'I was scared, nervous, worried': Gilchrist reflects
Two decades on from his first summer of Test cricket and on the eve of his 48th birthday, the legendary 'Gilly' takes a trip down memory lane
On the telly, Adam Gilchrist comes across as the kind of genial, good-spirited bloke who would walk in a World Cup semi-final. Polite and smiling, with just the right degree of wit, 'Gilly' was once described by one of the behind-the-scenes TV guys at Fox Sports as "the school captain … someone people look up to".
He is also a voluntary ambassador for Autism Western Australia, while the Adam Gilchrist Cricket Scholarship annually provides one young Australian cricketer with an opportunity to further their career with a season in the UK.
All of which is to say that the legend of Adam Gilchrist: Relentless Winning Machine is not only now quite easily glossed over thanks largely to the man himself, but to today's generation, he's almost an anachronism.
Yet as we arrive at 20 years since Gilchrist's first Test summer, it is worth reminding ourselves of these points:
– Adam Gilchrist won his first 15 Tests. No-one before or since has matched that.
– Adam Gilchrist won 73 of his 96 Tests (comfortably the highest win percentage among the 31 cricketers to have won 50 matches)
– Adam Gilchrist played in 31 of the 32 Tests that make up Australia's two world record sequences of 16 straight wins – more than anybody else
– Adam Gilchrist was rated the ICC's top Test batsman (despite batting at No.7) less than three years into his career
– Adam Gilchrist won every World Cup he played in, making scores of 54, 57 and 149 in the three finals
During a fascinating 30-minute reflection on his career on cricket.com.au's The Unplayable Podcast, Gilchrist discusses his milestones and memorable moments with typical modesty, deferring the adulation onto teammates whenever possible.
It's the good bloke schtick but with Gilchrist it has always been genuine. He remembers early in his career when he was abused in Western Australia as a young state player replacing Tim Zoehrer. The same happened in Queensland on his Test debut as he followed in the footsteps of Ian Healy. But even those parochial states doffed their collective caps when he quickly showcased his humble yet spectacular brand of genius.
Australia in Test cricket, March 1991 – August 2016
Pre-Gilchrist: 96 matches | 46 wins | 26 draws | 24 losses
Gilchrist era: 96 matches | 73 wins | 12 draws | 11 losses
Post-Gilchrist: 96 matches | 48 wins | 18 draws | 30 losses
About a fortnight after his Gabba debut, Gilchrist hit the winning runs in his second Test in Hobart. It was the culmination of a classic 149 not out in one of Australia's finest Test wins of recent decades.
"That had an amazing effect on me being comfortable in that Test set-up, that I could actually carve out my own identity," he reflects. "A bit like going to Western Australia with Tim Zoehrer … and then with 'Heals' … I couldn't try to be them.
"I aspired to maintain a standard similar to those guys, but that innings, and those couple of breakthrough Test matches allowed me to start to forge my own identity.
"I just had to be Adam Gilchrist, really."
Gilchrist never sought the spotlight but whether he liked it or not, his batting demanded it. It is no small insight that he rates a second-innings 49 against India in Chennai, 2004, as his favourite Test innings. In the Gilchrist story it is barely a footnote but the man himself believes it represented that Australia team's willingness to adapt their plans in order to conquer their "holy grail" – an away Test series win in India.
"I think that was probably one of my most important innings but there's nothing too sexy about it," he recalls. "I promoted myself – again, sounding like a big head – but went up (to No.3) to try and be positive and just to erase the (first-innings) deficit."
The match was rained out on the final day but Australia won the series 2-1 – a landmark achievement that marked the country's first triumph in India in 35 years.
Gilchrist had arrived there three-and-a-half years earlier with 14 Test matches – and 14 Test wins – to his name, and with the confidence to reflect that statistic.
In the 2001 series' first Test in Mumbai, he blazed a remarkable counter-attacking hundred and Australia stormed to a 16th straight win.
"(We were) five for 99, I went in there, got a hundred off 80 balls, we won in three days and I just thought, 'What have these blokes been doing for 30 years. How easy's this?'" he laughs.
"And how wrong I was. We've only got to fast forward to the next Test match and I came back to reality.
"But that was symbolic of us as a team: we were just so confident, we had most bases covered and even when we were on the back foot we felt like we could just 'attack, attack, attack' and we would get out of it.
"As it would turn out, by the end of that series we probably needed to learn how to put a handbrake on just to get a holding pattern, rather than 'attack, attack, attack' because it doesn't always work – Harbhajan (Singh) bamboozled us."
History details India's miraculous turnaround in the next two Tests. Gilchrist became the first Australian to record a king pair in Test cricket and added two ones in the final match as young off-spinner Harbhajan ran riot with 32 wickets in three matches, including his country's first Test hat-trick.
"He was a bit of a nemesis for me right throughout my career," the Australian says. "I found him and Murali probably the two hardest bowlers to face."
When Ricky Ponting broke his hand in the lead-up to the 2004 tour of India, Gilchrist went into panic mode; as vice-captain, he knew he would be the man asked to step up and lead Australia to what the recently-retired skipper Steve Waugh had termed that side's "final frontier".
"I was scared," Gilchrist remembers. "I started to panic … I was already panicking about going back after my come-back-down-to-earth experience at the back-end of that 2001 tour.
"I had my own mental demons, to then go there and have to captain the team, I was scared, I was nervous, I was worried.
"As it turned out, it was an absolute blessing in disguise for me. It allowed me not to worry about my game and myself. I prepared, but my mind was busy working on strategy and tactics … getting the tour plan set and implemented."
The plan itself was one of patience and attrition, and one that was carried out with military-style precision by a high-class Australian outfit. Even without Ponting, Australia won the first and third Tests to take a two-nil lead in the four-Test series. There is a photo of a triumphant Gilchrist after that third Test win that summed up his emotion: gloved-hand clenched tightly into a fist, his face contorted in pure elation.
"My personal highlight of my cricketing journey was us succeeding there," he says. "Not in any way am I indulging in the fact that I was the captain – it was a team, collective effort.
"We changed our tactics a great deal. In 2001 what we learnt was we can't just attack our way out of every situation.
"We had to learn to swallow our ego and go defensive, and that was very much part of the whole collective mindset of the group; (for example) the bowlers had to take a step back and run in with the new ball with one slip and a sweeper on the leg side."
Ponting returned for the final Test – which Australia lost on a Mumbai minefield – but history had already been achieved. Gilchrist never played a Test in India again, and Australia haven't won a series there since.
For a man so synonymous with winning, it is ironic that Gilchrist rates the 2001 India tour and the 2005 Ashes as the finest Test series of the 30 he played in. They are the only two he lost.
"It's widely acknowledged that we were a pretty strong, successful team and it meant the opposition had to produce something pretty extraordinary to beat us, and that happened on both occasions," he explains.
"I think the quality of Test cricket in both those series was as high as any I've seen or been a part of.
"In 2005, England just rose to another level. Sitting at The Oval when they regained the Ashes, you could only look around and say, 'Well, I'm a part of history'. Not on the side of history I wanted to be, but you're there."
Gilchrist looks back at that series and knows what he would tell himself with the benefit of hindsight with regards to his troubles against Andrew Flintoff, who famously terrorised the left-hander from around the wicket.
He had come to England averaging 55 after 68 Tests, and striking at 83; not since Viv Richards had there been such a consistently explosive batting force in the game.
Flintoff removed Gilchrist twice in the first Test and twice more through the series as he failed to pass fifty.
"(With hindsight) I would certainly analyse my technique and my set-up and try to strategise more ways to counter that new angle," he says. "But I wasn't one to tinker with my game too much, and get too technical, it was just 'do the basic thing enough times and trust that'.
"I resisted doing anything different through that, and then it was too late."
Gilchrist had his redemption – and revenge – when England toured Australia two years later and he blazed the fastest Ashes hundred ever seen; a 57-ball, 102-run highlight reel in Perth that he says remains "the most talked-about, but not the best" innings of his career.
The previous night, he had made up his mind to retire after that 2006-07 home series, but the sheer "fun" of his time in the middle and some gentle persuasion from his wife, Mel, ensured he endured for another summer.
"That innings reminded me why I played cricket … because I enjoyed it, I had fun," he says. "That feeling of the ball coming right out of the middle of the bat, there's no more exhilarating feeling.
"So it was timely for me."
Gilchrist spent the following year winning the next six Tests he played in, which again took Australia's tally to 16 consecutive victories. It is a remarkable way to just about bookend a Test career (he went out with a defeat and a draw in his final two matches) and it begs the question: which group would win in a showdown between the two?
"You'd have to think maybe the latter team because we were all that little bit more experienced," Gilchrist says of a side that, among other changes, had most notably been shorn of the Waughs while picking up Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey.
"That 2000-01 period we were all hellbent on just going helter-skelter – we didn't know how to stop.
"By the time we got to that '07-08 age we would all probably have tried to put the skids on the opposition, test the ego a bit, and knew we were going to get away with it."
Nowadays Gilchrist is still having fun, still playing a key role on game days but adding the finishing touches in the make-up room rather than the nets. It wasn't an inevitable transition but he is happy where he has landed.
"I'm loving it," he says of his commentary position with Fox Sports. "When I first left cricket I didn't think broadcasting and commentating was where I would go.
"I had five years out doing other stuff before an opportunity came up with the Big Bash … then Fox asked me to come on board and I jumped at the opportunity.
"It's brilliant to still be in and around the game."
And it's brilliant to still have him.
- Interview by Sam Ferris for The Unplayable Podcast