Genuine article: Gary Gilmour played 15 Tests for Australia. Photo: Peter Stoop
In backyard cricket in the mid-1970s, everyone wanted to be Gus Gilmour. Children knew pure charisma without it being pre-packaged. Gilmour oozed insouciant talent, whether it was wielding willow like an axe or rolling through the bowling crease without stop or start, a pure flow that only ended when he stopped, tucked his shirt into his waistband, and went back to start again.
Whereas the Chappells, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee showed how cricket could feed the competitive colonial fire, Gilmour’s appeal was more simple: he showed, without words or facial hair, how cricket could make you happy. He was responsible for more kids trying to bat and bowl left-handed than anyone but Garfield Sobers.
As Ian Chappell said on Tuesday after hearing of Gilmour’s death, he was at the head of the queue when talent was handed out. As an Australian Schoolboys representative, Gilmour toured the West Indies with a team including Trevor Chappell, Gary Cosier, Ian Davis and another charismatic fair-haired left-hander from regional NSW, Bob Thomas (who was later our beloved primary school cricket coach).
Rare talent: Gary Gilmour lets fly in 1975.
It must have been some sight at Wildey, Barbados, on Christmas Eve 1969 when Gilmour and Thomas dismantled the Banks Brewery XI bowlers. Gilmour ended the tour, in a match against St Kitts Combined Clubs, with scores of 8 and 68 and match figures of 10/38. Life for a Newcastle schoolkid surely couldn’t get much better.
Gilmour remained a child prodigy even as an adult. From 1972, when he scored 122 on his first-class debut for NSW, success seemed to come easily. He was playing Test cricket less than two years later, and his best years were capped by a crucial role in Australia’s 5-1 win over the West Indies in 1975-76 and maiden century when putting on 217 with Doug Walters against New Zealand at Christchurch. In the meantime, Gilmour gave his most famous performance, in the 1975 World Cup semi-final against England at Headingley, where his 6/14 in 12 overs and 28 not out saved Australia’s tournament, dispatched the old enemy and started a fever in cricket-mad children across the globe.
When World Series Cricket arrived in 1977, Gilmour was a natural fit, yet instead of being a superstar of the commercial age, he was swallowed up by it. Everything was in place for a player of his gifts, but the relentless competition of WSC dulled his edge. Instead of being the first man of the new professional era, he was a last man of the old. He was picked only four times for Australia’s Supertest team and was consigned to the one-day caravan, playing a staggering 55 matches in two seasons from Mildura to Maitland and Mount Smart to Sabina Park. The grind of touring and unremitting hard cricket against the best players in the world, often on poor wickets, without a break to rejuvenate himself in lower grades, diminished Gilmour’s talents.
As Greg Chappell wrote in his autobiography Fierce Focus, Gilmour had "never had to work as hard as others, and his … first major setbacks in cricket didn’t come until he was an international, and that’s a hell of a place to have to start rethinking your game. Gus acted very laid-back, but it hurt him when he didn’t perform well; it took him by surprise, and he found it hard to relax and have confidence in his ability to bounce back." In the years before international teams had coaches, Gilmour was left to sink or swim.
The swiftness of Gilmour’s eclipse – he only played two Sheffield Shield matches after WSC, and was finished as a first-class cricketer before his 29th birthday – added to the mystique. As Brian Wilson – similar hairdo, similar mercurial genius – sang, he just wasn’t made for these times. After cricket, Gilmour was beset by poor health and bad luck. But he continues to live large in the imagination. He is a vivid presence, a bearer of staggering gifts who triggered a generation’s love of the game.