February 6, 2012

'I'd have loved to play with McGrath and Warne'

Graham McKenzie was a constant in the Australian team when other bowlers struggled to hold their place

In the backyard of his Perth house, Graham McKenzie can tend the barbeque with one hand and catch a six with the other. There is no boundary fence between his property and the ground where the Claremont-Nedlands club plays grade cricket each weekend. He can watch a match from behind long-on without leaving his garden.

At 70, McKenzie is still surrounded by the game. A hundred metres up the road is the ground where the elite Scotch College plays its cricket. Walking there might have taken him twice as long a couple of years ago. But after a pair of knee replacements last year McKenzie is sprightly again. Making his way around a golf course holds no obstacles now.

That his knees caused him problems is hardly surprising. He finished his career with 1219 first-class wickets, a tally that is almost unheard of among Australians, especially fast bowlers. As one of the first non-resident overseas professionals in county cricket in the 1960s, McKenzie piled up the wickets. He didn't have too much competition for victims during his Test career, either.

McKenzie occupies a curious place in Australia's cricket history. When most people think of the great Australian fast bowlers, the names that come to mind are Dennis Lillee, Glenn McGrath, Ray Lindwall, Jeff Thomson, Alan Davidson. Even Fred Spofforth, whose last Test was 125 years ago, would rate a mention.

McKenzie did win some recognition in 2010, when he was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame. His former captain Bill Lawry was given the honour on the same night. It was fitting, for these days unless Lawry is commentating, McKenzie's name is rarely heard in cricket discussions.

Yet he carried the Australian attack throughout the 1960s, a decade when they lost only two series. When he played his last match in the baggy green, he was fourth on the all-time Test wicket list, with 246, behind Fred Trueman, Brian Statham and Richie Benaud. The start of McKenzie's career overlapped with the end of Davidson's, and he narrowly missed out on playing Test cricket with Lillee.

The bulk of the support for McKenzie through most of his Test career came from men like Neil Hawke and Alan Connolly. They were solid performers, but a great deal was expected of McKenzie. Other bowlers, fast and slow, rotated through the attack - the likes of Dave Renneberg, Laurie Mayne, Eric Freeman, Tom Veivers, David Sincock, Graeme Watson, Froggy Thomson - without really holding down a spot.

At times, like during the 1965-66 Ashes, McKenzie and Hawke shared the new ball and Veivers bowled offspin, and then it was all part-timers: Doug Walters, Bob Simpson, Keith Stackpole, Ian Chappell. At other times, like on the 1964 trip to England, his workload was such that modern fast men would struggle to bowl as much over the space of two or three years.

"We used to bowl a lot of overs," McKenzie says. "Nowadays every match they play is virtually an international match. I bowled about 900 overs on a tour in 1964. It's a lot of work. Plus we had a few other two-day matches and one-day matches as well [not included in that tally]. But it was probably not as intense as now.

"Being a pace bowler is not easy. It's great if you can get good support. You can be lucky and have a couple of other good bowlers with you. If you can't get them out, the others will. A couple of times in my career it was a bit hard. I didn't have a great deal of support.

"I would have loved to have played with McGrath and Warne. To have Shane Warne playing in your team - you'd get a couple and if you couldn't get the others out, he'd come back on - it would just keep the pressure on at both ends."

That is as close as McKenzie comes to talking himself up. He is softly spoken and humble to a fault, and was said by some to have been too nice to be a great fast bowler. Sledging was not in his repertoire. He bowled when he was asked to by his captains, and he was asked to too often. Generally with McKenzie, being over-bowled didn't lead to injuries. But his Test career ended sooner than it should have.

"In 1964 I bowled a hell of a lot but I don't think I needed any treatment on the whole trip," he says. "It must have been the best fitness I was ever at. Later on I had niggles with my back. At the end of your career there's always something. But you always had to play through it. Nowadays I think they take more precautions, especially if they're younger. We probably played a lot of Tests that they wouldn't let you play now.

"I played my last Test when I was 29. I could have played on if I'd been looked after. I could have played another two or three years at least."

Not that McKenzie is bitter. Far from it. He is proud of his achievements for Australia and remembers fondly his many tours. Unusually for a fast bowler, he was particularly successful in India, where he took 34 wickets at 19.26. He took ten wickets in his first Test in India, in Madras in 1964. The lack of pace in the pitches there didn't seem to faze him.

"I liked it in England. It was a good lifestyle. I was single and had no ties, but it probably didn't help having to bowl all winter and then come back"

"I don't think the Indians were that used to playing against good pace bowlers," he says. "So if you bowled really well in India, even though the wickets didn't help much, it gave you a chance. But it was frustrating. You'd get an edge and the ball wouldn't carry to slip at times."

On his second trip to India in 1969, he was on the field in the Brabourne Test when the fans rioted. Remarkably, play kept going while smoke filled the stadium.

"That was quite amazing," he says. "In the middle of the field we couldn't see the people in one of the grandstands. The scorers couldn't see the match. But because of the problem of security, they said the best thing was to keep the game going. I think the radio scorers became the official scorers.

"If you were any further out than about square leg, a few rocks were being thrown in. They didn't have too many outfielders for that period. I don't know how long it went. We kept playing for a while there. When we came off, the dangerous time was when we went off into the change rooms. There were a few things thrown at us, but we made it."

India struggled to handle McKenzie in Australia as well. After he took ten wickets against them at the MCG in 1967-68, he was dropped for no apparent reason. It was speculated that he was too good for the Indians and that his dominance would lead to Tests that were too one-sided. As was his way, McKenzie took the demotion in his stride. He went back to Western Australia and helped them win the Sheffield Shield, a rare achievement for the state in those days.

Said to have one of the most pure actions among fast bowlers, comparable with Lindwall, McKenzie gained impressive speed from a short run-up of only 16 metres. Speed guns didn't exist, but he estimates he bowled in the high 140kph region, sometimes into the 150s. It might be a physical impossibility for a ball to gain pace off the pitch, but that's how McKenzie's bowling was described by batsmen.

He was an attractive proposition for the counties when the rules were relaxed in the 1960s and international professionals could play without living in England. Leicestershire snapped him up and after several years on their books he helped them win the County Championship for the first time, in 1975. County cricket was a valuable source of income in the pre-World Series Cricket days.

"You didn't earn any money in Australia," he says. "I liked it in England. It was a good lifestyle. I was single and had no ties, but it probably didn't help having to bowl all winter and then come back. It wasn't like now, there wasn't a lot of money if you played in Tests."

McKenzie started as a phys-ed teacher but was rarely able to spend enough time in a school to hold down a job, due to the demands of the touring lifestyle. He entered the financial world in the mid-1960s and worked in that industry after his playing days ended.

"It was quite hard when I finished," he says. "Your friends are in their mid-30s and they're pretty established in their jobs, and all of a sudden you don't have any job - you had to start afresh and you didn't have a lot behind you.

"But I don't regret it. There are some things you can't buy."

Like the privilege of wearing a baggy green for Australia in 60 Tests. These days the game plays a secondary role in McKenzie's life, but he should not be forgotten to Australian cricket.

"I'm on one of the smaller committees at the WACA, dealing with memorabilia and history and honours, new life members, that type of thing," he says. "I follow cricket with interest these days but I'm not too involved."

Unless a six lands in his backyard on a Saturday.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here