ask about Gilchrist and Mark Boucher, and a brief, seemingly inconsequential, moment of cricketing splendour on a day of smiling sunlight, some struggle to remember. Yet for me it told more about one man's passion (and why else do men play sport?), his ability to bring to the game not just craft or courage but honour, than his double century ever could.

During a match this summer against South Africa, Gilchrist snicked a ball, and Boucher, doing, as Harsha Bhogle might say, an imitation of a frightened seagull, flew abruptly to his right to meet the ball just as his glove met the ground. Or so it seemed.

Most men these days appear improbably cemented to the crease even when catches are clean, as if they fear cunning from their fellow man, as if all sorts of conspiracies to deny them are afoot. During the Allan Border Medal, a month ago, Rodney Marsh suggested third umpires be scratched for catch decisions and that we forfeit technology and return to trust.

It is an old school philosophy, but it lives within Adam Gilchrist. He walked. He turned and left. Pavilion bound.

And then Boucher called him back, and seemed to say he was not sure whether the catch was taken cleanly. The commentators insisted it was, the third umpire did not. Nevertheless, in Gilchrist's mere readiness to exit, for a flicker of a moment we were reminded that grace and competitiveness, ethics and aggressiveness, decency and desire, are not virtues in conflicts, one man can own them all.

In a time of ruffian manners, pointless controversies, and a discrepancy in ability between Australia and the rest of the world that has crept beyond the breathtaking into the ominous, cricket aches for men such as Gilchrist.

There is a ferocity to him, but also a lightness, a man who most often (he is not without flaws, or above using language not found in a priest's vocabulary) gets the balance right between an immodest game and a modest manner. A smiling swashbuckler, a cape-less D'Artagnan who's exchanged sword for bat, a reasonable warrior.

Sport has too few of such men. Too much premium is attached to winning, as if that were the ultimate measure, and the resulting sins that come with it are routinely forgiven. But accomplishment need not have an ugly aura. So besotted are we with Tendulkar's talent, for instance, that rarely do we reflect on his consistently impeccable behaviour. His late father, who once told me, "I want my son to become a good human being," you sense, would be prouder of that than any runs scored.

As much as we interpret Gilchrist the player through his 204, as much we understand him as a man through his responses.

In Australia, overstatement over the innings was expected, evident and understandable. Greg Chappell, a reasonable fellow, not known to sit with exaggeration, told a Australian newspaper he wouldn't be surprised if Gilchrist is one of the few to average over 60 (in Tests). Others have written, and said, it is the greatest modern innings they have witnessed.

Nevertheless, Gilchrist, averaging 57.30, will have none of this. Post his 204, he self-effacingly declared, "I don't think you can focus too much on it (his average). I have been up this high before in the averages and seen 10 runs get wiped off in one series. Averages are things you look at when you are finished, but it is hard to gauge at the moment."

In a time when any measure of self-indulgence and posturing might have been swiftly forgiven, he chose to look beyond himself. As he said, "I think we are the beneficiaries of some great work by the top order which gives us the chance to play our natural games."

From some men we might take a cynical view of this and accuse them of falsity, of attempting to coat themselves with a veneer of respectability. With Gilchrist, the charm does not appear to arrive from some acting studio.

When he went after day one of that first Test to find Mark Boucher and have a beer with him, it merely seemed one wicketkeeper's natural extension of friendship to another. When he said, after he and Martyn flirted with breaking Don Bradman and Jack Fingelton's 346-run sixth wicket record, "they are pretty amazing names the two that hold that record, best you don't tamper with those sort of record books," it sounded appreciably genuine.

But there is also a terrific irony to Gilchrist, indeed a cruel one.

There is a fair chance that any captain across the world, allowed to pick a single Australian player, would choose McGrath or him (and he is only 29 Tests old). Understandably so.

Few men interrupt a ball in flight so athletically as he can, making him easily the world's finest wicketkeeper. Few hit the ball with a blend of cleanliness and muscle and poise as he does. And even fewer take hold of matches so nonchalantly, and without any sacrifice to method swing them in the opposite direction as he has (149 off 163 balls against Pakistan three years ago when Australia were 126-5, and 122 off 112 balls in Mumbai when Australia were 99-5, are two obvious examples).

Yet these very talents that foreign captains would hand him a passport for, are possibly one reason why he is not captain himself. It is as if he is suffering for his choice of skill (wicketkeepers don't make good captains, or so goes the cliche), for taking on such a hefty load; as if his abundance of gifts have been his undoing; as if his influence is so powerful that captaincy would upset his balance.

A vulnerable Gilchrist, Australia cannot afford. There's a compliment in there somewhere, but you think he might find it hard to digest.