When he was a young boy in New South Wales, playing in the backyard, Adam Gilchrist’s net sessions with his dad always ended in the same way.
“He’d say right these last 20, just hit the ball. Whack it. Have some fun and feel the thrill of the ball coming out of the middle,” Gilchrist recalls. ”Those words always remained with me – just hit the ball.”
Bazball before Bazball.
England are driving the ongoing surge in Test scoring rates and, naturally, Gilchrist is an enthusiastic supporter of their style, even with the Ashes just over a week away.
“I love England’s approach,” he says. “It makes it so interesting to watch and it’s got people buzzing about cricket. It’s a real testament to the systems that they’ve put in place and the quality of players and leaders that they’ve got there now.”
But before the era of Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, Gilchrist underpinned Australia’s own attacking revolution.
‘Prince Charles Syndrome’ is how Gilchrist once described his wait to be Australia’s Test wicketkeeper. He waited until just before turning 28 to be picked ahead of Ian Healy. But when Gilchrist finally was selected, he made it count.
Gilchrist’s arrival in 1999 marked the moment that Australia’s Test side went from very good to great. Australia won his first 15 Tests as a player to build the longest winning run in Test history (Healy played in the first of the 16). Gilchrist was then part of the side that would equal that streak from 2005 to 2008.
Even more than his average of 47.6, it was Gilchrist’s strike rate of 82 that propelled Australia to an extraordinary era. He was the single biggest factor in Australia’s remarkable leap in Test run rates from scoring at 2.95 an over in the four years before Gilchrist’s debut to 3.80 an over in the next four years. That amounted to an extra 76 runs a day.
In the Gilchrist legend, wicketkeeping often seems almost incidental set against his batting, such was his role transforming perceptions of what keepers could achieve. Yet one of his most cherished records was for the most dismissals – 416 – by any Australian Test keeper.
“I always took my job as a keeper as my number one job,” Gilchrist recalls. “There’s only one keeper in the team but everyone bats, so that was the mindset.”
For Gilchrist, the ODI team was the route to international recognition. After Sri Lanka’s victory in the 1996 World Cup, powered by their audacious opening pair, Australia selected Gilchrist to provide impetus at the top of the order. “Steve Waugh said, ‘look, I think you should go up and be our aggressor’.”
In this role, Gilchrist hit half-centuries in Australia’s victorious World Cup finals in 1999 and 2003 – and then 149 at Barbados in the 2007 final, when he put a squash ball in his gloves. Yet, for all his ODI brilliance, his impact was altogether greater in the five-day game.
If there was no precedent for Test batters attacking with quite as much gusto as Gilchrist, then opponents struggled to know how they should react. Often, Gilchrist would race to 30. Then, the field would scatter, allowing him to accumulate rapidly and essentially risk-free. Indeed, this was the template for the innings that announced Gilchrist’s transformative qualities: 149 not out in his second Test, when he led Australia from 126-5 to their victory target of 369 against Pakistan in Hobart. Gilchrist scored at a strike rate of 91, yet only 58 of his runs that innings came in boundaries.
“If I was able to be positive and counterpunch you could quickly take them away from what they’d been doing so successfully to get themselves into that position. They end up putting sweepers out. Particularly batting with the tail, I was a beneficiary of having some fields out where I was allowed to get off strike pretty easily and get some momentum in my innings. And then that would give me confidence to start to play really aggressively – because they were trying to attack the 9, 10, 11.” Sometimes, Gilchrist says, it could feel as if teams had stopped trying to get him out.
Discussing his favourite innings, he does not select his 57-ball Ashes century in the name of Anglo-Australian relations. Instead, Gilchrist picks out less characteristic innings, when he showed his qualities in turning conditions. First and foremost, a little surprisingly, is his 49 against India in Chennai in 2004 after he promoted himself to No3 to help erase Australia’s deficit.
Gilchrist’s cameo helped Australia fight back and secure a draw, setting up their victory in India in 2004. As stand-in skipper, he captained the first three Tests, taking Australia to victory in their final frontier: the moment he considers the highlight of his career.
Such contributions are a testament to Gilchrist’s adaptability; indeed, when he batted in the top six he averaged even more than his career average. Yet the best encapsulation of Gilchrist’s mastery came while batting in a more familiar tempo.
Against South Africa in Johannesburg in 2002, Gilchrist lashed 204 not out from 213 balls, including eight sixes. During the innings, Gilchrist noticed that an advertising hoarding beyond the deep midwicket boundary promised a prize of a bar of gold worth 1.3 million rand to anyone who hit it.
“At Wanderers, you drive almost under that billboard. As we drove in on day two, I looked out to the pitch and it looked like a long way. I said to someone there’s no way someone’s going to hit that, it’s too far.
“I nailed it right out of the middle and it was going straight at the sign. I thought get up, get up, go on be big enough... and then it actually flew over the top of the sign. So it probably wasn’t as far as I thought.” For Gilchrist, no target was.