The first ball after tea, straight, full and bang on target. Typical Glenn McGrath. Marcus Trescothick tried to force it through midwicket, instead the ball took the outside edge and Justin Langer held the catch at slip. And McGrath entered the record books as only the second fast bowler to take 500 Test wickets.
A haul of 500 wickets in 111 Tests at 21.22 apiece would conjure images of a fiery fast bowler or a mesmerizing spinner but McGrath is neither. He is a well-oiled machine, an expert tactician, producing high-quality output time and again. He is a master at spotting a batsman's weakness and exploiting it so successfully that the dismissals are almost predictable. A statistical attempt to study his career reveals not a single significant weakness and at 35, McGrath, like fine wine, has only got better with age.
Excluding the first Test of the Ashes 2005, Australia have won 18 of the 22 Tests that McGrath has played against England and he will be keen to tighten the chokehold that Australia have had over England for the past decade. If statistics are anything to go by, the news isn't too good for England. His miserly average of 21.22 improves to 20.03 in Ashes Tests. England's woes don't end there; McGrath doesn't enjoy just playing against England, he thrives while bowling in England where 68 of his 117 Ashes wickets have come at a stingy 18.27 per wicket. He was the highest wicket-taker in the last Ashes series in England in 2001 with 32 wickets at just 16.93. (Click here for McGrath's career stats, his stats vs England and in England.)
Often his overs become indistinguishable because McGrath sends down one after the other, each characterized by impeccable line and length, making the batsman sweat for his runs. Inevitably, there would come the predictable error, and McGrath would have his man. His mastery of the art of giving nothing away to the batsmen is manifest in the manner in which he has taken his wickets; 167 of his wickets have not needed any assistance (61 bowled, 99 lbw, 6 caught & bowled, 1 hit-wicket). Include Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist and McGrath's scalps near the wicket go up to 305, and this doesn't include batsmen caught at slip or short leg.
Targeting the best batsmen and pressurising the opposition captain is something that McGrath has often talked about. He has walked that talk. Of the 12 batsmen that he has dismissed most often, seven are former or current Test captains, most of them vital batsmen for their teams. Michael Vaughan will be feeling that pressure with McGrath accounting for him four times in as many Tests. (Click here for batsmen dismissed most times by McGrath)
Great bowlers necessitate comparisons and McGrath's average stands fourth, behind Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner and Curtly Ambrose, in the list of best averages for bowlers with more than 200 Test wickets. In fact among Test cricket's top eight wicket-takers, McGrath, who currently stands fourth here as well, has the best average. (Click here for averages of Test cricket's top wicket takers)
It is indeed poetic that McGrath took his 500th wicket at Lord's, his most productive overseas venue (17 wickets in two Tests). His record overseas, 255 wickets in 55 Tests at 21.20 is surprisingly better than his record at home, 244 wickets in 54 Tests at 21.84. England and the West Indies have been McGrath's happy hunting grounds contributing 118 wickets to his tally, from just 21 Tests. He has found bowling hardest in Pakistan where he averages 31 with 19 wickets in five tests. No opposition has succeeded in getting on top of McGrath consistently and it shows; 25.33 against New Zealand being his worst average. (Click here for McGrath's averages against different opposition and in various countries)
Perhaps the most striking aspect of McGrath's career is his performance after turning 30 in 2001. At 35, an age when most bowlers are at the bottom of the wrong side of the hill, McGrath keeps getting better. Since 2000-01, he has taken 211 wickets in 47 Tests and averaged less than 20 in five out of seven seasons. He missed most of the season in 2003 because of a serious ankle injury and has had tremendous problems to cope with in his personal life after his wife, Jane, was diagnosed with cancer. Those who didn't know McGrath wrote him off. He returned in 2004, and has taken 69 wickets in 14 Tests at an average of about 18 since.
Robotic consistency is his greatest quality. He has averaged over 23 in just 15 out of his 37 series. That figure drops to ten if you exclude his first five series. He is the sort of bowler whose performances have come to be taken for granted. McGrath has been utterly predictable in his efficiency and therein lies his greatness.