An ironman of the land

A player who could not get an over as a teenager in his country town will today play his 100th Test. In becoming the first Australian fast bowler to reach the mark, Glenn McGrath has grown from skinny man to ironman. Previously tradition said bowlers must limp - if they were lucky - into retirement soon after 50 Tests, and only Dennis Lillee and Craig McDermott, among Australian fast bowlers, made it into the '70s.

The back-breaking work finished Lillee and Keith Miller, McDermott cried when his knee could take no more, and Merv Hughes went the same way. Alan Davidson was regularly hampered in his 44 Tests and Jeff Thomson's shoulder stayed in one piece long enough to sling 200 wickets. A shorter life-span was expected of McGrath, a spindly boy standing at almost two metres on pigeon legs. Like Ray Lindwall, McGrath, 34, may instead have to run out of energy.

His appearance may suggest otherwise, but McGrath was bred with rural toughness. In Narromine club cricket in central New South Wales Shane Horsborough, his captain, told him he couldn't bowl. But McGrath wanted to run in, so he moved to Sydney, lived in a caravan and signed on for Sutherland. Four years and eight first-class games later he was picked for Australia, taking 2 for 92 and 1 for 50 against New Zealand at the WACA in Perth in November 1993.

On the 1995 tour of West Indies he graduated as the country's No. 1 fast bowler - and stayed there. While looking ahead two series was an effort for his regularly injured sidekicks, McGrath missed only nine Tests between 1995 and 2003, when an ankle problem required two bouts of surgery. A glass-smooth action with few defects has been responsible for his longevity in a convoluted schedule that none of his predecessors had to fulfil. With the consistency of a stock medium-pacer, he applied a fast bowler's mind and extracted steepling bounce.

No trundler could dismiss Brian Lara or Michael Atherton as often, no one-pace pony could cause such regular damage. But he is largely unfashionable among people who struggle to understand the difficulty of running 25 metres, plopping the ball on a spot the size of a golf marker and repeating it 120 times for three or four edges and an lbw appeal. Fast bowlers all over the world swear by him.

Where Lillee and Thomson and Hughes and McDermott grunted in delivery, McGrath barely makes a noise. But of the Australian fast bowlers who have taken more than 200 Tests wickets Lillee is still the best. His 355 victims came at more than five a game in an era when there were few easy pickings, and he took ten wickets in a match four more times than McGrath. As Lillee charged in, batsmen feared a quick kill. The McGrath approach is more a slow, unrelenting torture. Whereas stadiums chanted for Lillee when he ran up to the wicket, the ooh-aah-Glenn-McGrath cry is usually only heard in sections. McGrath's strength has been his relentless accuracy and economy - and only Lindwall and Graham McKenzie, among Australian fast bowlers, gave away fewer runs per over.

McGrath should be rated in Australia's postwar top three behind Warne and Lillee. The greats may also hold those spots on the all-time list, but comparing them with O'Reilly, Grimmett, Spofforth et al is like matching the boxer Kostya Tszyu with the pre-Depression fighter Les Darcy.

As McGrath walks out at Nagpur today only Ian Botham, Wasim Akram, Kapil Dev and Courtney Walsh among fast bowlers will have bowled in more Tests, and of those only Walsh has more wickets. If he had written down his goals in the tiny caravan 15 years ago, McGrath would have achieved most of them. He starts his 100th Test with 446 wickets and, having reached his aim of making it to a century, has readjusted his sights to 500. They must have plenty of great batsmen in Narromine.

Peter English is Australasian editor of Wisden Cricinfo.