Goodbye Gilly

Published : Feb 02, 2008 00:00 IST

Adam Gilchrist took the game into fresh territory, not as a wicketkeeper, but as a batsman. He, more than anyone, transformed how modern cricketers approach batting in Test match cricket, writes Vic Marks.

He has walked again. Adam Gilchrist, arguably the greatest wicketkeeper-batsman of all time, has removed the problem from the decision-makers once more. At the close of play in Adelaide on January 26, he announced that he would be retiring from international cricket at the end of this Australian season. A whole host of bowlers breathe a sigh of relief.

At Heathrow, just before heading off for New Zealand, England’s one-day captain, Paul Collingwood reacted in the same way as most of Gilchrist’s contemporaries outside of Australia. “Thank God for that,” he said with a smile. “He has not only been an outstanding player; he’s a great bloke as well. He’ll be hard to replace on the field — and in the dressing room. He played with absolute freedom and no fear of failure, setting a benchmark that is incredibly difficult for the others.”

By going now, Gilchrist has adhered to the time-honoured theory about retirement, which so many sportsmen muck up. The idea is to get everyone asking “Why now?” rather than “Why not before now?” and he has just about managed that.

The next major challenge for Australia — without, I hope, sounding too anglocentric — is the 2009 Ashes series and, if Gilchrist was not determined to be around for that, it was time to go. There had been a discernible decline in Gilchrist’s form behind the stumps and with the bat, but he has always started from such a high base that his position was scarcely in jeopardy. There is now time for his obvious replacement, Brad Haddin, who has played 26 ODIs, to bed himself in as Australia’s Test ’keeper before the next Ashes series.

Gilchrist took the game into fresh territory, not as a ’keeper, but as a batsman. He, more than anyone, transformed how modern cricketers approach batting in Test-match cricket. New rules applied with Gilchrist at the crease. A five-day match was no longer synonymous with the eradication of risk or the grinding down of the opposition. If he thought he could hit every ball of an over to the boundary, he would try to do so. His assault on Monty Panesar’s bowling in Perth on the last Ashes tour springs to mind; it did not matter how many men Andrew Flintoff put on the boundary, Gilchrist decided to clear them.

There have been swashbucklers before Gilchrist, but none so calculating or consistent. His strike rate in Test cricket was a remarkable 81, his average 47. The great West Indies side of the 1970s and 1980s often scored rapidly but that just happened naturally. With the advent of Gilchrist to the Test arena in 1999, at the ripe old age of 28, this acceleration in the rate of scoring started to become a deliberate strategy, pioneered by Australia.

Coaches and captains came to realise that a free spirit down the order, given absolute licence to go for the bowlers, could change the course of a match in less than an hour of brutal batting. They now plan to have someone of that ilk in their ideal team. The wicketkeeper is often the best man for this role since he has the ‘security’ of another job. So we have seen Gilchrist ‘clones’ emerge, M. S. Dhoni for India, Brendon McCullum for New Zealand. In England’s wildest dreams Phil Mustard will develop along similar lines.

Gilchrist terrified captains and bowlers. Gripping an unusually light bat nearer to the top of the handle than any of his peers, he could create amazing bat speed. Allied to a brilliant eye, and that willingness to go for it, meant he could despatch the best the bowler could offer to the boundary. And when the good ones start to disappear into the stands the bowler knows he is in trouble.

By Australian standards he was also a gentlemanly wicketkeeper, not given to an excess of verbal abuse from behind the stumps. And he created quite a stir by ‘walking’ on several occasions late in his career, something Barry Richards once observed was done by Aussies only “when they had run out of petrol”. He will be lauded around the states of Australia as he makes his farewell in the one-day series with India and Sri Lanka, and deservedly so.

His replacement follows the recent Australian pattern. Haddin will be 30 when he makes his Test debut, the age when Australian cricketers of the 1960s and 1970s were contemplating retirement. Like Mike Hussey and Stuart Clark — and Gilchrist himself — he will be a veteran Test debutant. They prefer them ready-made in Australia nowadays.

Even so, Gilchrist’s departure is an encouragement to the rest of the world. With him — and McGrath and Warne — on the sidelines, Australia are a lesser side. As India have demonstrated, they can be beaten more easily now. Haddin will be one hell of a cricketer if his presence behind the stumps improves the team.

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