Glenn McGrath's 500th Test wicket July 21, 2005

“Batsmen would be disappointed if I took it easy on them”

Dileep Premachandran
Interview with Glenn McGrath

Glenn McGrath's career was reckoned to be on the skids after an operation on his ankle ruled him out of all four Tests against India last winter. He spent almost a year out, and didn't look particularly threatening on his return to the one-day side in Zimbabwe. But months of hard work, and the perseverance that has always been his strongest suit, saw McGrath return to the big time against Sri Lanka, and in the opening Test against India at Bangalore he performed like he'd never been away

Glenn McGrath: 'You dream of playing for your country, and when it happens it's a pretty big buzz' © Getty Images

Tell us about the early years. Were you interested in cricket? Did you play other sports?
I grew up in a small country town in New South Wales called Narromine, and I played a lot of sports when I was younger - a bit of cricket, golf, basketball, tennis. I didn't play a great deal of cricket because our captain at the time - who was a year older than me - thought I couldn't bowl [smiles]. So I never got a bowl in the U-16s. I went off and played quite a bit of golf and rep [representative] basketball until I was 15 or 16. When he was too old, I got a chance to bowl.

I played my first representative game when I was 17, and then played in a match where three New South Wales players came down and played for two local teams. In my team, there was Mark Taylor, Greg Matthews and Steve Small, and in the opposition there was Doug Walters and Mark Waugh. It was then that Dougie Walters mentioned me to Steve Rixon, who at the time was playing for Sutherland, a club in Sydney, and he asked me if I'd like to come down and play cricket. I moved to Sydney when I was 19 to give cricket a go. Played for Sutherland, played a few games in second grade, moved up to first grade in 1992 and in `93 I attended the cricket academy in Adelaide. Rod Marsh was then the head coach. In January `93 I played my first game for New South Wales, and played my first Test in November that year. It moved along fairly quickly once I got to Sydney.

When did you first entertain thoughts about playing for Australia? I guess it's something I always wanted to do for as far back as I can remember. In the early years, I probably thought, `No chance'. I mean, I couldn't get a bowl for the local team. But once I was 18 or 19, I had nothing to keep me at home, so I thought why not go to Sydney and see where it leads me? You dream of playing for your country, and when it happens it's a pretty big buzz.

When you watched some of your contemporaries like Curtly Ambrose or Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, did you ever feel that your bowling lacked something, like extreme pace or prodigious swing? Or did you feel you compensated in some other way?
Not really. I always got the ball through reasonably well, though not as quick as Akram or Younis. But if you talk to batsmen around the world, the toughest thing to face is bounce. And I always got more bounce than most other guys - pretty similar to Curtly Ambrose in that way. And I was fairly accurate - could land the ball pretty much where I wanted to. So those two things helped me in first-class cricket, and then led me into the Australian team.

You talk of being able to hit a particular spot on the pitch. How does that happen? How hard did you work at that accuracy?
I bowled a bit when I was younger, it was just something that came pretty naturally. It's not like I spent five or six hours in the nets daily bowling at one specific mark. My action's quite natural and I didn't try to copy any of the bowlers I watched while growing up. My body settled on an action that was most comfortable, and I just ran in and hit the deck. I landed it pretty well, and got steep bounce, but the accuracy came naturally.

Did any particular captain or coach play a special role in those early years?
I think the years I spent with Rod Marsh down at the academy. He had specialist coaches coming in. Lillee came in and I did a bit of work with him. That was probably one of the biggest turning points of my career. It showed me what training was all about, and also taught me the mental side of the game - the preparation. Before, I'd just trained once a week, ran in and bowled in the nets, and then played on Saturday afternoon. That was it. I went down there, worked pretty hard and got the rewards afterwards.

What do you feel is most vital to your bowling?
I think it's more my accuracy than anything else - being patient and building up pressure. When I run in and try to bowl too fast, I can sometimes lose the bounce that I get. So I just run in, hit the deck, aim at top of off stump. It always helps if you have someone at the other end who can also build up pressure and that's why I've bowled pretty well with Jason Gillespie at the other end, and very well with Shane Warne. When you have two people creating pressure, things happen, and that's when I like bowling.

I sometimes think I'm a lot more patient than most bowlers. I tend to be similar to Shaun Pollock in that we build up the pressure without trying to get a wicket every ball. I bowl to a plan and hopefully by the end of it I've got the batsman out. A lot of bowlers around the world try to get a wicket every ball, which in turn means that they can go for a lot more runs.

What do you do to try and switch on during an off day, when the radar's not working?
I just try and remain patient. When I'm bowling at my best, I'm not thinking of my action or anything else. I just have a song playing in my head. So when it's not going well, I try to relax and think of a song I like listening to. I sing that to myself as I run in to bowl.

You said in a recent interview that this whole idea of targetting the opposition's leading batsman was something that happened by accident and it just spiralled out of control. But what makes you focus on a particular player like that?
I think it came from watching the West Indian teams of the mid-'80s. They always seemed to target the captain of the opposition, gave him a hard time and didn't let him score too many. It stems from that. If you can target the opposition captain or the best batsman and get on top of him, it can have an effect on the rest of the team. So I'd say the tactic has worked pretty well.

Do some batsmen buckle under pressure more than others?
I think so. Some handle it a lot better. When it gets built up before a series that it's me versus Lara or me versus Sachin, then it's got that batsman thinking about me. He may forget a little about the other bowlers in the team. And if I bowl well enough to get that batsman out once or twice in the first Test, then all of a sudden it's in the press that McGrath has got his target. That piles on even more pressure.

You've had some memorable tussles with Tendulkar, especially when India toured Australia in 1999.
Yeah, I always enjoy bowling to Sachin. The guy's class, the best in the world. I don't think there's any bigger challenge for a fast bowler. He's an amazing player, one of the best ever, and you lift your game when you come up against him. If you can get him out or stop him scoring, it feels like you've done your job, it feels like you're not too bad a bowler.

How do you try and work a great batsman out? Do you bowl differently?
I'd still bowl pretty similar to what I bowl most times, which is hitting the pitch aiming for top of off stump or just outside. If you build up pressure by not giving away easy runs or bowling four-balls, his gameplan has to change. Sachin, like a lot of Indian batsmen, likes to score runs and score them quickly, especially in boundaries. So if you cut the scoring down, it increases the pressure.

Let's discuss a few batsmen. Assess the following, and tell us how you would try and work them out. Let's start with Tendulkar.
He's technically very correct, and plays all the shots. Once I heard that he'd said he could pick two or three different options to every ball that was bowled to him. For me, against Sachin it's all about building pressure. In the past, I've hit the deck and tried to get a bit of bounce outside off stump just to cut off his scoring options. I've been pretty lucky with the guys we've had in the slips, who very rarely drop a ball. That's how I'd try and get Sachin, and occasionally set him up for the lbw or bowled with the one that cuts back.

Again, I rate him very highly but he's different from Tendulkar in that he just wants to go out there and play his shots. He's more of an entertainer in that respect. He doesn't like to be held down, and I've had a fair bit of success coming round the wicket to him. I'd bowl outside off stump and in the early days he just kept playing his shots, and I kept getting him caught in the arc from keeper to gully. You just bowled a good length outside off stump, and he went for all the big shots. He's a bit different these days, a little bit more determined.

We feel he's a guy that needs to be knocked over pretty early in his innings. He seems to mentally tougher than a lot of other batsmen, seems to prepare himself. Once he's in, he's one of the hardest guys to get out because he's so focused. He's also patient, waits for the bad ball. So I'd attack him a bit more early on, but it's usually very much a patience game between him and the bowler.

Glenn McGrath celebrates his 500th Test wicket © Getty Images

VVS Laxman?
He's a guy who likes to play shots. He can whip the ball from outside off stump through midwicket. I've found that I like to hit the pitch outside off stump, probably short of a length. He goes for those shots off the back foot straight down the ground or through cover. I've got him caught in the slips a few times but that's bowling to him with fairly aggressive fields and not too many men on the leg side. But because he whips through there so easily, it can sometimes work against you.

I think he's a pretty slow starter. Seems to come out half-asleep sometimes. I always like to go for the yorker or really full ball early on to get him lbw or bowled, or even the bouncer. But once he gets in, he's got all the shots - plays the hook well. So you have to attack him early, and go back to building up pressure if that doesn't work.

How about some of your own team-mates? Matthew Hayden?
I've played a few games against Matthew. He's a guy that likes to dominate the bowling. There's been a few days when he's hit me for quite a few runs and occasionally I've knocked him over as well. Haven't really come up with a plan for Matthew. The last few games we played were one-day games and he likes to bat on off stump when I don't have many people on the leg side. Bowling to left-handers, I try and hit the deck and if I get any movement, it's away from them. I'd hope to get enough movement to have him caught behind.

He's not your normal batsman though - he's just so big and strong. On his day he can muscle you out of the attack. Tough guy to bowl to.

Ricky Ponting?
We spent two years at the academy. He's somewhat similar to Tendulkar. He plays the short ball so well, and drives well. Once he gets in, he can be unstoppable. Again, you try and get him under pressure early. If there's one common theme between all these batsmen, it's that you have to bowl where you want to bowl, hitting the top of off stump or just outside. You can't give them free runs, and you have to bowl well in partnership with the guy at the other end. You can build up pressure, but these guys are class players and they will have their days against you.

Who's the best opening batsman you've bowled to?
I don't have to bowl to Matthew too often. Looking around world cricket at the moment, I think Graeme Smith is a guy that looks pretty good. We've had a few run-ins in the past. He's a tough guy with a real good attitude. Aggressive, probably a little cocky at times. It's a bit like bowling to Matthew in some ways, the way he approaches the game.

Who's been the batsman that has frustrated you most?
I think when you're bowling to the tail and you're trying to take wickets rather than build up pressure. But there's no batsman I've ever bowled to where I didn't want to be bowling. I feel that if I bowl where I want to and keep them under pressure, I can get anyone out.

You've talked about Michael Atherton, and how you almost felt sorry for him the last time you dismissed him. Was he psyched out?
Yeah, I got him out 19 times, I think. The other guy that got him out a lot was Ambrose, who was fairly similar in the style of bowling - the length we bowled and the bounce we got. In the end I don't think it mattered what I bowled, he seemed to get out to it. I got him out caught behind, caught in the slips, a lot - he probably played at the ball occasionally when he didn't have to. But other times, when he decided to leave it, it seamed back and got him lbw. It became a mental battle more than anything else.

Tell us something about the McGrath image. There's been so much written about the Ugly Australians down the years.
Well, I think all fast bowlers have to be aggressive, they have to have a bit of mongrel in them as we say. Fair enough, occasionally I get a bit frustrated and say a few things that normally I wouldn't. At the end of the day if the bowler's out there smiling and skipping around and bowling half-volleys, he won't be out there very long. Look at someone like Irfan Pathan. He seems to have a really good attitude, seems an aggressive type.

But you're able to switch that aggression off when you leave the field?
Yeah. A lot of people call it white-line fever [smiles]. So-called nice guy off the field, and then you turn into a sort of monster when you cross the line onto the field. I'm out there giving a hundred per cent, doing the best I can for myself and the team. But once you come off, everyone's friends again and you enjoy each other's company. But out in the middle, it's a real challenge, and I sometimes feel that if I took it easy on the batsmen, they'd be disappointed.

Do you believe in sledging or mental disintegration as a tactic though?
It does affect some batsmen, and has the reverse effect on others. Some guys concentrate more, and become more determined to score runs. A lot of times I say things more out of frustration than to actually target someone. Other times you say things to unsettle them, or to get yourself going.

Do you regret Antigua [the Ramnaresh Sarwan incident in 2003] and its fallout?
Well, what happened there was totally different from anything else that's ever happened. I still get quite angry when I see people talking about that and writing about it in the wrong way. That was just poor timing more than anything else. What was said ... if that was said at any other time, it wouldn't have worried me at all. But the fact that my wife, Jane, was going through secondary breast cancer and things were pretty tough, that was the only reason it affected me. It had nothing to do with cricket, had only to do with my wife suffering from cancer.

Indian viewers will remember Nairobi in 2000 [ICC Knockout] when Tendulkar seemed to have a real go at you. Do you remember anything about that?
That's one of the games I remember where I didn't say a word at all. He was the one sledging me. He was giving me a bit of a hard time that day, out there playing his shots, and maybe he said what he did to fire himself up. I was the one on the receiving end, so it's not all one-way traffic.

Do you think the Indians under Sourav Ganguly give as good at they get when it comes to the verbals?
Oh, definitely. People around the world say that Australians are the worst sledgers, or the only ones. I disagree. Every team does it. I think Australians are just a little bit more upfront about it. Someone like Harbhajan Singh likes plenty of chat out in the middle. Gets himself pumped up and that's when he works at his best. But I don't think Harbhajan's looked at as a big sledger in world cricket. He gives as good as anyone. It's the way you're perceived around the world, I guess.

There were a few instances with Michael Vaughan in the last Ashes series too.
Yeah, I think Vaughany made more of that than anything else. It was a bit of fun. I didn't have to target anyone in that series because he came out and said that I'd be targetting him because he was their best batsman. I think he took it upon himself to get me going. He wasn't shy about saying things to me, and it was funny because at one stage I thought he could only speak two or three words - it was the same every ball.

Tell us about the injury. Did you ever feel that you might not come back?
Not really. I didn't really class it as an injury. It was something that had built up over 10 years of playing mainly for Australia, and it got to a stage where I had to do something about it. There were three spurs, two on the front and one on the back of the ankle. They got so big that I found it hard to put my front foot down while bowling. The first one I had removed was so successful that I ended up snapping one of the front ones off myself. That's why it took so long, and then I wanted to make sure that when I came back I'd be bowling at something like my best.

Has it helped you extend your career?
Yeah, definitely. I had eight to 10 months off. Enjoyed the time at home with Jane and the kids. I came back feeling rejuvenated, probably similar to Warne after he had 12 months off. A little bit of time away from the game makes you keen, makes you fresh again. I think it could lengthen my career by a year or two.

What have been the best moments?
Hard to limit it to two or three. I've been pretty lucky to play with some amazing players for Australia, which has made my job so much easier. Personally, I'd say the first Test I played at Lord's when I took 8 for 38. Playing my first Test at Perth [November 1993], was pretty special too. Team-wise, I'd say winning the 1999 and 2003 World Cups, but there have been so many others.

Injury is probably the toughest thing to deal with. You know you're not out of the team because of form. As for the matches, losing the 1996 World Cup final to Sri Lanka was very tough. The other one was losing to South Africa at the SCG in '94. I was the last guy out. There are other tough moments, when you spend the entire day in the field without taking a wicket. That's happened to us twice in my time. Once in the West Indies when Jimmy Adams and Brian Lara batted all day, and the other time in Kolkata when Laxman and Dravid did it to us.

Any remaining goals?
After 100 Tests, I'd say it would be 500 Test wickets. I'd say it's the real benchmark of a bowler in this day and age. If you can reach there, you've had a pretty good career.