The most exhilarating batsman of his time was also a paragon of sportsmanship – whether he liked it or not
At times of moral panic in Australian cricket, one past player is invariably held up, like George Washington with the cherry tree, as a symbol of honesty.
Adam Gilchrist is embarrassed. He doesn’t think he deserves this part. When he ‘walked’ during the 2003 World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka, it wasn’t a statement of sportsmanship but a brain-snap. A voice in his head told him to walk, and his legs moved for him. He sneaked back to the dressing room worrying that his teammates would think he had lost his mind.
The most likeable thing about Gilly is not that he is a perfect person. To the contrary: it’s that he has many flaws and he knows it. He played his cricket hard, and he played to win. He never considered himself a crusader for old-fashioned values of sportsmanship. He is quite proud of the fact that he was cited for misbehaviour more often than any other player of his time. The goody-two-shoes label never sat comfortably with him.
And yet it’s equally possible to say that the cricketing public had a clearer picture of Gilly than he had of himself. He knew his imperfections all too well. One morning in Perth during an Ashes series, he sat in the WACA car park in tears, undergoing a complete meltdown of self-doubt and self-recrimination, feeling he was letting his country and teammates down. Then he picked himself up, got out of the car, and that afternoon produced one of the most uplifting innings in cricket history. In his own mind, he was a mess. The public Gilly, who we saw, was someone who could master his nerves and the pressure of the situation to convey an impression of complete freedom and joy. How was that possible?
People who live with such fame are a composite of unique parts, and Gilly has always been humbled by the way his acts on the cricket field inspired others. Elite sport is as public a role, as divorced from private reality, as the acting profession. Nobody cared if Adam Gilchrist left the toilet seat up or didn’t phone his parents often enough or cried in the car park or wanted to be one of the boys. What we cared about was what he did in his public role: to express a spirit of decency, strong character and enjoyment through his sport, which isn’t, after all, life and death.
Gilchrist’s 2006-07 Ashes ton was a 57-ball whirlwind of clean hitting.