Monday, January 28, 2008

The trailblazer completes his last act

Adam Gilchrist bids adieu to fans after the final Test match of his career...

Adam Gilchrist was weary but not exhausted. His baggy green, sweat-lined and with a desperately faded coat of arms, was more ragged than its owner. Relieved and happy that his Test career was over, he had been sad enough at tea that he bawled his eyes out to his team-mates.

At the back of the Adelaide Oval's indoor centre his large family watched him say goodbye. A baby squawked a couple of times and Gilchrist choked up when thanking his wife and children for sticking by him. The extended members of the clan huddled beside the television cameras and were partly responsible for him walking away. Over the past couple of years the new additions made him understand how much his life had moved on.

A simple dropped catch of VVS Laxman on the opening day was the sealer. The moment of clarity arrived between the ball hitting his gloves and the ground. He quickly looked up at the replay on the big screen.

"It made me realise in the ensuing 10 or 15 minutes that that's it," he said. "I'm not moving quite as well as I have, not just on the field but in training and my fitness. I just realised I didn't have the absolute desperation that you need to continue to maintain your standards."

Gilchrist's wicketkeeping, which he felt he had to defend throughout his career because of the high-quality work of his predecessors, had slipped over the past month. "I don't think anyone in this room has missed the fact that I did miss a few chances this series," he said. "It was bugging me and I couldn't understand why."

He was enjoying the team, the change in leadership, the new players and was thinking of retiring from one-dayers to extend his Test career. Everything changed with the sound of a ball bouncing out from two gloves. After 96 Tests, a world record 416 dismissals and 5570 runs, he has finished.

There were so many groups of people waiting for him throughout the day that he must have felt like a bridegroom. India's batsmen and Australia's fielders lined up on the ground in the morning, allowing Gilchrist to run through them, a reception which was repeated for the final session. Two catches were added to his tally and he was ecstatic as his team-mates converged.

Stumps were called early and there was no rush to grab a wicket, but there was an urgency to reach Gilchrist. He waved, he hugged and walked off first, his team-mates staying on the field and applauding in a gesture that was symbolic of the months ahead. They will miss him for many reasons.

After speaking for 20 minutes about his highs and lows a group of first-aid workers cheered and waited for his autograph. He was looking forward to celebrating with his family, friends and team-mates, and trying to finish the dressing-room speech he had to stop when overwhelmed by emotion.

The camaraderie, passion and pride of the side were the things that stood out most during his 12 years in international squads. "The way that legacy is passed on is the most glaring strength in Australian cricket," he said, "and I'm certain I'm seeing it happen in other countries as well."

In a career of so many individual and collective medals he chose another group moment as his best. Australia hadn't won in India for 35 years when he was thrust into the captaincy after Ricky Ponting broke his finger during the 2004 Champions Trophy. "From that moment on I started to get nervous and had a few self doubts and considered not taking it on," he said. "To captain that team for the bulk of the series and be part of the leadership group that constructed that was the highest point and greatest achievement of my career personally."

The magnificent 149 in the 2007 World Cup final sealed a third successive trophy and the drawn-out nature of the tournament weighed heavily on Gilchrist. Five days before he left for the Caribbean his third child was born. As the event wore on he was lonely and a long way from home. "That was one of the most difficult parts of my career, getting through the World Cup," he said. "To pick myself up [for the final] was very special."

Australian audiences have another six weeks to say their goodbyes as he joins the CB Series circuit. He wants to excite people, but when he sensed the crowd's demand for something special in his final Test innings he fell to a loose shot on 14. "If I keep thinking I'm going to entertain," he smiled, "I'll get knocked over very easily."

Gilchrist's international career began as a specialist limited-overs player and he was pleased it would wind down in the same format. "I'm thrilled the way it's gone, that I didn't pull out of one-day cricket and then extend my Test career," he said. "One-day cricket gave me a chance to make a statement to the selectors and to the world. That filtered into Tests. To now play the last part of my career in one-day cricket, I am so excited about it."

Having thanked his coaches, a group of close team-mates and those who had supported him since he was child, Gilchrist was almost ready to go to his family. They exited first and he followed slowly, being interrupted at almost every step. In March he will re-join them for good.