Cricket: History man's happy returns

Stephen Brenkley sees a record-breaker make the most of his chance for greatness

It was one of those rare sporting days when the quality of the performance was fully reflected by the wonder of the figures. In the whole of Test history, there have been only 23 better returns for an innings than Glenn McGrath achieved yesterday, only two by an Australian and only one at Lord's. It was a quite beautifully controlled spell which so had the England batsmen in its thrall that they willingly surrendered to the Australians' more ordinary balls.

As McGrath took his place in history so, too, did England. It was their lowest total against Australia since 1948, when they succumbed for 52 on a sticky pitch at The Oval, and their lowest on this hallowed turf since 1888, when they tumbled to 53 and 62. No doubt Queen Victoria was not amused.

A case could be made that McGrath was slightly flattered by such stupendous figures and that England made a seaming wicket of some uneven bounce look worse than it was, but perhaps they both deserved what they got. McGrath used what was at his disposal perfectly both on Friday morning and again yesterday. He pitched it up at pace and with rhythm. Both bowler and ball were in the zone. Thus were England, new England, ensnared. Their mistrust was almost visible and their supporters can but hope that all the confidence developed over the past month was not frittered away, at headquarters of all places.

They should find some solace in the thought that McGrath, splendid bowler though he is, will surely never again find so much conspiring in his favour at once. This performance still ranks behind the efforts of two compatriots against England - Arthur Mailey took 9 for 121 in 1920-21 and Frank Laver returned 8 for 31 in 1909. At Lord's, Ian Botham still holds the record for the best innings analysis, 8 for 34 against Pakistan in 1978. But McGrath, 27, is now supreme among Australians at the most famous ground in the world, improving on Bob Massie's 8 for 53 a quarter of a century ago.

Massie , who took 16 wickets in the match, said: "It's been 25 years and in a way its a relief one half of the record has gone. I would love to see him get nine in the second innings because it would help Australia."

Massie added that McGrath was already a fantastic bowler and was on the verge of being a great one: "He has developed in the past year and a half from being an up-and-down sort of bowler with potential to one who has the lot. He can use reverse swing, seam it and bowl the percentages. I'm sure he will just get better and better."

There were mutterings - there always are when great deeds supersede previous great deeds - that so many good bowlers have been to Lord's down the years and not done what McGrath had done that it hardly seemed just. But Massie rightly emphasised that helpful conditions had to be used properly.

It would not be in order to let the occasion pass without mentioning Paul Reiffel. Barely off the plane in bowling terms, after being called up as a replacement, he operated at the other end to McGrath and also made the batsmen play. His movement instilled doubts and that, at any level, remains a batsman's greatest enemy.

Whether or not England save this match, they will know now they are in a contest. They must hope that the backing they have garnered this summer does not dissipate. One lousy innings following the splendid effort at Edgbaston does not make a bad team.

But it does bring the return of the old sores about the inability to string together two good performances against high-class opposition and the fallibility of a batting line-up, which is supposedly a good unit.

But they were taking on history here and better England sides than this one have been undone by the Australians at Lord's. The most oft-quoted fact of the week is that England have won here only once this century against the old enemy, in 1934. History and Glenn McGrath were a potent combination indeed.

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