Cricket: McGrath's grace is devastating

Richard Williams At The Oval
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ON SUNDAY at Old Trafford, it had taken Glenn McGrath six balls to send Brian Lara packing with as good a delivery as you would see if you lived to be a hundred. Yesterday at The Oval, he took only four balls to dismiss Sachin Tendulkar, the master batsman of one-day cricket, during a spell of fast bowling arguably as conclusively lethal as anything seen on this ground since Michael Holding took 14 English wickets on a flat track almost a quarter of a century ago.

McGrath isn't Holding, but his approach and action have a similar frictionless beauty. Nor could yesterday's match be described as first-class cricket, within the accepted definition. You would not want to be the one to approach McGrath, however, with a suggestion that the taking of Tendulkar's wicket was anything but first-class.

The way he has performed in the last two matches makes Steve Waugh's decision to drop him down the bowling order in the earlier matches look less like desperation than a stroke of strategic genius. Giving him the new ball at Old Trafford, with Australia needing a win to survive in the tournament, appeared to awaken all his fiercest appetites. Sherwin Campbell and Jimmy Adams were his hors-d'oeuvres, Lara was main course, and Mervyn Dillon and Courtney Walsh the pudding and cheese.

Yesterday, as at Old Trafford, he hit his line and length straight away. That is what a captain likes to see, and it is what a great fast bowler will do in a high-pressure situation. During the Australian innings, Javagal Srinath had made the occasional delivery climb from just short of a length. McGrath, also bowling from the Pavilion End, turned it into his stock ball, with devastating consequences for the top of the Indian batting order.

Saurav Ganguly, who took the strike, dabbed the second ball of McGrath's opening over for a single, bringing Tendulkar to the business end. The Little Master, who returned from his father's funeral to score an unbeaten 140 against Kenya at Bristol two weeks ago, looked set for another decisive contribution. At 283, the target was well within the compass of a resplendent Indian batting line-up - most of whom had already been scoring heavily during the early matches. If one didn't get the runs, then the rest of them surely would. The Indian section of the crowd, having endured the careful progress of Australia's innings, could hardly have been more cheerfully expectant. So the shock of McGrath's first strike could not have been greater.

Tendulkar dealt carefully with the first two deliveries. But the third, pitched short of a length on the off-stump, moved away and beat the outside edge, still climbing as it slapped into Adam Gilchrist's gloves, with Tendulkar's bat hanging limply in the ghost-image of a backward defensive shot.

Okay, McGrath must have thought. That was too good for him to get his bat on. Let's have another go. So, minutely recalibrating his sights, he pitched the ball on the same patch of earth but managed to make it deviate fractionally less as it whistled past Tendulkar, close enough this time to catch the outside edge in its progress to the wicketkeeper's clutch.

The Australians rushed to congratulate McGrath. Then, clustered like a patch of daffodils, they turned to gaze up at the giant screen on the third-man boundary as it replayed the moment on which, they may already have been thinking, this match would pivot.

Within 25 minutes that little tableau had itself been replayed twice, first as McGrath dismissed Rahul Dravid with an identical delivery with the penultimate ball of his second over, and then when he persuaded Mohammad Azharuddin to get slightly more of the bat's shoulder on to the second ball of his fourth over, sending a simple catch to Steve Waugh at deep backward point. Adding Damien Fleming's dismissal of Ganguly, India's innings was in ruins.

Unsurprisingly, the sting went out of McGrath's bowling around his sixth over. Waugh allowed him one more, and then gave him a rest. Robin Singh and Ajay Jadeja got their heads down, dug in, and played for pride with great concentration and, as they took their stand past 100, marvellous enterprise.

But the sight of the day had been McGrath in his pomp, bowling with the kind of purity that is the property of the masters. He may not be the fastest bowler of his generation - the speed guns timed Srinath at 93 mph yesterday, five mph faster than the Australian's quickest ball - but speed through the air is not always maintained off the pitch, and in his early overs yesterday he seemed to make the ball accelerate off the track. And, once seen, that combination of grace and danger is never forgotten.