What if Wednesday | What if Australia appointed Adam Gilchrist as their ODI skipper in 2001

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Much before MS Dhoni’s legacy as a wicketkeeper captain started to bloom, there was a serious chance that it could have been Australia’s Adam Gilchrist, had he been appointed as the skipper in 2001. In this episode of What if Wednesday, we are looking at how that could have been a game-changer.

The year is 2001 and Australia are still hung-over from their World Cup win in 1999 against Pakistan, where Adam Gilchrist played a pivotal role. Gilchrist continues his merry run in world cricket, getting himself ready to be one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Year in 2002. That coincides with Steve Waugh’s injury and the Australian management giving the captaincy to the wicketkeeper-batsman. However, away from the ODI scene, Waugh continues leading the side in the longest format with Ricky Ponting being made as the successor for the right-handed Waugh. 

The pathway is clear, Australia’s vision is unique to world cricket with a rather split-captaincy in 2001. In the absence of Waugh in the limited-overs format, Ponting is also appointed as the deputy to the wicketkeeper in the limited-overs set-up. The management has taken the decision to make the southpaw the skipper following good captaincy against Zimbabwe and West Indies, identifying him as the No.1 choice ahead of the talented Tasmanian. 

Away they travel Sri Lanka where the 29-year-old makes several key decisions, with the World Cup defence just a year away. In comes youngster Shane Watson who has impressed one and all with his all-round skills at the age of 21. While having the core of the side retained from their World Cup campaign, Australia cruise past the group stages with relative ease. However, in the semi-final, the wicketkeeper has some real challenges to meet as they are to face the home side on a slow and dry wicket. 

Gilchrist’s first big decision of his career arrives and in style as he drops experienced Darren Lehmann for the inclusion of Nathan Hauritz. Alongside Shane Warne, Hauritz works his face-off in the contest but not with the ball as Australia are reduced to 107/7. The duo, in a miraculous fashion, starts putting Australia back into the contest with a steady partnership, working past Sri Lanka’s spin-dominated attack. Yet the duo can only add 60 runs on board, as the visitors collapse to a total of 196. Sri Lanka, in the second innings, make light work of the Australian bowling attack as Gilchrist’s captaincy comes under the scanner. On the other hand, nothing dramatic has transpired in the longest format, with Waugh still leading the side. 

However, the focus of the management has shifted towards the ODI format, given that the World Cup is around the corner. In lieu of building a team around Gilchrist’s ideology, the management decides to rope in two youngsters - Stuart Clark and Michael Clarke into the setup alongside the existing Shane Watson. However, the core of the team stays true to its head, with the skipper at the top alongside Matthew Hayden. Yet again, the wicketkeeper drops a bomb-shell that veterans Ian Harvey and Darren Lehmann are set to miss out from the premier tournament. Knowing that there is no age ahead in this tunnel, Lehmann decides to hang up his boots from the ODI format. In the absence of Shane Warne, Gilchrist turns up at Hauritz’s door to give him the happy news. It was an unlike Australian selection, with a chunk of youngsters in the setup but that is how Gilchrist now wants to run the team. 

Slowly yet steadily, the team make their progress in the competition, on the back of a dazzling run from the openers and middle-order batsman Ricky Ponting. Together they look indestructible, with wins against all opposition until the final stage, where they face an Indian side who are high on confidence. Australia, playing Hauritz ahead of the ageing Andy Bichel turn out to be a bizarre decision as India opted to bat first. 

The indestructible force of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag get India off to a flyer, as the middle-order pile up more pressure as the score read 329/6. Gilchrist and co have a task in hand but a big one, chasing against India in the big final, with pressure on them to chase down the target. Whilst the openers are dismissed relatively quickly by Harbhajan Singh, Ponting and Martyn put up a valiant partnership in the middle-overs. Despite the presence of Michael Bevan in the lower-order, Australia collapse under the spin pressure in extreme circumstances to give India their second World Cup win. 

Immediately, Bevan hangs up the boots as several others are left disappointed. From the captaincy front, Gilchrist has failed for the second tournament in a row and a third loss more or less would seal his captaincy days as a quick-fix. Meanwhile, Ricky Ponting is growing into a monster-self as a captain, with wins in Sri Lanka, India, New Zealand, South Africa basically almost everywhere in the cricketing world, with his captaincy being hailed as one of the ‘best.’ That put immense pressure on Gilchrist, who continued to struggle in terms of coming away with a trophy with the ‘golden’ age of Australian cricket and cricketers. 

The pressure and the race are seriously on between the two, as egos collide after the 2006 Champions Trophy as Australia secure an impressive victory against West Indies in India. While Watson emerges as the biggest deal from the tournament, on back of the extended support from Gilchrist, the inclusion of talents like Nathan Bracken on sluggish wickets in India aids Australia. Finally, the Kangaroos are packing a punch, seven years after their previous ICC title, their first under the new era. However, all eyes are on the beautiful silverware, the World Cup which was just months away. So much so it has put all kinds of pressure on the southpaw, who will turn 35 by the time the tournament comes flying in. 

After having impressed one and all in his short-international career, Mitchell Johnson wins himself a place in the squad, as Gilchrist is set to lead the side for one last time. Australia brushes aside the challenge of South Africa, Netherlands, and Scotland with ease as the skipper leads from the front. Nothing dramatic unfurls in the Super Eight stage, as the men in Yellow continue to cruise through the top sides around the world. Two challenges, two teams now stood in between the 35-year-old wicketkeeper and the coveted trophy. First up, they have South Africa in the semi-finals, a side which has got the Kangaroos number multiple times in the past. But this time, none of their magic works for them and the Aussies crush South Africa fair and square. 

In the final, they face Sri Lanka, which provides them with an opportunity to avenge their 2002 Champions Trophy defeat. Leading from the front, the ‘Gilly’ show is on at Barbados as the southpaw scores 149 runs in the final alongside support from Hayden and Ponting as Australia reach 281/4 after 38 overs. 

However, during the run-chase, before the blink of an eye, Sri Lanka lost the plot in a dramatic fashion to hand Australia their first World Cup win in eight years. and Gilchrist, finally lays his hands on the coveted trophy. The wait is finally over, as Australia turn a new page under the New South Wales star’s captaincy. Simultaneously, the ICC are planning to host the first edition of the T20 World Cup in South Africa where Gilly and co dominate. 

Unfortunately for Australia, Gilly decides to hang his boots with Ricky Ponting being made the new skipper. However, that is not the biggest shock as Darren Lehmann is brought back into the setup as a mentor-cum-coach for the first of its kind tournament. As uncanny a player he was, Lehmann decides to team up Watson and Hayden at the top of the order in Gilchrist’s absence as David Hussey slotted in a Lehmann-esque role and Brad Hodge in a finisher role. George Bailey, who had scored 150 runs in the KFC T20 tournament, walks into the setup for the very first time in a refreshing Australian team. 

On the back of Ponting’s measured captaincy, Australia decimate almost every opposition they face on the way, including India in the semi-final before they face Pakistan in the final. However, it is not that easy as both teams end on a tie before Hussey and Watson hit the stumps in a bowl-out to lead Australia to the first T20 World title as the world came hurling down in circles. Watching from the stand, Gilchrist jumps and applauds the efforts. Two years down the line, the story came to a full circle when Gilchrist and Lehmann, who are working as coach and skipper for the Indian Premier League side Deccan Chargers, win the franchise’s first title in a fairytale season, embracing each other after beating Royal Challengers Bangalore in the final. 

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