Patrick Noone speaks to the Australian great about his seminal Ashes hundred in 2006
Sport is full of redemption stories. Performances that, seemingly against all odds, banish demons from earlier troubles or failures. Think David Beckham against Greece, Tiger Woods at the Masters or Steve Smith in the Ashes – these are the kind of narratives and character arcs that fans are drawn to. There’s a certain satisfaction to be found in seeing a previously divisive figure bringing together a nation or the guy who hit rock bottom sitting atop the world once again. Like a Hollywood film with a cheesy ending, only in real life.
There is often talk of proving doubters wrong, of regaining the fans’ trust or of restoring a legend to his or her rightful perch. But rarely do redemption stories focus on the redemptive effect they can have on the protagonist themselves.
In 2006, Adam Gilchrist did not so much require redemption, as catharsis. There had been no off-field indiscretion like Woods, nor any high profile misdemeanour to divide the nation like Beckham or Smith, but a journey that began on a chilly morning at Lord’s and ended on a sun-soaked, run-soaked evening in Perth nonetheless contained a similarly parabolic trajectory in terms of where Gilchrist began, and where he ended up.
The previous year had seen Australia surrender the Ashes to England at last and Gilchrist himself had endured a torrid series, failing to pass 50 in nine innings as he was tormented by Andrew Flintoff persistently bowling from around the wicket. Gilchrist looks back on the troubles he faced against the England all-rounder who got him out four times in the 2005 series, the joint most any bowler ever dismissed him in a single series.
‘That was the first time in my career that I had really felt under siege from an opponent from what I assumed were well-thought out and well-plotted tactics.’
As well as Flintoff’s angle that continually cramped Gilchrist for room, skipper Michael Vaughan cannily used his field placings to limit one of Gilchrist’s primary strengths, that of punishing wide balls through the off-side.
‘They were agile with their field settings – I certainly always felt traditionally that field settings to me tended to follow a certain path and then evolve through an innings, but it felt like they were setting quite unique fields to me in that 2005 series.
‘There might be one slip and a floater and almost a fly slip or deep backward point, clearly targeting an area, on or just outside the off-stump.
‘It meant that if they got a bit wide, they were really protecting that area, which was a strength for me, but they had it well-blocked, both in a conservative run-saving sense, but also with attacking catchers there as well.’
It was a plan that worked emphatically as Australia saw their most destructive weapon have his wings clipped as they were forced to surrender the Ashes after 18 years in possession. Gilchrist, meanwhile, was left to reflect on his approach that had served him so well throughout his career and for the first time, doubt was starting to creep in.
Being aggressive was something that came naturally to Gilchrist, even from his days as a junior cricketer. That instinct to hit the ball and hit it hard came from his father’s training regimes, though he is quick to point out that Gilchrist Sr. was not the stereotypical demanding sporting parent.
‘That came more from my side! I was nagging him to keep throwing deliveries, to keep bowling to me, to keep coaching me.
‘He used to do a mountain of technique drills to try and lay the foundation for my technique, but for the last part of any session we had he would always say, “right, for the last 20 balls or so, I’m going to throw them and you have to just whack it, just hit the ball. Forget technique, just try and feel that joy of the ball hitting the middle of the bat”.’
That Gilchrist was able to translate that liberated approach to batting into the Test arena and make a success of it speaks volumes about the calibre of player he had become. Up until the start of the 2005 Ashes, he already had 15 Test centuries with an overall strike rate in excess of 80. Yet such was the stranglehold that Flintoff and co. had over him during that summer that Gilchrist was struggling to make sense of things.
‘I must say the effect and the legacy of the mental battle of 2005 carried over right up until the 06-07 series. I carried the mental scars of that series for a good 18 months or so probably until that innings at the WACA. That was where I was able to exorcise the demons of that 2005 series.’
That innings at the WACA.
That innings at the WACA.
There can scarcely have been a better opportunity for a player of Gilchrist’s skillset to arrive at the crease in a Test match. It was late on Day 3 and Australia were a mammoth 394 runs ahead of England, who had toiled in the field for over 90 overs in the unforgiving Western Australian sun, while Michael Clarke was 79 not out at the other end. The stage was perfectly set for Gilchrist on his home ground.
Yet he had not had it all his own way so far in the match. In his first innings, Gilchrist faced four balls, all from Monty Panesar, and only attacked one of them, ultimately being dismissed for a duck after prodding at one that popped up to Ian Bell at short leg. The demons that had formed in Gilchrist’s mind during the 2005 series had not been allayed, despite a 64 at Adelaide in the previous Test and this was his second duck of the series. Gilchrist describes walking off the field as one of the lowest moments of his career.
‘I was at rock bottom mentally and was thinking two things. Firstly, I might be close to retiring after this series, I reckon I’ve had enough. And secondly, if I face Monty again, I don’t mind if I get caught, but it’s not going to be at bat-pad, it’s at least going to be down on the fence having a crack.’
Ultimately, Gilchrist was persuaded that now was not the time for retirement after consulting with loved ones.
‘I had a good chat with my nearest and dearest about retiring and they figuratively slapped me around the head and told me I was just whinging about a duck in the first innings and being too negative of mind.’
But he kept the second of the promises he made to himself in devastating fashion.
The first ball Gilchrist faced in his second innings was from Panesar. A bit of a long hop that Gilchrist punched aggressively to mid-on but was unable to beat the fielder to get off the mark. It meant that Gilchrist would resume his battle with Flintoff before he could think about taking on Panesar again.
Flintoff, now captaining the beleaguered tourists, was starting the fourth over of a spell and immediately resorted to the round the wicket tactic that had served him so well 18 months previously. And it nearly worked again. The second ball he bowled to Gilchrist was wide, the left-hander threw his hands at it but failed to make a clean connection and the thick edge squeezed through gully for four.
Gilchrist theorises that fatigue was playing a role in the England skipper’s plans to him.
‘I don’t know whether he was tired or a bit weary or just not concentrating with his field settings, but I got off the mark with a flashy back foot slash that went through a vacant gully region for four.
‘Normally there might have been a fielder there but there wasn’t on this occasion.’
Whether that was the reason or not, the fact is that the traps that had been so expertly laid in 2005 and could well have seen Gilchrist on his way for a pair were no longer in place. He was off the mark and, if his first scoring shot had an element of fortune about it, his next one was nothing but timing, power and class.
‘I then played a similar shot and absolutely smoked it forward of point for four.
‘All the cricketing clichés will say you’re one good shot away from turning it around. That just felt like everything I’d ever dreamt of as a batsman – to feel the ball come out of the middle – and that just kickstarted me.’
Now Gilchrist was away, the familiar joy of feeling the ball come off the middle of the bat had been restored and, after seeing off 12 successive balls from Flintoff, he had a chance to renew hostilities with Panesar.
In the last two years of Gilchrist’s Test career, he came out of his crease against spinners roughly 12% of the time, well above the global average of 6%. Clearly then, it was something he was comfortable doing, but in this innings, he took it to new levels.
‘There was a howling breeze at my back that he was bowling into and I remembered my comment to myself as I was walking off in the first innings, that at least if I was to get out it would be trying to hit him for six.’
With his own promise to not die wondering against Panesar ringing in his ears, Gilchrist charged at seven of the 17 balls he faced from England’s premier spinner of the time, taking him for 40 runs in all, including four fours and three sixes.
‘I was going to have as much positive intent as I possibly could. I guess the match scenario lent itself to me being a bit more free and easy in comparison to the first innings and we just got on a roll from there.’
Gilchrist was generally a batsman who slightly favoured the off-side, but here he instead targeted the midwicket region for the bulk of his runs, particularly against Panesar. Hitting with the breeze and with the ball turning into his arc, Gilchrist dispatched the left-arm spinner time after time into stands full of increasingly raucous Australian fans.
Gilchrist and Clarke put on an unbeaten stand of 162 for the sixth wicket before the declaration came that evening, giving England six overs to face before stumps on Day 3. Clarke was the perfect foil for Gilchrist and played his part in upping the scoring rate, increasing his attacking shot percentage from 28% to 37% after reaching his hundred.
However, their partnership – and indeed what was arguably the defining innings of Gilchrist’s Test career – might not have happened had the players in the middle followed instructions from their captain.
‘Michael Clarke and I sent a message to Ricky [Ponting] feeling like we had the England bowlers under the pump,’ remembers Gilchrist.
‘It was so hot and if we went hard for an hour, we might even be able to contemplate a declaration that night. That was clearly pretty aggressive – it was only Day 3 of the Test, we were 2-0 up and in the driving seat of the series, not just the Test match.
‘We got the 12th man to come out and said “look, tell Punter to give us a thumbs up if it’s a yes to go for the slog, or a thumbs down if you want us to just play it out until stumps.”
‘We were sure we saw a thumbs up, so we pinned the ears back and went for it and that’s when the onslaught came.
‘We declared and came in and Ricky Ponting’s standing there with the double teapot stance saying, “what was all that about?” because he’d actually given us a thumbs down, but we’d misread the signal.
‘But anyway, we got a wicket that night so that vindicated the decision to have a bit of a slog.’
A quirk of fate that allowed it to happen, perhaps, but for Gilchrist, this was a Test hundred that meant more than most.
‘It was definitely an innings that broke the shackles that I’d felt tied up by since 2005 and it was an innings that reminded me of what the game’s all about, of why we first started playing cricket as youngsters. To just hit the ball and feel the joy of the ball coming out of the middle of the bat.
‘That’s what the hunt always was for me as a batsman, to try and feel that ball just firing out of the screws of the bat. That was a natural instinct that stayed with me throughout my career and it was probably that which meant I struggled in ‘05, trying to rein that in.
‘The issue was the uncertainty of how to balance that natural instinct with finding a way to survive.’
Those natural instincts are borne out statistically as well. Even after 17 years of T20 cricket influencing the way Test batsman play, Gilchrist remains the most attacking batsman in the CricViz database, while his day out at the WACA was the most attacking innings of 50 balls or more until Colin de Grandhomme surpassed it in 2017.
But Gilchrist’s innings was about more than the raw numbers and records, even the one that dominates the conversation on the television commentary as he approaches three figures. Viv Richards had held the record for the fastest Test century for 20 years and, as Gilchrist took Panesar for 24 off a single over to leave him 73 from 44 balls, there was a genuine chance that history could be made and he could reach the milestone faster than Viv’s 56-ball effort.
As the commentators speculated as to whether or not he could break the record, Gilchrist says it wasn’t something that he was even aware of.
‘I had absolutely no idea about it. I didn’t know how many balls I’d faced, I don’t think it even displayed that on the scoreboard at the time.
‘The WACA is one of the rare grounds with the old scoreboard so I was just keeping an eye on that as to where I was runs-wise. But even that was a bit irrelevant, it was just a free-for-all slogfest and a bit of fun.’
Gilchrist would ultimately reach his century from 57 balls, one ball slower than Richards. He has since been surpassed by both Misbah-ul-Haq and Brendon McCullum in terms of fastest Test hundreds, but those kinds of records pale into insignificance in comparison with what the innings meant on a human level.
This would turn out to be Gilchrist’s last Test hundred before his retirement a little over a year later; a final release from the personal horrors of 2005. From contemplating retirement just 48 hours earlier to reflecting that, ‘I was pretty comfy with where I sat in history at that point in time,’ after falling short of Viv’s record represented a remarkable turnaround of mindset in such a short space of time.
Catharsis, redemption, call it what you will – Gilchrist had hit rock bottom and was back on the top of the world again, doing what he did best. The joy of feeling the ball hit the middle of the bat was back, the shackles had been released and Gilchrist was winning the Ashes for the Aussies once again.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz