McGrath all quality and no mercy

Australia's finest collects famous fives. Stephen Brenkley witnesses a new dimension
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The Independent Online

As a summation of Glenn McGrath, it approached perfection. "He's one of the best two bowlers I've played with, the greatest fast bowler there is today. He doesn't give you half-volleys to hit. Even in the nets."

The estimation was delivered by Australia's captain, Steve Waugh, before this series began. The other bowler Waugh had in mind, of course, was Shane Warne, and it was possible to detect, just, that, if anything, he suspected McGrath might, just, have the edge. It was the last sentence and the pause before it which told Waugh's listeners all they needed to know about the man. "Even in the nets." It is the measure of McGrath. Fast bowling is a serious business to be prepared for seriously, and batsman are his enemies wherever they may be.

He has lived up to all Waugh's expectations in this rubberso far. Four wickets in the First Test victory was one fewer than his projected target of five in every match, but there was no question that he had already found his range. It was also significant, then, that he bagged Michael Atherton's wicket for the 14th time.

That became 15 in England's first innings at Lord's, and if the verdict was harsh on Atherton it did not diminish the quality of the ball which got him. McGrath used the slope splendidly, holding up the ball and then making it move with the tilt when he felt like it. There was, oddly, a half-volley or two but, those apart, there was almost nothing a batsman could score from safely.

He took five wickets in an innings for the 19th time in a Test match, for the fourth time against England and for the second time at Lord's. At one time he had 3 for 1 in 20 balls, just another confirmation that he senses, like all the great ones, when he can strike and that the jugular is as good a place as any. It has already gone down in legend that last winter he went from 298 Test wickets to 301 in three balls, the middle ball of the hat-trick, which took him to 300, accounting for Brian Lara.

In the rain-affected match at Lord's in 1997 he returned his career-best figures of 8 for 38. Only three other Australian bowlers have their names twice on the dressing- room honours board at the ground. Only one has it there three times. Bob Massie's 16 in the match was a freak performance in 1972, and Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall are not bad company to keep. Do not bet against McGrath doing it again and joining Charlie Turner, the medium-pacer from the century before last.

He has introduced a new dimension for the first Ashes series of the new century too. When he had Craig White caught to bring up his second quintet he grabbed the ball, held it up to the balcony and then waved it at the crowd. The crowd duly responded. It was McGrath's revenge on behalf of his breed.

"The batsmen get all the credit," he said as one who has felt it for more than a decade. "They get to 50 or score 100 and get to raise their bat and get a bit of acknowledgement on the ground. We thought it was about time bowlers had it as well, so we came up with this thing that if you get five wickets you hold the ball up to the balcony or wherever the guys are, do the rotation and back again. Shane Warne started it in the First Test, but it happened very quickly."

McGrath's wave was noticeable. It is the most animated he has been this summer. Over the years he has developed a reputation for his eyeball-to-eyeball confron- tations and his tendency to speak to batsmen in a way which makes you suspect that he is not inviting them out for dinner. The McGrath snarl – and an unsavoury sight it is, not least because it comes from such a pleasant fellow – has become a fundamental part of Test cricket.

Its absence this summer is a sure indicator that he is not only in form (though he is never out of it) but that he is taking wickets and probably knows where the next one is coming from. His explanation for this behaviour has always been: "I do it to get myself going. It looks bad on television but really I'm talking to myself. The important thing is to leave it out on the field." He has always been true to that particular word.

He was delighted when Brett Lee joined the Australian attack, feeling that it squared the cricket circle by giving them out-and-out pace, something he has never sought to possess. McGrath, Gillespie (who is damned near out-and-out pace), Warne, Lee. It has enabled the team, more or less, to attack constantly, so that an Australian fielder being instructed: "Go to mid-off, mate," will not have a clue what Steve Waugh is talking about.

"If you look at the way things have gone, England have got off to a fairly solid start and the wickets have tended to fall," McGrath said. "We have attacked a little bit too quickly, but when we find our rhythm, things start to happen." And how.