by Nicholas Shakespeare
It is hard to be an English cricket fan in Tasmania. “We’re going to murder you next year,” was one of the milder sledgings I received in the corner store when I commiserated over Australia’s Ashes defeat. Still, as I struggle to teach my sons cricket on Nine Mile Beach, I am left nurturing a fantasy that Max – aged 8, b. Wiltshire – will one day open the bowling for England against Benedict – aged 5, b. Hobart (in the same hospital as Tasmania’s most famous son, but unremarkable slip catcher: Errol Flynn).
Tasmania’s influence on the cricket pitch has not looked so firm since the retirement of that stocky batsman David Boon, “the keg on legs”. It’s a Tasmanian, Ricky Ponting, who captains the Australian team; and it was a Tasmanian, tall and wiry Troy Cooley, one of the fastest bowlers the state has produced (although plagued by a tendency to overstep the bowling crease), who coached England during that memorable summer of 2005, exciting the local headline: “Losing the Ashes to England, it’s just not cricket.” Meanwhile, helping to determine just what is cricket, is another Tasmanian, Keith Bradshaw, chief executive of the MCC since 2006.
I was ignorant of cricket’s influence on my own work until this magazine’s deputy editor pointed out that a novel I had set in Tasmania, Secrets of the Sea, was positively wriggling with cricket references. (A successful estate agent is known as “the David Boon of real estate”; the Australian heroine, concerned about her inability to have children, tells her husband, the son of English parents, that she is driving to Launceston for a test. “A Test? Are England playing?”) Alerted, I flicked through my latest novel, completed but last week – immediately to discover the central character “batting away” a difficult question. More significantly, whenever he thinks of God the image that floats to mind is that of a tall man gesticulating from the boundary… The novel ends with hero and heroine walking out into the winter night “to face whatever the darkness was about to bowl at them.”
It was my grandfather, the writer S.P.B. Mais, who kindled this interest. He was a “duffer and rabbit of the first order”, who in a long village cricket career never got called upon to bowl, and was noted for dropping catches. But he risked prison – and even lost his family home near Brighton – in an ultimately successful battle with the local council for the right of Southwick Cricket Club to continue playing on the village green. And while he never lived to watch him chip one of his gracefully-timed boundaries, I feel that he would applaud my favourite cricketer and not give a brass razoo that I have chosen an Australian. That he would, in fact, share the unmodish thought that it’s how you play the game which matters far more than who you play it for.
I was in Tasmania in November 2007 when Adam Gilchrist hit his 100th test six at Hobart’s Bellerive Oval, slogging Muttiah Muralitharan out of the ground. The innings was typical of “Gilly”. A reminder of how he had changed the nature of Test Cricket. A fast-hitting left-hander – like all the great batsmen – he legitimised its passing from a slow sport to a one-day speed. For 120 years, it goes along at 2.5-3.5 runs an over. Then Gilchrist comes in, and now 4.5 runs is considered quite attainable. On this November day, he made an unbeaten 67. No one could have hit the ball more sweetly or in his own way. Few people have invented a shot – it’s as rare as inventing a new knot for a tie. One thinks of W.G. Grace. Ranjit Singh’s square cut. And Gilchrist’s signature chip over slips.
Also in Hobart three days earlier, Gilchrist had won the player’s poll for Australia’s greatest one-day international player. His modest reaction was in keeping with what, for his fans, is saintly about him. Even his surname has Christ in it.
He had not come into the national team till quite late; waiting around for Ian Healey to leave. So he had catching up to do. But his furious pace was only a fraction of it. There was, for instance, that cap, his ears peeking out from underneath. You never saw him without it. Nor did you hear him sledge. The odd swearword, when an umpire had got it wrong. But none of that “Why are you so fat?” (Correct answer: Because every time I **** your wife, she gives me a biscuit). And he had such a healthy, clean-living face. “The excellent Western Australian teeth Martin Amis would give his left testicle for,” as one friend put it.
He’s inventing shots; he’s scoring faster; he’s hitting harder than anyone else. And then to top it all, he has to keep wicket to Shane Warne. He has to keep wicket to the best bowler who’s ever been. But it’s a double act. A bowler like that needs a keeper like that to keep him going.
He retired at top of his game (timing again) the day after passing a record 414 Test dismissals. His batting average was in the high 40s and included the second fastest Test century. In an age of celebrity, he was that, too, without wanting to be anything more than a sportsman.
And then there’s his walking. Sometimes, one suspects, he walks without even being out. But if he stayed, you could be damn sure there was no doubt.
In cricket, the umpire’s decision is right, even if he’s wrong. What Gilchrist did, in the way that cricket sometimes does throw up paradoxes, was to say: Sometimes when the umpire’s right, he’s wrong.
In fact, in his sense of honesty, he could almost be a Pom.
As Max Davidson writes in his forthcoming book on sportsmanship, It’s Not the Winning That Counts (Little Brown): “Now that Gilchrist has retired, the honesty he epitomised remains the template by which other cricketers will be judged.”