Whenever two cricket lovers get together for a conversation, especially if they be from different generations, arguments become inevitable—was Richards better than Sachin, were the West Indies team of the late 70s and early 80s better than the all conquering Aussies of today or were they both nothing compared to Bradman’s Invincibles, whether Akram could hold a candle to Lillee, whether Thomson was faster than Fred Trueman, and whether M L Jaisima more dashing than Yuvraj Singh.
There are however a few things about which there is almost never any argument, things that people from all generations agree on.
Namely, Bradman was the greatest batsman of all time, Sobers the best all-rounder and Noel David the most puzzling Indian selection ever.
I propose we add one more to this list of cricket axioms.
Adam Gilchrist is the greatest “wicket-keeper batsman” that ever set foot on a cricket field.
Note I do not use the word “wicket-keeper” only. Though the data (the combination of dismissals per innings and total number of dismissals) is overwhelmingly in Gilchrist’s favor, people would still contend that Ian Healy was a better keeper to Warne, Alan Knott’s technique was sheer perfection, Marsh had a much tougher assignment keeping to Lillee and Thomson (the story goes that he had to put slices of meat in his gloves to dull the impact of gathering) and that Wally Grout, Don Tallon and Bertie Oldfield were legends in their time.
In the modern game however, the pure wicketkeeper is an extinct species. Wicket-keepers who would not be able to justify their places in the team as pure batsmen, are almost globally out of favor. Part of that reason is Adam Gilchrist himself, who has emerged the gold standard for judging modern wicket-keeper batsmen be it Dhoni, Deep Dasgupta or Kamran Akmal. People may argue for Kumar Sangakkara (his batting average is better than Gilchrist) but with 149 catches + 20 stumpings from 71 matches (to date) vs 379 catches + 37 stumpings from 96, there is not much doubt with regards to who is the “game set match” winner in the “keeper” part of the job description.
But then greatness cannot be measured in terms of decimal points and graphs. If it was, Kallis would be considered to be one of the greatest batsmen ever and Pravin Amre would be a bigger legend than Victor Trumper. What makes Gilchrist an all-time great was his scintillatingly athletic glovework coupled with the most explosive batting one could hope to see. In an age of percentage players and endless soft-handed nudges down to third man, Gilchrist was one of the honorable exceptions—an entertainer who combined hard-nosed professionalism with full-blooded fearlessness.
Friend or foe, you watched Gilly bat. And you applauded.
In One Day Internationals, he was the advance guard of the Australian juggernaut, the archer wreaking havoc in enemy ranks with fire-arrows while partner Hayden mowed down the opposition with skull-cracking blows from his club. Combining Lara-esque footwork with Jayasuryan power, batting was easy for Gilly. Fractionally short and he would rock back and unleash cuts, pulls and hooks with a ferocious flourish. Overcompensate by pitching it up, he would move his foot out and cover-drive or send the ball into the mid-wicket stands. And sometimes just for variety, he would push the ball and run a quick single.
There have been many entertaining batsmen in the game who have pleased the crowd, scored runs by the thousands but come the crunch moment with everything to play for, they have been found wanting, unable to rise to the occasion.
In the 1999 World Cup final, faced with Shoaib at his best and a still-crafty Akram he blasted a match-winning 54 off 36 balls with a memorable assault on cricket’s biggest gas-bag (37 runs off 4 overs). In 2003, he also got Australia off to a galloping start against India with a 48 balls 57. But his greatest one day innings was left for World Cup final 2007 when in an orgy of calculated hitting , he scored 149 off 104 balls bringing the Sri Lankans to their knees in a way that was as nothing short of spectacular.
His role in the Australian Test batting line-up was however in sharp contrast—there he was the reserve cavalry whose job it was to ruthlessly clean up the remnants of the enemy after the foot-soldiers had beaten them to submission. Blessed to have been part of possibly the greatest cricket machine in the history of the game, his role at No 7 was mostly to blast a quick fifty or hundred so as to give the McGraths and the Warnes more runs to bowl at. In this context, his innings against England in 2006 (the second fastest century in Test history) comes to mind when in an inspired hour and a bit more, he knocked the stuffing out of Flintoff, Harmison and Panesar in such fashion that if it was a boxing match the referee would have had to stop it.
But then there were also days, rare though they were, when the front ranks had been decimated. Gilchrist then became the lone Wolf, that heroic warrior for whom no battle is lost. 1999. Hobart. Chasing 369 runs to win against a rampaging Pakistani attack with the Australians all at sea against Saqlain Mushtaq, Adam Gilchrist came out and bludgeoned a rear-guard 149 not out off only 163 balls. The innings however I remember most of all, because it came against us Indians, was the one he played in Bombay in 2001. After India, led by Harbhajan had taken 5 wickets for below 100, Gilchrist together with Hayden played yet another inspired innings. He was not always in control, but such was his power, aggression and most importantly self-belief that it seemed he could do no wrong as balls whistled to the boundary. Scoring at more than a run a ball, he cracked a breathtaking century that took the match irrevocably away from India.
However as time goes by, the armor becomes heavy for even the greatest of gladiators, the aim wavers and the swings of the rapier increasingly miss the sweet spot. And as the man who has hit the most sixes in Test cricket takes his wooden sword, mounts his battle-weary steed and heads off into the sunset, we can do nothing more than doff our caps, applaud and be thankful for having witnessed a champion, the likes of whom come only once in many generations.