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Sport is a ravishing beauty. It stands beyond the pettiness of ageing or the paltriness of interpretation, so pure and so absolute that only it can celebrate universal brotherhood and humanity thoroughly and in a style that is relevant to the times. It propels the human form to push the limits of endurance and skill, cajoles the heart to fall in love and coerces the mind to develop and appreciate strategy.
Somewhere between falling in love and appreciating strategy, is the burrow of a sports fan. This location is special for it allows for a very close look at sport and sportspersons- a sort of a vantage point from which one can admire both for perpetuity. This is a true fan, more than the average TV watcher that can seem immune to the happenings on the field of play. This one feels the gusts of emotion as much as the players- be it the pangs of defeat or the thrill of victory, sees through the game, understands and appreciates the minute facets of play. Almost a player, but still only a fan, whose opinions and predictions might mean nothing but can never be very wrong.
Despite having such points of view and a rigid set of ‘favourite’ players, even such a fan will admit to having seen one- who played without a care in the world. That one- who nobody could ever dislike, who played the game with great enthusiasm, who could make millions fall in love with sport and who could rise much beyond and truly embody the spirit of the sport and that of a sportsperson. Such players are a rare phenomenon, but when they do occur, they elevate the beauty of the sport they pursue and leave us- fans, gasping for more.
Gilly was the embodiment of all that is joyful about cricket…
Warne was magical, McGrath was disturbingly accurate, Ponting was an indulgence, Hayden was brutal. But Gilly was joy- as pristine as childhood. He was the humane side of an otherwise marauding monster that the Australian side of that era was. Not that he was any less capable as a cricketer, but in a team that was crowded by some of cricket’s greatest, the manner in which Gilchrist went about his game and conducted himself are significant reasons for making him such a glorious sportsperson. This joy could come like a gushing river- through his breezy innings, full of fanciful strokes or be unleashed when one saw him celebrate a dismissal. Only Gilchrist- from that great team found the perfect combination of intensity, honesty, ability and reality. Perhaps, he grew up nurturing such thoughts.
What must it have been to step in and collect ball after ball, physically replacing one of the greatest wicket-keepers of all time and striving to ensure that this weight of greatness didn’t bear down on his own game? Gilly was now the Australian wicket-keeper, but the fans and more importantly, the bowlers had to be convinced that he was a good enough replacement to Ian Healy. This must have been like enforcing a cultural change- an ordeal. To make matters tough, he had to keep to the Warne-McGrath combine- almost a force of nature, who, while incredible to watch from the galleries, were ruthless on everybody else on the field- including the wicket-keeper. Warne in particular- with all his variations, his angles, antics and genius, would give any wicket keeper a very tough time. For him to bowl like he was the great spinner he was, he needed to be assured that there was one capable man standing behind the stumps to collect all his deliveries and to cling on to all the chances those would produce. This alone, can be termed as one of Gilchrist’s biggest accomplishments for, he ensured that he brought the best out of all the bowlers- including the great Shane Warne. While an awful lot has been written and spoken about Australia’s batting successes and debacles while playing in the sub-continent, there has hardly been any about how their wicket-keeper handled those challenges and succeeded every time.
Gilchrist was the best there ever was or maybe ever will be…
Alec Stewart did it a little, but he was a batsman that took to wicket keeping. Ridley Jacobs could be that, but his batting gave into the urge to indulge in lustful hitting too frequently, Kaluwitharana was about to master it, but his career fell apart too soon. But, when Gilchrist did it, there was no ‘but’. The world did not realise that he was rewriting convention and demonstrating a new entity in cricket- a full time wicket-keeper that was a full time batsman as well. He most often brought the gale storms with him, leaving the opposition no choice but to run for cover. His batting was dazzling to put it modestly. Those cuts made the willow look like a ‘Katana’, he drove on the up and it felt like the world had become a more stylish place, he hooked viciously- a knock-out punch of sorts and when he stepped down the track- our hearts raced! This was the first version of a modern batsman- unafraid to take on the greatest bowlers and plunder them with no uncertainty. There seemed to be no inhibitions about getting out because for him- it was a game after all. For the generations that had become used to batsmen dragging their way to success, this man’s lifestyle at the crease came as the much needed liberation. That said, there were no ugly swats in his innings which were full of sparkling illustrations of strokeplay. Gilchrist seemed to have the ability to be faster than the bowler and even his most grand shots that needed some preparation time were unleashed at the bat of an eyelid. He batted with the instincts of a Puma- which he carried on his bat for a majority of his career.
Being an outsider isn’t new to a man that moved to Western Australia to play domestic cricket. He wasn’t really liked by that team’s fans initially and the same must be said about his initial years with the Australian team. But his rise- from being a rank outsider to the core of the team and even its vice-captain has to be a tale of dedication and hard work. For a tall man, he appeared at ease, crouching behind the stumps for a decade at the international level. Some of his catches and stumps are mind boggling, but his celebration of that success showed the audience how beautiful a game cricket was. Nobody knew the Australian bowlers better than him, for every delivery of theirs- had a shade of their mood and their persona and most of those went straight into his cupped palms.
In a team that took to success as if it was entitled to (Yes surely that team was), Adam Gilchrist was every bit as fierce a competitor as was legitimate, but he always stuck to his principles. Never did the occasion of a big game or victory stop him from walking off the field when he knew he was out. Surely, the banter between teams would spice up the contest, but after all, it was just a game, one that each of the players had taken up by choice. Nobody in modern cricket demonstrated this ability more efficiently than he did. He was just the ambassador that cricket needed at that time- a player that knew both passion and compassion, a human that could be a superstar and yet be humane too.
Through the decade that he was at the international level, the Australians played 96 test matches, with Gilchrist playing in each. He never missed a game in his test career!
What shall we put that to? Fitness? Form? Skill? His game could help us understand levitation because it had the ability to free our hearts from the clutches of gravity. The sheer joy of watching a great player play was what we got from watching Adam Gilchrist, a man who played the game for all the right reasons and one on whose head the famed baggy green cap looked honoured and proud.
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