Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and now Adam Gilchrist will long be lauded for their services to Test cricket but – perversely – one of their greatest contributions to the five-day game could be their retirement. In their absence, Test cricket now has some chance of recapturing its evenness and competitiveness, perhaps even its magic.
In the process, it can also hopefully withstand the threat posed to it by Twenty20 cricket, the Indian Premier League and other money-making spinoffs that seemingly emerge by the month.
When Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist were young and agile, they were so good they turned Test cricket into a jaundiced, lop-sided version of the once-great game. Australia routinely crushed its opponents, none of whom had the talent – or backbone – to withstand the particular mix of high art and aggro that the Australians routinely served up. Having trouble dislodging a batsman? Throw Warnie the ball. Need some quick runs to break open a game? Send in Gilly. It was that simple.
Now, in the afterglow of an enchanting series against India, we can see what we’ve been missing for more than a decade: some competition. It’s the essence of any sporting endeavour. There has to be some measure of evenness, some chance the underdog will succeed, otherwise the contest has no chance of winning popular appeal. Otherwise, it is competition in name only. Otherwise, we may as well be watching the Washington Generals play patsy to the Harlem Globetrotters.
The Indians gave as good as they got in the series, overstepping the mark at times in Sydney, but they were always in there having a go. Had the Indian selectors not delayed including Virender Sehwag and Irfan Pathan until the third Test, and the umpiring in Sydney been not quite so incompetent, then the visitors might have given the hosts a real fright.
In the rough and tumble of the four Tests, some Australian reputations have taken, if not a battering, then a dint or two. Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey, Shaun Tait, Gilchrist and Brad Hogg were all below their best, to varying degrees. Brett Lee, by contrast, was outstanding and a worthy winner of Player of the Series.
After the bitterness and rancour early in the tour, some scintillating cricket was played by both sides. And the Australian public reveled in the contest. Cricket was once again the topic of conversation around barbeques and water coolers; it recaptured its place as the sporting keystone of summer life.
Not so long ago, that was almost unthinkable. As England was getting hammered 5-0 last summer, and South Africa beaten 2-0 in a three-Test series the year before that, Test cricket on TV was good only for getting an afternoon kip on the couch. It was growing old and decayed before our eyes.
Now, there may be signs of a renaissance.
So, Gilly, farewell. You were not just the greatest keeper-batsman to play the game but the guardian of its most noble traditions. Test cricket won’t be the same without you but, all things considered, that may be no bad thing.