Cricket: Genial genius Gilchrist looks a natural leader

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The Independent Online
IN THE batsman-wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist, Australian cricket has unearthed another of those impact players best described as "naturals". The names of a few other such match-turners emerge easily from the memory bank: Jeff Thomson, Doug Walters and Dennis Lillee. And England once had one, Ian Botham.

Such cricketers spike their freakish talent with a large helping of unrestrained enjoyment, although observers must be wary not to confuse that with false flamboyance, which seems to be a modern phenomenon, a by-product of one- day cricket and managers who negotiate bloated contracts for players who perform as if the game's a circus, but are mediocre performers.

The natural cricketer inspires his team-mates, as you would expect, but just as importantly he sets up a nervous tingle among spectators. His raw energy is a magnet, drawing them to the game, where they take to the edges of their seats in the expectation that something remarkable is sure to happen.

It was stunning to watch Gilchrist's uninhibited contribution (he was playing only his second Test) to the partnership with Justin Langer that clinched the series-deciding Test against Pakistan in Hobart, yet arguably it was Gilchrist's homecoming to Perth the day after the victory that offered more compelling evidence of how good for the game he will be, how assured is his future. A captaincy prospect, perhaps?

At the airport, microphones sniffed under his nose, flashbulbs popped, television cameras whirred and news broadcasts that night and newspapers the next morning all reflected the personality of a wonderfully unaffected sporting hero.

Gilchrist is not a star. It is generally conceded that the snappy Shane Warne, fashionably blond and ear-ringed, has no challengers for that tag. Gilchrist is more your old- fashioned hero. He greeted the media scrum with an infectious grin, hug-ged his grinning Western Australian mate Langer, and exhorted the locals to get down to the Waca later in the week and watch the Third Test unfold. The Cricket Board's public relations officer should have immediately pronounced himself redundant.

The first day of the Perth Test, which has been a lousy drawcard since the very first against England in 1971 attracted 85,000 overall, drew a few short of 14,000. They saw Gilchrist make the most extraordinary leap high to his left to snare a ballooning catch from the gloves of Yousuf Youhana, but grass another extravagant diving effort in front of Warne at first slip. When stumps were drawn he was next in, and you knew that tomorrow they would be back, plus a few more... expecting something thrilling from the local hero.

Gilchrist's arrival is a recommendation for the Australian way of development. In 1991 he toured England with Australia's Under-19 team and scored 1,000 runs at the ridiculous average of 90. England's coach remarked to his Australian counterpart that he could think of only two occasions when Gilchrist was struck on the pads. We can assume it was an acknowledgement of his positive batsmanship, rather than tidy glovework.

A year later he was rubbing shoulders with the Waughs and Mark Taylor in the NSW Sheffield Shield team, not as wicketkeeper but as a No 3 batsman, so quickly was his talent developing. The NSW keeper blocking his way, and promising to do so for some time, was Phil Emery, then No 2 to Ian Healy. So, Gilchrist crossed the Nullarbor to Perth on the promise that he would be the wicketkeeper for Western Australia. Not long after that the Australian selectors had Gilchrist in the one-day team and Healy out of it, an unpopular move.

And so it was in some circles this summer when Healy, aged 35 and showing it, was retired from Test duty. Behind the scenes, demands were made upon the selectors to allow the champion gloveman to walk on his own terms - a fond farewell at his beloved hometown Gabba, venue for the First Test, was mooted. Sentimental, but hardly sensible. The wisdom of the selectors might best be assessed by pondering a simple question: which would you go to watch tomorrow - Ian Healy keeping or Adam Gilchrist batting?

Some might think that too simplistic, even a slur on the great Healy, but in selection, timing is everything. Gilchrist is at the peak of his powers. He is an eye player with a tremendous range of shots, and his good timing creates thunderous power. He is an ever-improving wicketkeeper and that makes him a true all-rounder, good enough to bat in the first six. He has injected a new spirit into the team. He captivates the audience. Historically, Australia shun wicketkeeper-captains, but Gilchrist could break the mould.