Mark Butcher: A novel way to tackle the McGrath menace
Sunday 24 July 2005
If the first day of the match was marked by two extraordinary bowling stints by two of the world's great fast bowlers, the one who was No 1, albeit briefly, and the one who is, the third day saw the proper advent into the series of the master and genius Shane Warne. While Steve Harmison and Glenn McGrath laid down their markers quicker than a golfer with a nine-inch putt to win The Open on Thursday, Warne was mesmerising yesterday.
Harmison came first on Thursday, bristling with the aggression he showed to such devastating effect in the West Indies a year ago. As then, he hit the batsmen. He might not have meant to but his speed, his length and his bounce were just too much for them and that was the result.
For six months last year Harmison was a threat every time he took the field, and he shot to No 1 in the world rankings. He did not hold the place for long, and in South Africa last winter he had a dip in form. I never thought for a moment that it was anything other than that.
Australia were 190 all out and the mood was euphoric. And then came McGrath. It was a masterclass in the fast- bowling arts. He did not waste a single ball in his new-ball spell and every single one looked capable of taking a wicket.
It was superlative stuff. There were no easy answers because he bowls with such precision on such a length that you are not sure whether to go back or forward, end up doing neither and get out, showing that was the wrong decision as well. He was also getting appreciative movement down the Lord's slope, effectively bowling off-breaks at 84mph.
I have some experience of playing McGrath. To play him you have to be very selective, you cannot let him dominate, but then the execution is everything. There comes a time when you have to be prepared to take a little bit of a punt.
One of the things I have done in the past to try to put him off his stride is to bat outside my crease. It has the effect of making him think of changing his length, helping the batsmen to hit the ball in the middle of the bat rather than having to use the top of it, and thus giving more control.
Maybe I have used it as a last resort, first in the Test at Lord's in 2001 in the second innings, when I made 81, then in Brisbane a couple of years later, when I scratched around for 20 and thought I had to do something because I really couldn't get a bat on it. Things got better and I made a hundred.
This sort of thing is not going to work every time but it is worth trying in certain circumstances. It gives him something to think about. Maybe England's batsmen could give it some thought. But credit where it's due; McGrath was monumental.
He was not as effective, thank goodness from England's point of view, as the ball got older. The seam movement was not quite there. The runs acquired by England's tail in company with Kevin Pietersen were crucial. This has been a feature of their play in the last two years and the tail have worked extremely hard at their batting. This, allied with Pietersen's bold hitting, was the difference between a manageable deficit of 35 and one of 80.
Australia unfortunately did not go easily. Michael Clarke played commandingly for 91, a score he may rue one day. Nine runs short of a century at Lord's and four years to wait for another chance. Then Simon Katich marshalled the tail as England dropped yet more catches.
Warne embodied a truism, that Test cricket brings the best out of the players. His leg-spinner fizzed and his other variations were just as threatening. From the moment he came on there was a buzz, and England's left-handers did not seem to read the one that goes straight on. This comes out with a scrambled seam rather than the straighter seam of the leg-break.
When Warne is playing for Hampshire, sometimes he gets hit for runs. He is leaving something in reserve. This was a Test match, the Ashes, Lord's, a slightly worn pitch, a shoulder ready to go. It makes for a potent combination.
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