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April 27, 2007
Five months ago in Melbourne, the beginning of the end of Glenn McGrath's career was mapped out during one of the more downbeat press conferences imaginable. Two days beforehand, the unstoppable showman, Shane Warne, had snatched all the available limelight in bringing the curtain down on his own matchless career, and McGrath was left to make his announcement not, as Warne had done, in the newly refurbished Long Room of the MCG, but in lanes 2 and 3 of the ground's indoor nets. It was an occasion devoid of glamour, just as his bowling has been for 13 incredible years.
But all of a sudden, McGrath is on the brink of, arguably, the most wonderful exit ever achieved by an Australian sportsman. At Sydney in January, on his home ground, he had the honour of grabbing the last English wicket to fall as Australia secured their first Ashes whitewash for 86 years. Now in Barbados - the scene, in 1994-95, of McGrath's coming-of-age as a Test player - he has the opportunity to avenge the single most jarring defeat of his career, and secure a third consecutive World Cup triumph. Not even the Thorpedo could beat that for going out on your own terms.
McGrath - like his captain, Ricky Ponting - will contest his fourth consecutive World Cup final, and it is only that first one, against Sri Lanka at Lahore in 1995-96, that has eluded his grasp. He has been a picture of relaxation throughout his Caribbean swansong, and now, on the eve of his final foray, he has the expression of a man at peace with his game and his standing within it. Win or lose on Saturday, McGrath will step aside as one of the truly great competitors of his era.
"I'm looking forward to retirement, there's no doubt about that, but I still love playing," McGrath said. His 25 wickets are a record for a single World Cup, while his tally of 70 over four tournaments is a mark that could stand for an eternity - of those bowlers who are likely to still be active come 2011, it is McGrath's own team-mate, Shaun Tait, who has the best record with just 23 victims. "I've probably felt more relaxed than I ever have on this tour and enjoyed it," he said, "and maybe that's the reason I've been playing well."
McGrath has loved to talk throughout his career, amusing the media with his habitual bunny nominations and regular declarations that he has "never felt in better shape". But nobody truly believed that he had such a stunning send-off up his sleeve. At the MCG on February 9, his 37th birthday had coincided with one of the most geriatric performances of his career. He dropped a crucial catch at square leg off Ian Bell, and was slapped off a length with embarrassing ease by Paul Collingwood. He looked tired, old, and ripe for a sorry grand finale in the Caribbean.
Instead he has transformed his fortunes and at the same time has refused to compromise his age-old assets. Line, length and half-a-bat's-width of movement has been his modus operandi since the earliest days of his career, and nobody in the competition to date, from Tamim Iqbal to Jacques Kallis, has found an adequate answer to the challenge that he has posed.
If anything, his age and apparent weariness have worked in his favour as opponents spot him entering the fray (more often than not as a first-change bowler) and decide that it's now or never if they are going to cash in. "This guy's got the best economy-rate of all their bowlers, but they still wanted to hit him," Dav Whatmore said after his Bangladesh kids had been mown down in Antigua. He might have been speaking for any one of Australia's opponents.
"You rely on experience and I feel I can see if a batsman is coming at me," McGrath said. "I think I can change at the last minute if I'm prepared for it. I've been really happy with the way [the ball's] coming out, I've been relaxed and I've been going into games with good plans and executing them reasonably well. I've been lucky enough to pick up a wicket six times in my first over and that always helps you to settle. It's been one of those tournaments so far where everything has gone right."
And so to Saturday's last hurrah. There are sure to be nerves and a tinge of poignancy as McGrath prepares for the last 60 balls of an international career in which he has already sent down 42,176 legitimate deliveries, and picked up the small matter of 943 wickets. But stage fright will surely not come into the equation.
"My approach has always been quite simple," he said. "The less complicated you make things the less things can go wrong. I've always thought if you can bowl 99 balls out of a hundred to hit the deck and hit the top of off stump then you'll take wickets. When I've given that advice I'm sure people have walked away disappointed but it's worked well for me.
"I probably would have finished my career before this if it hadn't been a World Cup. I've got a lot of memories about Barbados as well. This is where I took my first five-for in international cricket [to secure victory in the first Test of the seminal 1994-95 series] and, to me, the perfect way to finish would be to take another five-for, win, walk off and happy days."
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?