Shadows of doubt surround McGrath's ability to deliver

Australia's Ashes hopes rely on their Narromine paceman but the master of line and length is racing against time to be ready for the series opener, writes Peter Roebuck in Mumbai
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A question mark hangs over Australia's prospects of enjoying a productive winter. It is a question upon which the fate of the Ashes may depend. And it is simply stated. Can cricket's most precise and penetrating pace bowler renew his apparently waning powers? Will Glenn McGrath make the ball talk or whisper?

If he gets back to his best the Australians will be hard to beat. McGrath holds the key. He took 18 wickets in the last Ashes series but the figures were flattering. Taking advantage of both slope and tentative opponents, he was awesome at Lord's but thereafter was merely tidy. His five-wicket haul in Manchester came as his victims were throwing the bat. Although respectable at the Oval - he could keep a length blindfolded - he has not subsequently been nearly as dangerous.

Naturally McGrath will fight hard against the dying of his light. Over the years he has taken Australian cricket on a wonderful journey, into the past, into the bush, back to the basics. He has been the most disciplined of bowlers, a professional determined to cook 'em quickly but prepared to cook 'em slowly just so long as they don't get away. More than most cricketers, he has known how to make the most of his abilities. In retirement most athletes feel they left something on the table. Apart from an occasional outburst, the man from Narromine can have no regrets. Indeed, he has surpassed himself.

McGrath is easily underestimated. From a distance he does seem disconcertingly simple. Yet he has been the cleverest, most subtle and analytical of leather-flingers. For most sportsmen the journey from natural ability through the minefield of experience and on to maturity takes years. But McGrath went from raw to refined with the ease of a buck jumping over a low fence. Once he felt his game was complete, he had the sense to stick with it. Ever since, he has concentrated upon the precise and consistent reproduction of that action. As other bowlers could confirm, not least Steve Harmison, it is extremely difficult to retain rhythm amid cricket's many variables. McGrath has made the task of turning a bunch of long limbs into an efficient machine appear straightforward. Accordingly his consistency has been taken for granted.

McGrath has been a mighty cricketer. Must his cricketing obituary now be written? Without wishing him any harm, England will hope it must. On the evidence of these last few days, he is racing against time to be properly fit for the Brisbane Test. In the nets he has been bowling off a few paces, working on his delivery stride. Most deliveries have been followed by a shake of the head. But he is unhappy with any delivery that does not land on a postage stamp before trimming the off-bail. Troy Cooley has been working with him, gathering information, offering insights.

Watching the veteran work so hard on his action, it was hard not to think he should be playing domestic state cricket, bowling lots of overs, building confidence and fitness. Keen to get back into the swing of things, he wanted to join the touring party and it is hard to deny a champion, besides which McGrath has always known how to prepare for battle.

As far as returns are concerned, it has been so far so good. McGrath is a master of line, length and cut. As Jason Gillespie could confirm, this combination won't mean much unless the ball moves quickly enough and bounces steeply enough to prevent batsmen adjusting their stroke or hitting through the line. And that question remains unanswered. Apart from anything else, McGrath is a notoriously slow starter. And the Australians might well ask how Harmison is travelling. Certainly they are a lot more concerned about him than about the vapid utterances of fools.

Apart from the form of their greatest pace bowler, Australia have not much to worry about. Mitchell Johnson looks lively, Shane Watson's batting has improved, Michael Clarke is playing straighter, Brett Lee is glowing, Matthew Hayden is full of runs. Add McGrath at his sharpest and they will be formidable. Cross him out and the game is afoot. Greatness does not grow on trees.