Cricket: The man Lara just could not resist

Alisdair Ross in Durban says South Africa must be wary of an unlikely destroyer
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The Independent Online
Glenn McGrath has an affable and enviably simple outlook on life - and on fast bowling. As the son of a New South Wales sheep and wheat farmer, he has a laid-back attitude off the field which is readily understandable. But it is remarkable to find such an easy-going approach in Australia's premier strike bowler, in the high-pressure world of modern Test cricket.

Take, for example, McGrath's reaction to his astonishing dominance of Brian Lara - he removed him five times in six innings during Australia's recent 3-2 series win over the West Indies. "It really isn't that difficult," he said calmly. "I just made a point of tucking him up for a while, bowling from round the wicket and then just gave him one outside the off-stump. He couldn't resist it."

There is, however, a lot more to McGrath than having the hoodoo over the world's most talented batsman. In just 25 Tests he has taken 106 wickets at 24 runs apiece and until a few days ago was ranked No 1 in the world in the Coopers & Lybrand ratings. Curtly Ambrose, who ripped through Australia on an uneven pitch in the last Test in Perth, has now slipped past him again, but the three-Test series in South Africa, which starts in Johannesburg on Friday, will provide McGrath with an early opportunity to reclaim top billing. It will also, of course, throw up a head-to-head confrontation with Allan Donald, sitting in third place in the standings.

To the untrained eye, the contest has the appearance of a total mismatch. Donald, all warpaint, fire and aggression, charging in supported by the baying of sell-out crowds; McGrath, quiet, undemonstrative, going about his destructive business with the minimum of fuss.

McGrath is ready for the comparisons, and has steeled himself to them. "People are bound to judge us on what we achieve through the series, but the same will apply to Shane Warne and Paul Adams. I won't let it bother me. My emphasis has always been on the way I feel I'm bowling and the results I'm getting."

And on that front, the South African batsmen should be worried. "I think I'm becoming a much better bowler. I've always wanted to lead the attack for Australia and now I'm doing that. I've worked on my overall strength and fitness. As a result I'm bowling more consistently faster and I'm able to bowl longer spells. I can also come back again strongly for a second or third stint because of all the hard work I've put in."

As if that is not enough to put him in good heart for the series, McGrath has an extra reason to want to excel against Hansie Cronje's team. Three years ago he chipped back a simple return catch to Fanie de Villiers at Sydney to give South Africa a famous five-run victory in a Test, and the memory burns brightly. "I still feel sick about that," he said. "I know that our batsmen failed [Australia were chasing 117 to win], but it was still down to me as the last man to see us home. Ever since then I've used that as added motivation - so this series means a great deal to me."

McGrath has clearly become a stronger, steelier individual following his extraordinary success over Lara and the West Indies both at home and previously in the Caribbean where he spearheaded a famous series victory.

A lasting impression of "Pigeon" - 6ft 6in McGrath's long spindly legs have been given short shrift in the Aussie dressing- room - came after the win in Jamaica. Within minutes of sealing a brilliant victory, McGrath was jogging the full length of Sabina Park, hurdling a barrier to join the hundreds of travelling Australian fans in an impromptu celebration party.

McGrath, after all, is just one of the blokes - a few beers with his mates suits him fine. And he will always keep it simple, as South Africa and England, later this year, may discover to their cost.

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