Adam Gilchrist’s career was always about being fearless.
As a batsman, he just came out and took the bowlers on, almost regardless of the circumstance. It was a game built on and fuelled by confidence, a sort that seemed outlandish but somehow worked.
Yet, starting in 2005, his game nearly fell apart completely, then by the end of 2006 was rebuilt. It came down to one special day in Perth, when he tried to break Viv Richards’ record for the fastest Test century and came in second.
People look back at Gilchrist and marvel at his scything, daring Test batting, but it’s easy to forget how drastically his approach defied norms and expectations. It also defied probability, and good taste, and sometimes physics. Seventeen Test centuries, numbers unheard of for a wicketkeeper. He became the principal reason that keepers now have to be part of a top seven, not the start of the tail.
He had the numbers of a specialist batsman, but attained them with a swagger and flair few have shown. He had it from the start of his time in the Australian team, at the relatively advanced age of 27.
In his second Test in 1999, he smashed 149 not out with Justin Langer to pull off a miracle chase of 369 against Pakistan in Hobart. Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and company toiled for 60 overs at him but couldn’t get through.
The footage is delightfully old-school: grainy cameras at the cloudy Bellerive Oval, the badging around the ground featuring a long-defunct airline, shivering Pakistanis in chunky white vests, batsmen in shapeless 1990s shirts. But the modern facet of the game is there in Gilchrist, down on one knee thumping Saqlain into the Ansett hoardings again and again.
It’s easy to forget how drastically Gilchrist’s approach defied norms and expectations. It also defied probability, and good taste, and sometimes physics.
He knew what it meant to fail – I remember vividly listening to the radio as he made a king pair in Kolkata in 2001: a first-ball duck in each innings. But a year and a half later, when he walked out in the opening Ashes Test at the Gabba after a duck in the first innings, his response to the risk of another pair was to get off the mark by thumping Ashley Giles for a straight six.
Or take a moment in England in 2001: Australia were piling up runs, but England batsman Mark Butcher hit a hot streak with his medium-pacers. He had Damien Martyn caught at point, then ran through Brett Lee, Shane Warne, and Jason Gillespie. There was a sense for a moment that Butcher could become a problem; when a part-timer has success early in a series, their captain can bring them on in later games, and they can get in the opposition’s heads. Gilchrist put an end to that, immediately targeting Butcher and battering three sixes from an over. Butcher barely bowled again in the series.
Gilchrist finished his career holding the record for most Test sixes, hitting an even hundred of them. He also once held the fastest double century.
But he was never a purveyor of raw attack like, say, Shahid Afridi. The Pakistani has the highest ratio of sixes per Test by a mile, whacking 52 of them in 27 matches. But for someone capable of scoring centuries in all formats, his batting style was a gamble whose odds grew longer as his career went on.
Gilchrist, though it sounds contradictory, was a reliable attacking batsman. He played huge shots because he was good enough to succeed, and he succeeded far more often than most could.
Of his career Test milestones, four centuries and five half-centuries came during forays up the order. That leaves 13 hundreds and 21 fifties that came when he batted at number seven or eight.
Gilchrist came out to bat 76 times with Australia at under 300. He was either not out or scored at least 35 runs on 41 of those occasions. That included ten of the thirteen centuries that he made down the order, and 16 of the 21 half-centuries. In short, when Australia were in trouble, Gilchrist delivered more than half the time. Over a third of the time, he delivered in bulk. And his strike rate across these innings averaged 86, absurdly brisk for a Test rearguard.
If your memory suggests that Gilchrist was constantly rescuing his team from the brink with a daring counterattack, that’s because he was.
In this confidence game, his confidence rarely suffered. At least until the 2005 Ashes. Andrew Flintoff was the man to make that happen, the tall and burly all-rounder with an innate ability to impress himself on a contest.
England knew they needed to leash Gilchrist. His technique gave them an opening. His approach against fast bowling was simple: go hard at the short ball with either the cut or pull shot. For the full delivery, a big clean straight drive, often over the bowler’s head, and if not then rifled down the ground. For a straighter ball, that shot could come across the front pad and become a powerful whip over or through midwicket. That was about it.
Flintoff was at his peak, bowling up near 150 kilometres per hour. It was a brief golden moment in a career so often clouded by injury, a sort of cricket equivalent of summer in Ireland. It also coincided with England’s expert attainment of reverse swing.
Recent conversations in the cricket world about ‘ball management’ might raise some questions about technique; Marcus Trescothick’s pocket full of Murray mints couldn’t have helped Flintoff reverse the ball in the 13th over of an innings in Birmingham. But however it came about, the ball moved, and as we’ve seen so often in the game, extreme pace exaggerated it.
Flintoff coupled this by coming around the wicket at the left-handed Gilchrist. A right-arm bowler wide on the crease, angling the ball in, made it harder to gauge when the angle would miss off stump. It drew Gilchrist into shots. And when the full ball moved, that spelt trouble.
Four times in the series, Flintoff got him: once swinging the ball through onto his stumps, the other times reversing it away for the edge. Gilchrist was sufficiently discombobulated that the other bowlers started picking him off in between times. With the exception of 49 not out at Edgbaston, the bailouts Australia had become accustomed to didn’t arrive.
“Probably that was the first really significant hurdle in my career,” Gilchrist later admitted. “Losing the Ashes was intense and emotional. My personal lack of results and contribution through that series played havoc in my mind.
“It started to allow a little demon in my mind to say, ‘Are you up for it still? Were you ever up for it? Did you have a golden run for five or six years and now you’re gone?’ All these little mind games and doubts crept in, it was the first time I ever really doubted myself.
“I got to the point where, in March 2006, on tour in South Africa I wrote in my diary, ‘I hate this game’. That was the hole I was bogged down in.”
Assuaging that damage needed to involve England. After that Ashes tour, Gilchrist carried on through a quiet season: it was his only home summer without a century aside from 2000-01, when Australia had so badly thrashed West Indies over five Tests that Gilchrist barely got to bat.
But the prospect of England’s reciprocal visit the following summer of 2006-07 was there, a temptation and a worry at the same time.
All of the players from that 2005 team wanted it. These days they look back and act like everyone is great mates, chuckling on commentary together, Flintoff and Ponting, Gilchrist and Vaughan. They talk about what a great series it was and how lucky they were to be part of it.
But for the Australians, some part of it still burns. They still hate that they lost it. They still wish it had been different.
In the summer of 2006, it was very fresh indeed. There was a huge desire for revenge. Australia beat England in Brisbane, then should have lost in Adelaide, as we wrote about recently. Somehow England let slip the chance of a win, then their grasp on a seemingly inevitable draw.
The English couldn’t believe it. They were bewildered, embarrassed, and 2-0 down.
“Adelaide ’06 deserves to haunt this generation of English cricketers as Headingley ’81 once haunted Australians,” wrote Gideon Haigh at the time.
“England have found a way of cancelling out their chief good recent memory of Ashes cricket. They will always have Edgbaston ’05, but they will now also always have Adelaide ’06.”
So on they went to Perth. Over the next few Ashes trips, the WACA would become the slaughterhouse floor for England’s touring hopes and dreams. It was brutal not in the sense of the lightning pitches and terrifying bowling of old, but the way that teams were obliterated even on placid modern surfaces.
In 2013, we had Shane Watson’s second-innings century, including his last 74 runs from 38 balls and an over that literally made Graeme Swann walk off the field and retire. Then George Bailey equalled Brian Lara’s record for runs off an over, thrashing Jimmy Anderson for 28 of the best.
In 2017, we saw Steve Smith’s relentless double century, then as he tired Mitchell Marsh bludgeoned 181 at the other end. Even Australia’s dire Ashes loss in 2010-11 included a win in Perth, as Mitchell Johnson found unexpected new-ball swing to wreck England’s top order and level the series 1-1.
But Perth’s run as the modern House of Pain began in 2006, with Gilchrist. He’d been building up his good vibes, contributing strongly at Adelaide. Replying to a first-innings declaration at 551, Gilchrist’s typically aggressive 64 took the pressure off Michael Clarke to set the pace, taking Australia close to 400 and setting up Clarke to continue to a century and get the scores near parity.
So Gilchrist was feeling good as he rolled into his adopted hometown of Perth, and the entire England camp was feeling pretty bad.
Australia looked in trouble again after the first innings, done for 244 thanks to four wickets from the tall and fast Steve Harmison and five for left-arm spinner Monty Panesar. But Australia replied to shoot out England out for 215, meaning the teams started the second half of the match near some kind of equilibrium.
Another 365 runs later, when Australia’s wicketkeeper walked to the crease after a Mike Hussey ton, England were reeling. Gilchrist was determined to iron them out.
Had Flintoff not already been bowling, he would have been brought on immediately. He drew Gilchrist’s edge first ball, but it flew through a vacant gully for four. Gilchrist stood up tall three balls later and drove his nemesis crisply off the back foot for a straight four.
As in Adelaide, Gilchrist was batting with Clarke, who raised another hundred. That was the signal to hand over the baton. Gilchrist came down to Panesar to cover-drive four, then back to late-cut four more. He pulled Sajid Mahmood and swept Kevin Pietersen, then clubbed Panesar again in the air so straight and hard the long-off barely moved.
Gilchrist making 51 from 40 balls was fast, but not crazy fast. Certainly the thought of Sir Viv’s record – that century from 56 balls – hadn’t entered anyone’s head. But with the minor milestone out of the way, the sixes began.
Panesar was the victim, of course, loopy and slow and not favoured by a Fremantle breeze. Gilchrist skipped and cleared long on. Then again, higher and longer, a monster way back into the concourse. Another four, flat in the same direction.
Four boundary riders guarded on the leg side. Gilchrist disregarded them, long on again, another into the depths of the stand. He’d taken 24 from the over, and now had 73 off 44. The Richards record was a chance after all.
Gilchrist and Clarke piled on a solid T20 team score, in a Test match, before T20 was any more than a novelty.
Especially when Gilchrist’s next ball was a straight six off Hoggard, followed by three boundaries in four from Harmison. The bowler had to send down a wide bouncer just to sneak in a dot ball.
Gilchrist was 93 from 51, and with four balls to break the record it looked a sure thing. The players knew about it by now; Gilchrist was going for everything, and England were just trying to defend. They threw eight fieldsmen back on the fence.
Gilchrist cut a two and a single and kept the strike. One ball to spare. At the final chance in Hoggard’s over, the bowler sent down a wide yorker out of reach.
Denied the record, Gilchrist relaxed, ticked off a single, then drove Harmison through cover on 98. Clarke was immediately on his bike for the second, and Gilchrist was initially more concerned about a third on the overthrow than his milestone. Then the moment dawned, a home century after a long wait, and what would prove to be the last time he reached the mark in Test cricket.
He grinned broadly and let slip a yell of relief. A hundred in 57 balls then, settling for the second-fastest, though Misbah-ul-Haq and Brendon McCullum have marginally bettered that mark since. Gilchrist and Clarke between them had piled on 160 runs in 20 overs – a solid T20 team score, in a Test match, before T20 was any more than a novelty.
The image of the moment was less Gilchrist than Panesar, twisting his knees to follow the trajectory of the ball, twisting his head back and up and around, standing mid-pitch with his mouth open watching each new attempt fly away. Although, credit to him, bounding in next ball to try again.
The batsman had his own private joy, as he explained years later: “There’s no better feeling in cricket than you go for a shot, and just for a split second, you and only you know you’ve got it.”
But everyone else had heard the crispness of that contact a split second later, and the seeming impossibility of what came next.
The impact was far bigger than just on Gilchrist. So many people still remember the elation. Current players Glenn Maxwell, Travis Head, Mitch Marsh and Marcus Stoinis – who can all hit a shot a long way – each nominated it as their favourite Ashes moment. “I remember watching it, and just being in awe of the ball-striking,” said Maxwell.
Gilchrist went on through another year and another season, and left the game feeling like he’d done all he could. A long way from the depths of that England tour, now he could always drift off to sleep remembering that perfect cracking sound, a bowler’s pirouette, and a red ball disappearing into a hard blue Western Australian sky.
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Written by Geoff Lemon
Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster on sport, politics and literature. He’s on Twitter @GeoffLemonSport.
Design and editing by Daniel Jeffrey
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