Cricket: Tormentor's big target

McGrath must hate the batsman - only on the field of course - if he is to achieve a magical 500 scalps; Stephen Fay talks to the Aussie paceman about his burning ambition
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The Independent Online
GLENN McGRATH is a trophy hunter. "The trophy is the batsman. That's the incentive that keeps me going, it's the wickets," he says. He took seven more for 115 runs in the First Test at the Gabba in Brisbane, and three more in Perth yesterday, taking his total in Tests to 183. No fewer than 12 of those wickets have been Michael Atherton's.

McGrath, who is England's tormentor, may be Athers's nemesis. Along with his 8 for 38 at Lord's in 1997, the England opener is his finest trophy so far.

His ambition is quite simply to be the most prolific wicket-taker in Test history; 500 will do. When this ambition surfaces, quite naked, in conversation, it betrays a country boy's burning inner determination to make his mark among fast bowlers - not as the fastest, but as the best. There is no bombast, no conceit. McGrath, aged 28, believes he has more to learn. He places Curtly Ambrose, Allan Donald and Wasim Akram top of the list.

But the Australian manager, Steve Bernard, already has him in the top three, and McGrath certainly is the man of the moment. After the players from both sides have done two hours of hard yakka at the WACA, preparing for the Second Test in Perth, it took him well over an hour to get to the dressing-room to change. First he talked politely to the visiting English reporters, then he conducted interviews himself with his fellow fast men for a slot on Australia's Channel 7, and finally he sat down to talk to me.

He has large eyes set in a lean face, broad shoulders and a lithe frame; he claims he can bend so far that his fingers reach 12 inches past his toes. Quick bowlers like him need a bit of the mongrel in their make-up, he says: he must be able to hate batsmen - though only when they're on the paddock (that's Australian for the field). "Actually, I like to think of myself as a friendly sort of person," he says, with little trace of irony.

McGrath deliberately targets Atherton as "a must-get" wicket: "I found whenever we knocked him over during the '97 Ashes tour, his team-mates followed him back to the pavilion like Mary's little lamb," he writes in his newly published autobiography, titled Pacemaker. That was the way in Brisbane until Donner, the god of thunder, had the final say.

Athers is a back-foot player, says McGrath, who doesn't always get his feet in the correct position when he hooks or pulls. This fondness for playing off the back foot also makes him vulnerable to the fuller-length ball. That fuller ball had Athers edging to slip for a first- innings duck, and since he was caught on the boundary hooking in the second, it may be that Athers's unconscious mind has succumbed to these frailties. Yesterday was no better when McGrath had Athers edging while shuffling forward. I asked McGrath whether Athers's bad back might be exaggerating his weaknesses. "Could be," he replied.

McGrath was born on 9 February 1970 in Dubbo, not far from his home town of Narromine, which is about as far as you can get from Sydney and still be in New South Wales. The McGraths came to Australia in the 1860s from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. He does not know whether they were Catholics or Protestants: "I'm Church of England," he says, trying to help. Narromine is a farming community, and many of Australia's most influential cricketers, from Don Bradman to Mark Taylor, have been country boys like McGrath. "Growing up in the country makes you work harder," he says. "It doesn't come easy so you have to be more determined, more focused."

His parents divorced when he was a boy, and that may have intensified his determination. "I haven't given much thought to that. I've always enjoyed my own company. Probably you could say I was a bit of a loner. Maybe that in itself helped me cope with things back then."

After he had been spotted, aged 19, bowling in a country tournament, he was asked to move to Sydney. His mother drove him, along with the caravan that would be his first home. He was "a skinny country boy with a simple action", remembers Steve Bernard. He was known as Millard, after the make of his caravan. But he showed such promise that, after a few games with New South Wales seconds, he was chosen to attend the cricketers' finishing school, the Academy in Adelaide, where he was taught by Dennis Lillee.

McGrath had played only six first-class games when he was selected for Australia against New Zealand in 1993. Bernard, who was a selector then, says: "Sure there was a risk; there's always a risk when you pick a new player."

The risk paid off splendidly in the West Indies in 1994 when Craig McDermott and Damien Fleming were injured. "They needed someone who could take the reins, and I'd always wanted to lead the attack." McGrath targeted Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. "We knew they were going to give it to us whether we did it to them or not. Getting stuck into them really turned out in our favour." Winning that series confirmed Australia as the world's best.

When he came back he spent a lot of time with his father: "I got a lot closer to Dad then," he says. He hadn't had "what you would call a real girl friend" until his early 20s, but that was remedied when he met an English air hostess called Jane Steele. The bad news for England is that McGrath can concentrate on his cricket.

Batting too. In Brisbane Australia were 365 for 7 compared to England's 360 for 7, and yet led England on the first innings by 110 runs. McGrath scored only five, but he stayed in for 35 minutes while Fleming went on his batting bender, adding 40 for the last wicket. McGrath gets special tuition in the nets from his friend Steve Waugh: "Still a long way to go," he says. It exemplifies the dedication.

The action is still simple: smooth run-up, high front arm, front-on delivery and easy follow-through. This system is designed to reduce the likelihood of injuries, and before complications following a hernia operation kept him out of the Tests a year ago, his "body management" had been trouble-free.

McGrath is a line and length bowler whose accuracy distinguishes him from his contemporaries. He has an intimidating bouncer, though he does not rate his yorker or consider himself a particularly effective swing bowler. He was, however, getting sufficient reverse swing at Brisbane - it's known as "bowling Irish" in Australia - to force Taylor to take him off in diminishing light on the last afternoon. Had he been able to bowl, no doubt McGrath would be nearer to the 500-wicket mark. Three more already in Perth, and I fear the fast wicket at the WACA will enable him to make up further for lost time.