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January 2, 2007
In the first Test at the Gabba, amid a frenzy of hype, he was the coolest character in the game as he scalped his tremulous opposition with six decisive first-innings wickets. Today, McGrath had to peer through a blizzard of sentimentality, but still managed to extract the two biggest wickets of the day in the space of five innings-altering balls.
He did so, of course, by doing as he always does: by finding his spot, and daring his opponents to break before he did. As ever, his tactics took patience, and they took the odd moment of frustration - not least when Justin Langer, the most emotional of the retirees on show, shelled the sort of third-slip catch that a non-retiree might have guzzled. But McGrath's close-of-play figures of 2 for 57 in 21 overs were still typical of the man and his methods.
Kevin Pietersen's dismissal was evidence, however, that McGrath is not merely a one-length wonder. According to this week's well-documented rumours, Pietersen was none too keen to shift from his habitual No. 5 position, but for 101 studiously negotiated deliveries, he did as he was bid, and set about compiling a vital century stand for the third wicket.
His innings had been a fascinating blend of exaggeratedly studious defensive prods and eager galloping down the track, but then came two indiscreet shots in three balls from McGrath, and the momentum shifted straight back to Australia. A top-edged pull fell safe behind midwicket, but another, even more ambitious shot, did not. It was even, dare one say it, a shot that a Test No. 4 shouldn't be playing.
"It's something that we've seen quite regularly from him," was the opinion of John Buchanan, Australia's coach. "It's a tactic to change the length of a bowler, if he has built up a series of dot balls. Any bowler who's challenged needs to respond, and Glenn responded pretty well."
Ian Bell, on the other hand, was nailed by the classic McGrath delivery, a ball as archetypal of the man as Shane Warne's leg-stump fizzer. Pitching in no-man's land just back of a length, threatening to go one way but nibbling oh-so-minutely the other, and pinging the top of middle-and-off. It was a beacon of perfection disguised as mundanity, and Bell - the most technically composed batsman in the England team - played a perfect defensive stroke and still missed it by a mile.
It was yet another plucky and impressive performance from Bell - his fourth half-century of the series and his sixth in ten Tests against Australia. But once again he failed to go on to a hundred, an improbable failing from a man who has a 1 in 3 conversion-rate in first-class cricket, and who loves nothing more than to bat and bat and bat.
England's openers, on the other hand, have forgotten the art of accumulation. Alastair Cook has not been the same since falling late on the fourth day at Perth, while Andrew Strauss finally looked like the man he had been pretending to be all tour - a batsman out of form. He survived umpteen chances, including Langer's drop, before wafting loosely at Brett Lee. It completed a dismal run of partnerships for England's openers - 28,29,32,31,36,0,23,41 and 45. Lots of starts, as Geoffrey Boycott might grumble, but no finishes.
At least England looked like a team determined to fight today. That had been the most galling of the missing ingredients at Melbourne last week, but the manner in which Andrew Flintoff shed his inhibitions and persevered with his natural game augured well for England's prospects. With more rain around to keep the pitch fresh, a total of 350 or more could be enough to give Australia - and their emotions - a run for their pension funds.
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