Glenn McGrath: Line and Strength July 25, 2009

The boy who couldn't bowl

A ghosted autobiography with an inconsistency that's at odds with the Australian bowler's extraordinary career

Glenn McGrath's book is everything his bowling was not: rather over-excitable, prone to veer between the eye-catchingly good and the eye-wateringly bad, and in the end not as effective as it should be.

It is disappointing because the McGrath story is a rich one. As a boy in outback New South Wales he was so shy he left school at the first opportunity to avoid having to speak in class, despite being in the A-stream.

At 16 he was in charge of a vast and struggling farm during the day and bowling against a 40-gallon water drum at night. Despite relentless practice he failed to shine even in a bush side called Backwater.

Undeterred, at 19 he drove an old caravan the 284 miles south-east to Sydney to try his luck in grade cricket. He knew no one in the city and lived on chocolate bars. But the higher the level he played, the better he did. "I just loved competition," he says.

Via a stint at the Academy (Brad Hodge, an ex-academician, calls McGrath's obsession with pig-skinning videos "confronting"), the boy who couldn't bowl ended with 563 Test wickets, more than any fast bowler.

However, he finally met an opponent that will power could not defeat. In 1997 his girlfriend Jane was diagnosed with cancer, two years after they had met in a Hong Kong nightclub. Eleven years later her funeral was held in the same Sydney church in which they had been married. It is a moving, bittersweet, human story but McGrath's amanuensis, Daniel Lane, sports editor of the Sydney tabloid the Sun-Herald, cannot help over-egging it.

His is the familiar sportswriters' world, where sore muscles and headlines "scream", "scalps" are "snared" and batsmen fall "like flies". When a wound is mentioned, you know it will be only a second before "salt" enters the picture.

The overwrought tone means that, when it comes to Jane's cancer, there is nowhere for Lane to go, because the emotional pitch has already been set in the red zone when describing, for example, McGrath's latest sore ankle.

This is a pity because, when we get off planet tabloid and back to earth, the book has outstanding moments. Diligence is one strength Lane shares with his subject, and many of his interviewees shine.

Here is McGrath's father, Kevin: "I'm a failure. I tried to make a farmer of my son and he became a great cricketer." After trying to improve McGrath's gawky batting technique Steve Waugh advises him to squeeze money out of bat makers by threatening to use their products. Late on, as McGrath gets used to retirement and tries to impose his rules on the household, his children poignantly tell him: "But we do it this way, dad." One phrase sums up many years of separations.

When we get off planet tabloid and back to earth, the book has outstanding moments. Diligence is one strength Lane shares with his subject, and many of his interviewees shine

The interviewees are also excellent on the central paradox of McGrath: that a bowler who looked so ordinary had such extraordinary results.

Shane Warne points to his accuracy: "It was the torture technique, the drip on the forehead." Ricky Ponting mentions McGrath's 6ft 5in: "It's bounce that gets good batsmen out, not pace. Pace rarely gets good batsmen out; pace and swing might but bounce will [undo] more batsmen, anytime." Geoff Lawson examines body language: "McGrath looked the same no matter if he bowled a bouncer or a yorker. The really good batsmen pick up on the cues... " And Steve Waugh tells how he would have countered McGrath: "I would have told the players to walk at Glenn... I was grateful and amazed more batsmen didn't... "

McGrath himself can also be incisive about the mental foundations of success. Most strikingly of all he says: "I can't ever remember having a bad dream about bowling. When I dreamt about cricket, I just bowled the ball I wanted to." This is a true revelation for those of us plagued by work- or cricket-related anxiety nightmares: the laptop that will not work at deadline or the pads that refuse to buckle after a wicket falls.

McGrath (via Lane) puts his self-confidence down to hard-won successes. "[He] had too solid a foundation of self-belief to be rattled. That faith in himself had been formed when he was a teenager who had to defy the popular opinion that he couldn't bowl." But pages later, just as this seems to be turning into something truly revealing, we are back to "crossing swords" with "old foes". Unlike the man himself this book could have made more of what was at its disposal.

Glenn McGrath: Line and Strength
by Glenn McGrath and Daniel Lane
Yellow Jersey Press, pb, 432pp, £14.99

Paul Coupar is a former assistant editor of the Wisden Cricketer