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The walk that talked

By Peter Roebuck
March 19, 2003 13:14 IST
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Something strange happened in Port Elizabeth yesterday morning. An Australian batsman left the field without waiting upon the instruction of the umpire. In cricketing parlance he "walked". As he did a hush came over the St George's Park, the sort of silence that generally presages a typhoon or a remark from Gary Cooper that it was too darned quiet. Had a dodo been spotted flying around, the astonishment could hardly have been more widespread. Hitherto there have been no reports of other unusual events occurring across the globe but they are hourly expected.

Life cannot proceed without its certainties, amongst them that Australian batsman do not leave the crease without a raised finger unless their stumps have been scattered, and even then not on a windy day.

Adam GilchristOf course it is too early to tell whether Adam Gilchrist's voluntary departure heralds a new age of sportsmanship or was merely an aberration. At such times it is inevitable that observers study the evidence in search of clues that might have been missed, warning signs indicating that the distinguished and recently deposed vice-captain of Australia had taken leave of his senses. After all we need time to prepare ourselves for these radical manoeuvres. They cannot be sprung upon us for we are not entirely without feeling.

Several things are known about this mysterious character, amongst them that he has numerous children, large ears and a penchant for striking the ball over the boundary. At first sight none of these traits suggests that a penchant for walking is imminent. Perhaps Gilchrist, or Gilly as he was called by confidantes before this strangeness came over him, was making a point about the futility of sporting endeavour in a time of war. Or else showing that despite the sound and fury Australians are not such bad fellows.

Perhaps the story should be told in its entirety so that readers can decide for themselves. Australia had reached the semi-final of a World Cup and was facing the might of Sri Lanka in the seaside city of Port Elizabeth. Ricky Ponting and his merry men were nervous because semi-finals are traumatic besides which the terrain favoured an opponent that had several mysterious characters of its own, including one chap with the most bizarre bowling action ever to pass master. Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, a muscular banana-bender, took such a toll of the opposing fast bowlers that presently the ball was thrown to Aravinda de Silva, a practitioner of more gentle persuasion.

Gilchrist was facing. He stooped to sweep in the manner of Mrs Mop. Rather than rushing to the boundary the ball followed a gentle parabola and was taken by the Sri Lankan wicket-keeper. Uncertain of its whereabouts, Gilchrist scanned the horizon. All Sri Lanka appealed for a catch. Rudi Koertzen, a stern and respected umpire from the host nation, shook his head and said "not out". Realising it had all happened in a blur, the Sri Lankans took the setback in their stride. Certainly they considered the matter closed.

And then Gilchrist decided to depart of his own accord. It was an extraordinary gesture made at the start of a crucial match. Australians have never believed in walking, regarding it as a strategy easily misused by the unscrupulous. For a long time they stood alone in their refusal to give themselves out. Between the ages of W.G. Grace and Geoffrey Boycott, Englishmen walked or faced the wrath of friend and foe. Honesty was instilled in schools, clubs and counties and spread across the empire.

Only the Australians resisted. Professionals applied the code with even greater rigidity. Cheats were upbraided. Not till the 1970s did anything change. Then the stakes grew so high that players across the world stood their ground. Only one man had walked previously in the tournament, Aravinda de Silva, the very man bowling when Gilchrist gave himself out. Virtue had its reward.

If Gilchrist's gesture indicates a new age of cricket then it will be a fine thing for the world has enough troubles. Certainly it has helped to improve the sometimes frayed relations between Australia and Sri Lanka. Sporting deeds remain long in the memory for they reflect well upon the man and his team. As he left the field Gilchrist reminded all and sundry that it is only a game and, though winning is important, it is not the only consideration.

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