Smile on the face of a tiger

On the field he is the leanest, meanest beast in the jungle, off it he's a charming family man
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The Independent Online

There was mud on Glenn McGrath's smart, brown elastic-sided boots. He was sitting on a bench outside the dressing room at Worcester looking across the trees to the Cathedral on the far bank of the Severn. "It's one of the reasons for coming to this part of the world," he said. The only thing that spoiled the idyll was the absence of cricketers on the emerald-green turf in the foreground. The mud on McGrath's boots had come from Worcestershire's waterlogged ground.

The only cricket he had played before the county game against Glamorgan finally began on Friday was in a 10-over slog at Edgbaston on Monday. Two opening overs with the new ball went for 21 runs, and they answered a question he had asked himself about his motivation: "I wasn't sure how my attitude would be over here, but I wanted to do well, and the fact that we lost the game adds a little bit of edge to it."

At 30, McGrath is fit and confident. He has played for Australia since 1993; he has 288 Test wickets, and he is not used to losing. He does not like it, and his commitment creates a ferocity which is the attribute that most spectators remember, and some dislike. Off the field, McGrath is unaffected and obliging, but he knows his mind, and speaks it. He wears a blue shirt and chinos. His hands are large, with long fingers and cared-for nails. There is a chunky, gold wedding ring and a Rolex watch. The only subject he shies away from is money. I asked if it was true that he was getting 100,000 for his summer's work. "Pounds or dollars?" he said inquisitively. I had assumed it was pounds; he said he'd rather keep the figure to himself.

But there was no self-censorship when the subject was the Cronje affair, his truculent image, or his life as a newly married father of a three-month-old boy, playing cricket 10 months a year, much of it away from home.

 

McGrath had arrived in England directly from South Africa, where Australia had the unusual experience of defeat in a three-match, one-day series that was overshadowed by Hansie Cronje's confession that he had taken money from an Indian bookie.

McGrath's reaction to the affair is, like many cricketers', severely practical. He starts with the result: because of the pressure on them, he says, no one had expected South Africa to play well or win. In a tight series, that helped them. "They didn't play well, but we played even worse. Some of our guys had started their off-season. I don't think it was a true indication of how the teams are situated in world cricket."

He is wary of moral judgements, and seeks consolation by casting journalists in an equivocal role. Cronje, like Shane Warne and Mark Waugh at the time of their own confessions, insisted that the Indian bookmaker had asked only for news about the state of the pitch and the composition of the team. These are, after all, items that journalists routinely ask for: "What's to stop us saying to you what the wicket is like and then you going to a bookie and getting money. Is that bad? The bookie gets the same information, but the player doesn't get the money," he says.

This is not intended as a justification for taking the bookies' cash: "If you accept money for talking to them, I think that is probably not right. What Warnie and Junior [Mark Waugh], and also what Hansie admitted to, sure they were stupid doing it. It was probably setting them up for the future, but to me it had no effect on what was happening in the middle. So to slap on the wrists is fine."

"Lord MacLaurin would ban them for life," I say.

"If they're found match-fixing, then maybe that should be the penalty."

"But not just for talking to bookies?"

"No, no," he says. McGrath hopes that the publicity and threat of harsh punishment will act as a deterrent, scaring the bookies off. His most forceful remark about the affair tells us exactly where he stands: "The way I play cricket, and the Australian way, is to go into the middle to give 100 per cent; play tough, and play to win every game." They have won 10 Tests in a row, only one short of the West Indies' record. The toughening of this Australian team, led by Steve Waugh, suggests they will break all records. "In the past, Australia could be a bit slack when it's games we didn't necessarily need to win. I think we've opted out of that way of thinking," he says. It is a forbidding prospect.

Steve Waugh has proved a worthy successor to Mark Taylor: "At the start he was on a hiding to nothing. If the team played well, it was expected. If the team played badly, it was his fault. Now he's got some accolades in his own right, and he can work on the finer points, putting his touch on the team. You've always got to look to improve, and everyone can improve. I feel we can improve." The prospect gets more forbidding.

Some commentators already claim this Australian team are the finest of all time. "A lot of people would disagree, but I'd like to think we were one of the best three or four. The brand of cricket we play is very positive, very aggressive. We play to win, and I think it's enjoyable to watch."

This was evidently the moment to introduce the subject of sledging. When Wisden declared McGrath one of the five cricketers of the year in 1998, it said: "If he has a flaw, it is his apparently unstoppable habit of sledging opponents." But he had not bitten off my head; so how does he explain the difference between this amiable figure off the field and the violent man in the middle?

"I wouldn't say violent. I shout more at myself than other people. People perceive me as a sledger, whereas I'm not. I say the odd word. No more than anyone else."

"Why the false impression?"

"That's the press and media for you. The cameras will focus on it and replay it, and it comes across that way. But if people do think of me like that, then that's fine, because ultimately that's my job, to be aggressive and take wickets.

"It's a way of getting focused?"

"Definitely. When I'm frustrated I talk to myself a lot more. The days I'm bowling well I sort of talk to myself softly."

But it is harder to contain his aggression than he admits. We talked about the variation in pace that might be necessary on English wickets. To the suggestion that he might reduce his pace so much that the keeper could stand up to him, he turns and smiles a mean smile: "If the keeper came up to the stumps, I'd be trying to hurt him rather than the batsman."

 

The McGrath family have taken a house in the Worcestershire countryside. Jane's mother lives a few miles away. James is not disturbing his sleep. In Australia, Glenn likes boar hunting; here, he hopes to get some clay-pigeon shooting.

He will be playing regularly, but there is no doubt that his Worcestershire summer is intended as a break from the constant stress of international cricket. Since the international season is getting even longer, he will not have another chance; Test cricket is rewarding, but it is a hard life.

He and Jane have calculated that James was conceived in the West Indies last April. The team then played in the World Cup here for six weeks. "I went home for another six weeks, got married, then I was off to Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe for three months. I did not see her for the whole of that time, and she had changed a lot."

In the Australian summer there were series against Pakistan and India. "We had two days off during the one-dayers, so they induced her. I was there at the birth, and for five days after because I was given the next game off." Next came two months in New Zealand; then South Africa, where Jane joined him for the journey to England. "I think it's getting to the stage now where families will have to travel together a lot more with the team. We'll have to ask whether we can't have help with nannies, or even teachers."

Jane is a stoic. "She understand this is what I do. She came into this with her eyes open, and she knows this is the main form of our income. She just says, 'Well, that's the way it's got to be'."

There is no room for argument in the world of Glenn McGrath. So be it.

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