Glenn McGrath: Cricket’s pernicious minimalist

Navid Khan Roar Rookie

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    A bête noire to almost anyone with a willow in hand hoping to make runs, a bane to the batsmen’s cogitation of illustrious shots they would contemplate in their heads and a bugbear to any opposition – Glenn McGrath was a prodigy that made all the fancy adjectives you could name, a tad too cliché.

    For no bowler in the history of the game probed the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ ever so gracefully and no bowler ever had the tyrannical ability to bag the opponents he desired, that too with prior augury.

    Glenn McGrath rather had a stale start to his Test career and an even staler one in the domestics. He was dismissed as the boy who couldn’t bowl. With a physique too thin, tall and fragile he was labelled as having talent ‘no more than a broomstick’.

    Hard time believing? Ask his old mates from Dubbo, New South Wales. They would tell a similar story of how no one from the neighbourhood believed that this skinny bloke would go on to wear the baggy green, let alone become a legend himself.

    But what McGrath had was an indomitable grit and an unfeigned perseverance. His sheer willpower to wear the baggy green was what helped him cook the elixir that would spring new life to a career that was dubbed to be a failure. Even his hero Dennis Lillee failed to see any spark in him and put him in the ‘ordinaries’ column.

    Fast forward to November 12, 1993. The WACA Ground, Perth saw the debut of a man who would go on to represent Australia another 123 times and finish with scalps as many as 563, a record yet to be touched by any fast bowler.

    McGrath was a glaring antithesis to the ‘morning shows the day’ ideology. His first two years in Test cricket were plain forgettable, averaging in the 40s with the ball. It would have been far-fetched in the extreme to think that he would one day rival the one and only Dennis Lillee for the mantle of Australia’s greatest ever fast bowler.

    There is an old saying ‘cometh the moment; cometh the man’. McGrath’s moment finally came in 1995 in that seismic tour of the West Indies that marked a shift in cricketing world order.

    The mighty Caribbeans, star studded with legends who hadn’t lost a Test series at home for the last 15 years, locked horns with their subsequent dethroners Australia in a gruesome and captivating series that saw Australia fight fire with fire as their bowlers brought in the charge.

    When the dust cleared, it was Australia standing tall winning the series 2-1, with McGrath right there in the thick of things. He took 17 wickets from four matches showing the cricketing world a glimpse of his dormant prowess.

    He finished that season on a high, taking 52 wickets from ten games at enviable average of 21.88, his best until then.

    So what made Glenn McGrath so special? What made him such an exponent of fear to the numerous batsmen he hoodwinked and outfoxed despite not having the tormenting pace? Like his bowling action, the answer is fairly simple – his unerring accuracy and the ability to extract unpredictable bounce thanks to his 6’5 stature.

    Coming in at the tail end of an era where fast bowlers looked to intimidate batsmen with raw pace, McGrath was more of an outlander. For he was never a disciple of pace nor hostility. Instead he moulded his modus operandi according to the needs of time and conditions.

    Glenn McGrath takes another Ashes wicket.

    (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

    His remorseless accuracy and forensic probing of the slightest weakness in a batsman’s technique was the highlight of his magnanimous career. He took note of the impatience that characterised the modern batsmen, bred on a steady diet of limited overs cricket, bowling that in-between length where they cannot really come forward or go back.

    If they go forward it is not quite there, if they go back it is not there and they nick. Mind you that length is a different length on every wicket. You have to assess the conditions, the bounce, the seam, and then you have to adjust accordingly. Something McGrath was very, very good at.

    Because once you faced McGrath you were locked in. His sheer skill of wearing the batsmen down with constant tweaking of the line outside off stump made every single ball he bowled – a Test. His areas were so much tighter than anyone else’s, and he constantly questioned the batsman’s ability. Not many bowlers in cricket history have been as accurate as he was while being able to boast of the sort of record that he has.

    He simply hated giving the batsman even a single. If the batsman hit him for four, you could never convince McGrath that it was because the batsman hit a good shot. He would rather believe it was because he had bowled the ball where the batsman could hit him for four. He revealed in his autobiography that he probably sledged himself more than he sledged the batsmen, such was the height of expectations he had on himself.

    What set the legendary seamer apart from other bowlers was his game plan and his vision of the game. When he was on song, he had already worked out the next two overs regarding what he would bowl and where he was going to bowl it. It was just that mindset – knowing his game and himself, hell bent on what he was looking to achieve. McGrath never had any doubts when he was playing.

    All the focus was on what he wanted to achieve, and how he was going to go about doing it, and he just went out and did it.

    Reflecting on his cricketing values, self-belief and his vision of the game, there is a line in autobiography that goes “I can’t ever remember having a bad dream about bowling. When I dreamt about cricket, I just bowled the ball I wanted to.”

    He used to call it visualisation. The night before a game, he would think about who he was playing, and then how he would bowl against them. While he was playing, he could recall nearly all his wickets and how he got the batsman out.

    Throughout his career Glenn McGrath was quite often seen to publicly target the best of the opposition batsman and then keep his word, a penchant neither his captain Ricky Ponting nor his teammates were a big fan of.

    His two most tormented batsmen were two absolute technicians of the game. One was the uncompromising Michael Atherton who he dismissed a record 19 times (nearly twice as many as anyone else) while the other was the inexorable Brian Lara, who fell to him on 15 occasions.

    To quote the legend himself – “I had that mental strength and I loved the challenge of bowling to guys who were classed the best. I loved bowling in pressure situations. If I miss anything in cricket, it is being in those pressure situations, where it comes down to you having to perform for the team to win. That is what I loved”.

    McGrath was a firm believer of the old saying “The harder you work, the luckier you get”. To simply put it down, giving up was something that just couldn’t buy a place in his dictionary.

    He was never satisfied. He had that obdurate ambition to improve and do even better next game. He raised his bars so high that he always felt his team could win no matter how deplorable the situation was.

    He referred to it as the ‘Australian Attitude’ and attributed much of it to his upbringing in the countryside where he drove tractors and worked on the land from a young age that helped instil many of these values in him.

    When it comes to writing your own script in cricket, very few get the privilege to put the icing on their own cake like Glenn McGrath did. All the way from picking up his 300th scalp in the middle of a Test hat-trick that included the prized wicket of Brian Lara to retiring in front of his home crowd in Sydney, picking a wicket off his last ball in Test, that too after whitewashing the old enemies England 5-0 in the 2006-07 Ashes.

    His One Day International retirement too was decorated with a World Cup Triumph in 2007, Australia’s third in a row with McGrath picking the Man of the Tournament award for his 26 wickets. It was, all of it, a swansong.

    Across a career that spanned over 14 years, Glenn Donald McGrath saw himself metamorphose into the most successful fast bowler in the history of Test cricket with 563 scalps to his name.

    Along the road he also went on to become the first Australian fast bowler to play 100 Tests. He is also the highest wicket taker for Australia in ODIs with 381 wickets, alongside holding the record for the most wickets in a World Cup (26), a feat he achieved during the World Cup 2007 in the Caribbean.

    The numbers sure eclipse the inside story. The story of a man who defied all odds to enshrine his name among the greatest to set foot on a cricket field and propel a cherry. Behind the steeled, strapping look he always harnessed on the cricket field, there was a story of inspiration.

    An inspiration to keep carrying on even when the sky starts falling down. For McGrath was an embodiment of sheer resolve, someone who emblematised pure valour and unalloyed tenacity. Someone who pointed us that no dream is too big and no effort too small.

    That certain someone everybody needs in their life to make them believe that life can be nothing short of extraordinary if you continue to give in that extra bit every single day.

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