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Inside the machine

Peter Roebuck dissects - and appreciates - Glenn McGrath's bowling

Peter Roebuck

McGrath: a cricketer's cricketer © Getty Images
Glenn McGrath is the subtlest and most patient of fast bowlers. Ordinarily, those whose fate it is to charge to the crease from 30 yards in an attempt to remove with the merest piece of leather an opponent armed with a log and more heavily padded than an American footballer incline towards the intemperate. As far as they are concerned, their task is to shatter stumps or crack skulls, jobs they set about with vigour - and not necessarily in that order. Don't tell them about line and length and joining the dots for these are the pitiable phrases attached to those condemned forever to bowl medium-pace and to worry about the rent.
McGrath is different. He is not especially fast and for years has not hit anything except the wild pigs of Narromine. By and large his fires burn so low that his outbursts are remembered and held against him. He rarely takes wickets with yorkers or bouncers or even bad balls; and he does not involve himself in the marketplace where runs and wickets are exchanged. He is the meanest of opponents, seeks to dismiss batsmen without cost, or at worst for a few runs apiece. In truth he is more accountant than murderer.
Yet he is feared because he lures batsmen into unanticipated self-examination. They walk to the crease as accomplished players and are suddenly made aware of cracks in the facade. They find themselves flirting and flicking when they want to play shots of substance. McGrath does not let them bat properly. His control is too tight, his bounce is too steep and his movement is too unpredictable. He might be kept out but he is seldom mastered. His control is so absolute that even the greatest of batsmen are forced to defend.
As an exhausted Indian batsman put it:"McGrath makes you play his game"; a sentiment that could have been voiced by Brian Lara and Michael Atherton, superb batsmen of contrasting temperament and style whose games were taken apart by this most probing of pace bowlers. Not bad for a supposed bonehead from the Australian bush. But, then, McGrath is a clever, brave bowler, and much underestimated.
As ever the figures speak for themselves: they confirm that McGrath is one of the greatest bowlers the game has known. He has taken wickets all over the world and in every form of the game. For a decade he has led the attack of the strongest cricket team on the planet. He has confronted the greatest batsmen of his generation and usually prevailed. Throughout he has shown competitive courage and impressive skill and intelligence. It is a mighty achievement.
Moreover he has travelled well, a vital qualification as the game broadens from its Anglo-Saxon base. Craig McDermott came to India in 1986 and barely took a wicket. Dennis Lillee visited Pakistan in 1979 and hardly troubled the batsmen. Despite encountering as strong a batting side as India has ever fielded, McGrath averages 16 in this neck of the woods. Only Malcolm Marshall has been as adaptable and his gifts - extreme pace, deadly swing and superb fitness - were obvious to the naked eye. McGrath must be watched at close quarters, or faced in the middle, before a full appreciation can be gained. In that regard he is a cricketer's cricketer.

Glenn McGrath celebrates his 500th Test wicket © Getty Images
Curiously McGrath is not bowling as he intended in those early days spent on a remote farm. Indeed he is a creation of the mind as opposed to a statement of athletic ability. He is an Australian, after all, a country boy at that, and wanted to hurl the ball down with all his might because that is the local way. Englishmen may procrastinate but Australians ordinarily prefer to play the red-blooded game.
Oh, he wanted to bowl fast all right, every bit as much as the surfer lives to ride the big wave. But at a young age he realised it was not for him and then he had the sense to make the most of the talent at his disposal. Ordinarily a fast bowler reduces his pace when his body starts to creak. McGrath's secret has been that at a young age he set about studying a craft whose mastery alone could sustain him. He wanted to play for Australia, wanted to become a great bowler and beside that indulgence was nothing.
Ever since he has bowled within himself, in the calculating way, following not in the footsteps of Fred Trueman and Dennis Lillee but the quieter path of Brian Statham. Lacking the yard of pace needed to scare batsman, he concentrated on developing the skills needed to get them out. Fortunately the game moved with him. Cricket changes with every generation. Thunderbolts no longer intimidate even the most meek of tailenders. Helmets and familiarity have reduced their menace. And more international cricket is played . By chance McGrath became a man of his time.
McGrath has come to understand that his strength lies not in the extent of his abilities but in the precision of their application. It has made him the most sophisticated of pace bowlers, and amongst the most satisfying to watch. Whereas the excitement of seeing Thommo or Shoaib in full flight comes from the raw energy revealed and the athleticism displayed sight, the New South Welshman offers the pleasure to be gained from following a plan from conception to execution He brings to the game the careful, considered destruction of the cornered opponent. Other fast bowlers may belong in the coliseum, he plays chess upon a board.
Accordingly McGrath's casting as an old-fashioned and rather bad tempered trundler does him poor service. He is much more than that. Indeed he is the master craftsman of his age. Not that accuracy should be taken for granted, let alone treated as some sort of contemporary disease. By no means is it easy to train a body repeatedly to land a ball on the square foot of land that alone can deny batsmen the supremacy that all sportsmen seek (sport being an arena in which man proves himself and meanwhile lets off steam).
Nor is it easy to concentrate for every ball of every over of every spell in every match of every series as McGrath has done. Deadly spells may not spring to mind when his name is mentioned but where are the leatherings and the defeats? Do not bother sending out an inept opener to face him for he will be devoured like a small fish by a shark. McGrath's bowling requires exceptional control of body and mind. Amongst contemporaries only Anil Kumble bears comparison with him in terms of discipline and intent.
In any case McGrath has bowled many wonderful spells in his own undramatic way. His greatness has been stated time and again. It is just a matter of thinking in the right way and looking for the right things. He is not some romantic hero fuelled by emotion and playing to the gallery. Rather he is a professional attending to his duties. His job is to take wickets as cheaply as possible. He must lead the attack, separate the openers and remove the opposition's most dangerous player. Has any man in the history of the game carried out these duties as consistently over such a long period? Lillee was a folk hero and the very picture of a fast bowler and an Australian, but was he more effective?
If a statement of excellence is needed then it came in the spell of three balls sent down during the Perth Test match in 2000 against the West Indies. First McGrath exploited Sherwin Campbell's habit of shuffling across his crease with an outswinger pitched to a fuller length than usual. Lara appeared. McGrath adjusted his line, slightly reduced his length and cut the ball across the left-hander. Lara disappeared. Jimmy Adams came next. It must have been tempting to try the same ball. After all he was on a hat-trick and it had been good enough for Lara. But Adams's weaknesses were different. McGrath knew that he squared up against lifting deliveries directed at his body. Of course pinpoint precision was needed.
McGrath's hat-trick was amongst the best Test cricket has known. Every ball was superbly conceived and executed. It was a definitive moment, a satisfying and conclusive demonstration of the abilities that have set him apart.