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A tribute to Gilchrist
by Partab Ramchand
Mar 07, 2008
For a cricketer of his undoubted greatness he deserved a more fitting send off. But whereas in his last Test in January he made only 14 in his final ODI the other day he made only two. Moreover Australia lost the tri-series finals 2-0 and it must have been bitterly disappointing for a highly competitive cricketer like Adam Gilchrist who really valued the baggy green to end his long and illustrious career on such a negative note.

In an obituary reference to Leslie Ames who passed away in 1990 the 1991 edition of Wisden observes: ``Ames was without a doubt the greatest wicketkeeper batsman the game has so far produced.’’ The Kent and England stalwart played 47 Tests between 1929 and 1939 and had 97 dismissals besides scoring 2434 runs at an average of 40.56 with eight hundreds. About a decade and a half later it is clear that Gilchrist has taken over the exalted status and lofty mantle from Ames who of course still remains the only wicketkeeper to notch up 100 first class hundreds in a career that stretched from 1926 to 1951.

The prefix `greatest ever’ is one that can raise a lot of heated debates and arguments. The choice can be challenged vociferously but if there is one example that symbolizes the phrase accurately it is when Gilchrist is hailed as the greatest ever wicketkeeper batsman in the game’s history.

No one has combined the twin duties so efficiently – and in such flamboyant fashion – and there is little doubt that for about a decade Gilchrist remained one of the world's most exciting cricketers. One could really never take the eyes off him whether he was in front of the stumps or behind it. Even in an all-conquering Australian squad Gilchrist stood out. Naturally his swashbuckling batting attracted more attention but in truth his work behind the stumps was no less thrilling. He was a bundle of energy as he jumped, leapt and dived to gather a wayward delivery or make a difficult catch look easy. One lost count of the number of acrobatic catches or quicksilver stumpings he made during his long ODI career that started with the Titan Cup in India in 1996-97 or in his 96-match Test career that commenced some three years later when he replaced the iconic Ian Healy. Gilchrist was a veritable jack-in-a-box, a symbol of both excitement and entertainment.

By his agile work and effusive disposition he frequently lifted the spirits of the fielding side on the odd occasion when things did not go well for it.

Playing in whites or coloured clothing, whether going in first in ODIs or at No seven in Tests Gilchrist exerted a major impact in both forms of the game. He redefined the role of wicketkeeper batsman if the deeds of those who followed him like Mark Boucher, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are any indication. Indeed it would not be wrong to say that Gilchrist revolutionized the double role and gave the word all-rounder a new meaning.

Gilchrist’s cricketing acumen saw him occupy a position among Australia's core group of strategists and he went on to captain his country in both Tests and ODIs. But his overall image remains that of a batsman who brought in the crowds and who struck terror in the hearts of the bowlers. Possibly no other batsman since Vivian Richards had a more intimidating effect on bowlers. Many new ball bowlers probably had nervous breakdowns during their unsuccessful efforts to curb the natural attacking instincts of Gilchrist. Predictably enough he was at his most destructive during the opening overs with the field restrictions still in place. But then it requires a player of special qualities to clear the in-field time and again. Moreover he was not the kind of batsman who played short, explosive knocks. The fact that he hit 16 centuries in ODIs with a highest of 172 and an average of almost 36 underlines this. But even more amazing was his strike rate – almost 97.

The most astonishing aspect of Gilchrist’s batting was that there was little change in the approach even at the Test level where in almost 100 matches he scored 5570 runs at a strike rate of virtually 82 with 17 hundreds and 26 half centuries. At his peak a few years ago his average was 56 but this took a bit of a nosedive in recent times and he ended his career averaging 47.60 – still very respectful giving his buccaneering batting style. Against South Africa in 2002 he hit the fastest double century – off 212 balls - in Test history. His 172 against Zimbabwe in 2004 was the highest score by a wicket keeper in ODIs. Both these marks were set aside with the passage of time but they still speak volumes of Gilchrist’s ability to tear apart the bowling.

The focus on his adventurous batting meant that Gilchrist’s excellent work behind the stumps did not receive its due. He has a number of wicket-keeping records to his credit the plum of course being the one he set in his last Test – surpassing Mark Boucher’s tally of dismissals to go right to the top. Boucher subsequently went past Gilchrist’s mark against Bangladesh last month but the Australian reached the 400-mark quickest. He also holds a host of comparatively minor records in Tests and ODIs and in the latter he is comfortably perched at the top with 472 dismissals. He set a world record for the most number of dismissals (six) in an ODI innings in 1999/2000 and repeated the feat four times. The statistics and the records are impressive but they do not render enough justice to his outstanding work. Many of the catches and stumpings that Gilchrist brought off were of the mind-boggling and eye rubbing quality and there is little doubt that his skills behind the stumps as well as his skills before them has had a lot to do with Australia occupying the No 1 spot in both forms of cricket for so long now.

The timing of his retirement is a tribute to the high standards that Gilchrist set for himself. His batting had fallen off a bit in recent years – though his 57-ball century against England at Perth during the Ashes series in 2006-07 might give a different picture – and his work behind the stumps had just started showing a fallibility that could not have been associated with Gilchrist even a few months before. He realized it was time to go and it did not matter to him that he was four short of playing 100 Tests. Very typical of Gilchrist who never played for records or landmarks but this did not stop him from rewriting the record books.

Wisden Cricketer of the Year 2002. Wisden Australia Cricketer of the Year 2002/03. The Allan Border medal in 2003. One-Day International Player of the Year 2003 and 2004. Such prestigious awards sat lightly on Gilchrist who clearly enjoyed the game and loved transmitting that joy to the spectators. Not unexpectedly he remained one of the most popular cricketers in the game not only for his skill with the bat or the gloves but also for his sporting nature epitomized by the walking incident in the World Cup semifinal against Sri Lanka in 2003 after he was given not out by the umpire. The tributes on his retirement were sincere and spontaneous and were the perfect tribute to Gilchrist the ultimate team man and the entertainer supreme.

 
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