McGrath marks an even longer run

There is plenty of life yet in the grand old legs - and the tongue. Retirement is still not an option

It is invariably fascinating to hear a professional sportsman contemplate retirement. Inevitably, it is always about more than simply giving up the only thing they have ever known, it is about lending meaning and purpose to the rest of their life.

Glenn McGrath, the great Australian fast bowler who will be 37 next March, is in that peculiar period where he knows the end is nearer than the beginning but is not yet ready to go. Former cricketers, most of whom did not go on anywhere near as long, are queueing up to state the obvious.

His riposte to their suggestions was as emphatic as an exclamation mark. Eleven months after playing his previous Test he returned by taking 6 for 50 in 23.1 overs, including, to his immense satisfaction, both of England's openers. It was a barnstorming exhibition.

The selectors had given him a gentle nudge by picking two young, fast bowlers in their squad for the opening Test. "It just means those guys are playing well and are being picked on performance first and foremost," said McGrath on the eve of the match as he contemplated the rest of his career. "I don't look at myself as too old. But it's also the way we train and prepare, technology. Who knows, in 10 or 15 years guys could be playing at 45 or 46, and 36 will be just a young age. I think it's just a natural progression, the way cricket is going."

A swift bout of mental arithmetic confirmed that in 10 years' time McGrath will be 46, so he may have had in mind a certain fast bowler from Narromine, New South Wales.

For a moment or two, there seems to be an element of self-denial in his intentions. And McGrath has been so good for so long that it would somehow be unfair if he went on too long. Of recent vintage, Sir Richard Hadlee went on until he was 39, but that was merely the exception proving the rule.

The speculation surrounding McGrath has been heightened by the illness to his wife, Jane, who was diagnosed earlier this year with a return of the cancer from which it was thought she had recovered, and appears to have done so again. If anything, this has determined McGrath to continue.

"Coming into 2006 didn't matter," he said. "I wasn't looking any further forward than getting home and doing what we had to do. Cricket was on the back burner. It's fine at home. If I had any doubts about Jane I wouldn't be here now.

"I try to deal with what's happening. I wasn't ready to give the game away and I don't think Jane's ready for it either. She's spent so long with me playing cricket. She still enjoys it, the kids still enjoy it. At the end of the day this is what I do."

That is the point: playing cricket is what he does. Others are casting doubts. Geoff Lawson, another fast bowler whose international career finished at the more conventional age of 32, said the whole country was now on McGrath watch. This clearly rankled.

"I know what I have to focus on," McGrath said. "He also said that the only reason we play on is for money, and to me that means he doesn't know anything about why we're playing the game. I love the game of cricket, and when I walk away from it I don't want to have any regrets, thinking could I have taken more wickets. At the moment I am not ready to go, and it's not because of the money."

McGrath was also rattled by the implication that he needed to be spared work when the selectors initially picked a fifth bowler, Shane Watson, in the original team for Brisbane. "If they are doing that because of the age we are, I think it's ridiculous."

His immediate objective is to take 1,000 international wickets, possibly split between 600 Test wickets (he has 548 after England's first innings at the Gabba) and 400 one-day wickets (he is on 342). That may mean he has to keep going for up to two more years, assuming selectorial favour.

He claims to be fitter than he has ever been, and if the face is more rugged and not quite as lean around the cheekbones, the enthusiasm for the game is apparent. Still, McGrath is the latest embodiment of whether a player is his own best judge of when to go. Probably not.

During the last Ashes series in Australia, the focus of attention was on Steve Waugh, who famously answered his army of doubters with an epic, Bradman-equalling 29th century in Sydney.

McGrath is on course to do something similar by becoming the first fast bowler to 600 Test wickets. He now needs another 52, and the way he went about his work at the Gabba suggests that he will be there sometime next year. He was on the button at about 78mph from ball one. Pace never mattered less. It was nerveless.

He sounds up for this series (who wouldn't?) and at various times has indulged in his usual game of predicting the score and targeting batsmen. Those who take him seriously miss the point entirely. It is McGrath being playful.

"I have thought a bit about how to go. The team come before the individual, and if I'm affecting the team performance I should not be there." Whenever he goes, nobody would doubt his right to be the monarch of all the Glenns.

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