Australia without their strike bowler December 25, 2003

The Glenn McGrath factor

Glenn McGrath's absence has been the single biggest blow to Australia in this series



Would India be leading 1-0 if Glenn McGrath was around?
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The last time Australia went into a Test match trailing 1-0 in the series, Mark Taylor - now providing entertaining insights on Channel 9 - was captain. Nasser Hussain's blood-and-guts double-hundred at Edgbaston had earned England a shock lead in the Ashes series of 1997, and with the Lord's match affected by rain, Australia went to Old Trafford still chasing shadows.

It wasn't yet a crisis, but Steve Waugh still delivered, cracking 108 and 116 as Australia romped to a 268-run victory. Between them, Shane Warne - another forced into the commentary box, the result of a misdemeanour rather than retirement - and Glenn McGrath took 16 wickets to square the series and tilt the momentum irreversibly towards Australia.

Two years later, with Warne and Jason Gillespie injured, Australia went into the Antigua Test needing to win to square an enthralling series at 2-2. After wiping the floor with West Indies in Trinidad, Brian Lara's batting heroics - unquestionably the greatest by a modern-day batsman - had engineered upsets at Kingston and Bridgetown.

The occasion demanded nothing less, and Australia delivered another impressive performance, with Justin Langer (51 and 127) taking up the charge after Steve Waugh had shown the way with a gritty first-innings 72. Lara made a scintillating 84-ball hundred in the first innings, but was leg before to McGrath for just 7 in the second knock as Australia prevailed by 176 runs. It was a tremendous victory, one of the best in their history, if only because they went in with a bowling line-up of McGrath, Stuart MacGill, Adam Dale and Colin Miller - one legend, backed up by three effective performers who weren't within sniffing distance of the bowling pantheon.

McGrath was the fulcrum, getting through 63.1 overs for figures of 6 for 114. When people talk of how much Australia miss him, they usually point to the 430 wickets and the miserly economy rate (2.50). They omit to mention that he has averaged close to 40 overs in the 95 Tests he has played for Australia. The likes of Malcolm Marshall and Dennis Lillee, not to forget Wasim Akram, may have had more variety and subtlety to them, but as a workhorse-thoroughbred, McGrath has perhaps no equal in the history of the modern game. Without him, the likes of Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee have a harder time of it, very much like Fred Trueman did when he didn't have the ceaselessly accurate Brian Statham at the other end.

Those seeking to make excuses for Australia being 1-0 down in the series point to the absence of McGrath, Lee, Warne and Gillespie - for the business end of the Adelaide Test. Of those, only one is a genuine excuse. Warne has never been a factor against a team that play spin as fluently as the Indians do, while Lee's in-your-face pace isn't enough to rattle a middle order as strong as India's. Not much should be made of his figures against India in 1999, because that was the weakest Indian side in living memory, littered with misfits like Debang Gandhi, MSK Prasad and Vijay Bharadwaj.

McGrath's absence, however, was a crushing blow for Waugh as he sought appropriate exit lines. Australia have suffered in this series from the absence of a tourniquet, as India have scored at well over three an over. It could yet be the decisive factor at Melbourne and Sydney, with neither Lee, Brad Williams or Andy Bichel capable of silencing India's bat-music.

You sense that India only need to hold their nerve - something they haven't done particularly well in series on foreign soil down the years - to see off this Australian challenge. Sachin Tendulkar's poor run of form is, ironically, another positive. When it comes to the big matches, he usually signs off with a flourish, and they don't get any bigger than Melbourne and Sydney.

It was recently written about Waugh that his unsmiling nature and the arrogance of his side made him a lesser leader than the likes of Clive Lloyd. Just so much tosh really, since a captain's job isn't about showing pearly whites. It's about winning, the only thing - Vince Lombardi and Bill Shankly, two of the greatest coaches in the history of sport said so, and who the hell are we to argue with that? - and no one's done that better than Waugh. But the ribbons that tie his legacy together have suddenly come loose, and he has only ten days to re-tie them, starting Boxing Day.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. He will be following India throughout this series.