McGrath still on top as he prepares for final fling

Bowl it one last time, Glenn

To watch the chuntering maestro Glenn McGrath at work was to see an entire era of wicket-to-wicket back-of-length menace flash before the eyes

Rahul Bhattacharya in St Lucia

April 25, 2007

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Glenn McGrath collected 3 for 14 in his opening spell and dropped South Africa to 27 for 5 © Getty Images
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St Lucia is a delightful island of Caribbean vibes. At night the liming strip in Rodney Bay has come alive for comers from all over the world. Beres Hammond, Sean Paul and David Rudder have performed. Shaggy and Maxi Priest will tonight. But Lucians don't much talk about cricket - or listen to it, as Tuesday's Jamaica semi-final did not come over the radio. There has never been a Test cricketer out of here and the few locals who were at Beausejour will not have been bowled over by what they saw.

This was a less than rousing affair. The trouble with Australian professionalism is that it has become such a cliché that even watching it at its calibrated best can be numbing. Glory be flaws.

Yet, with a little filter of nostalgia even these hours of unremitting lopsided excellence are able to take on some warmth. To watch the chuntering maestro Glenn McGrath at work was to see an entire era of wicket-to-wicket back-of-length menace flash before the eyes, the eternal hypnosis of it. We will get to see it once more on Saturday. Once more only.

Few cricketers have been at once so level as McGrath and yet able to find another one. In an over, in a spell, in a day, in a series, in a season, he seems always to be operating at his peak. Still he is continually rising to occasions. Remember his ball to Sachin at the '99 World Cup? The one to Lara?

Admittedly Ashwell Prince played the stroke of a paralysed man and Jacques Kallis' foolishness brought the best out of a fine yorker. The touch of the master was in the Mark Boucher dismissal. It was the classic McGrath incision, Halal if you will. Off stump and just outside, a bit of wobble and bounce, caught first slip. Equally McGrathian was the impact: big semi-final, opening spell, six overs, 3 for 14, South Africa 27 for 5. The man is two months after 37. He looks it too. Australians were asking for him to be put to pasture before the World Cup. There you go.

"The fact that I'm going to retire is probably one of the reasons I'm bowling so well," he said, "because I'm just going out there, trying to enjoy it, make the most of it, make the most of every game I play. There's no pressure, no fear, no anything.

"I've probably bowled a little differently this tournament. Probably bowled a little more aggressively than I have done in the past. That's the reason I've got a few more wickets, I've probably gone for a few more runs than I normally do. It's worked out with 25 wickets; Tait has 23 wickets, Brad Hogg has 20 and Bracks [Nathan Bracken] is doing well too. The fact that we've bowled every team out is a huge lift for us, bar Bangladesh who we only got 20 overs with."

Those last two sentences draw out an essence of the McGrath personality. To observe him at a press conference is to appreciate that his renowned trick of knowing each one of his dismissals cannot be idle exaggeration.



Mark Boucher's dismissal was classic McGrath: off stump and just outside, a bit of wobble and bounce, caught first slip © Getty Images
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There was something like the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man about the scene at the dais. Every time Ponting needed a figure, he'd look to McGrath, who would oblige. Sometimes he did not need to ask. When Ponting said Australia had done well to restrict Sri Lanka to 226 in 50 overs the other day, McGrath intervened to say that they had in fact bowled them out (they had, in 49.4 overs). When Ponting mentioned Shaun Tait had done very well to get 22 wickets in the tournament, McGrath interrupted to say that it was in fact 23. When a journalist asked him about his four Man-of-the-Match awards in the tournament, he quipped: "Hopefully if it's four it will mean we've won the final. I've only really got three."

"They talk about batsmen batting in partnerships," McGrath said, "I think it's even more so with bowlers. With Nathan Bracken and Shaun Tait bowling the way they are, Punter asks me to come on generally with one or two wickets down. Bracks always keeps it tight, puts batsmen under pressure, and the way Taity's been bowling they just want to get down to the other end and face me!

"We're all different bowlers but complement each other. You've got an old bloke running in and hitting the deck top of off, Bracks swinging it up front and then he's back with old ball at the end, Taity who can come in and just blast guys out, and Hoggy has had an exceptional tour, he played a big part in 2003 and is again now. And you've got guys like Stuart Clark and Mitchell Johnson dying to get out for a game, and Brett Lee is at home."

There was pride in the words of the oldie. With the departure of McGrath, shortly after Shane Warne, an epoch in cricket will have been completed. Expertly, precisely, and more humorously than given credit, the job has been done. McGrath leaves Australian cricket in a better shape than he found it in and Australia, as ever, are ready to make the most of it.

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Rahul Bhattacharya is author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04

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Rahul Bhattacharya Author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04
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