World beater turned understudy
Nobody - especially his team-mates - is suggesting he is headed quickly for scrap, but during this series the world's most successful paceman has filled a holding role. If any regular wind was able to penetrate the two massive stands at the MCG he would have been running into it and his shifting situation was highlighted today as Australia sealed a 1-0 lead. McGrath waited 90 minutes to bowl and was drifting around the outfield with occasional encouragement and ball shining when Shaun Pollock ended the chances of a swift conclusion.
As Brett Lee has proved his attack-leading capabilities this summer, McGrath has been relegated to highly qualified support and after missing the Chappell-Hadlee Series, which he did with permission to rest, his impact has been reduced. Maidens have joined tight lines as his staple and in this match he has been surrounded by three hit men in Lee, Warne and MacGill.
In six Tests this season his economy rate has been less than his career mark of 2.5, but his strike-rate has expanded by about 15 balls a wicket. Despite his protestations that he's feeling great, he struggled on a flat pitch in Perth and may fill a back-up role for the remainder of his career.
With hands on hips McGrath watched Stuart MacGill and Shane Warne take the first opportunities for the opening half hour as Lee stretched to replace MacGill. Lee swept in and out, Warne removed Ashwell Prince to a contentious close catch and MacGill returned for a second stint before McGrath was eventually hollered from fine leg.
He didn't look grumpy at being Ricky Ponting's fourth-choice, but he delivered an irritating spell to the South Africans and a message that he should not be under-rated. Australia have been fortunate to have him working at an A-plus level for so long and within 30 minutes he secured the breakthrough his team-mates had struggled with by bowling Nicky Boje and removing Andre Nel.
By lunch he had 3 for 44 from 15 overs and had forced Pollock, who was rarely troubled and finished unbeaten on 67, to play, miss and leave. McGrath's part in the team may be changing and the dusk of his career approaching, but he is still invaluable and Australia have no short-term plans of sending him the same way as Gillespie and Kasprowicz.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo