The ageless refrain: Ooh, aah, Glenn McGrath

As Merv Hughes, the 35-year-old paceman's predecessor in the Australian team, had opined in the laconic growl of his which brooks no argument, having witnessed the following morning a ball which had reared up over Matthew Hoggard and wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist's groping fingers too: "Yeah. There's a little bit of fire in the old dog yet."

We can excuse Hughes a slight mixing of his metaphors. The years, contrary to many predictions - not least that of Hoggard, who had reflected somewhat injudiciously that "it'll be interesting to see if he is the world-class bowler he was" - have not wearied him. You can still obtain a precise line from an old seamer.

The new golden spikes, prepared by McGrath's sponsors, had been at the ready. Few would not concur with him that an entry into the select group of four bowlers who have taken 500 Test wickets was an excuse for some uncustomary ostentation - even though, at the start of play on that surreal opening day, he was still one short.

In other sportsmen and women, such a gesture may have been regarded as tempting fate. For the great visualiser it was almost scientific logic. For the man who had claimed 8 for 38 in 1997 here and a similar haul of wickets four years later, the prospect of claiming that elusive one was an inevitability. Marcus Trescothick duly became the fall guy. What ensued was a sporting definition of devastation. It bears repeating. Thirty-one balls. Two runs. Five wickets.

You didn't have to be of Aussie stock to appreciate such a moment, notwithstanding that this was, at times, a spiteful, idiosyncratic pitch.

Unlike those other wearers of such similarly gilded apparel, David Beckham and Maria Sharapova, he does not regard himself, as he puts it, as "a show pony". Indeed, McGrath is more the shire horse who ploughs his territory diligently and tirelessly. Whatever the design of his footwear, it is the familiar trace of McGrath's deliveries that continues to work the oracle, regardless of the fact that any analysis of McGrath's modus operandi suggests that all a batsman has to do is joust with him, or, as Geoff Boycott would contend, "take 'im on". Michael Vaughan and Brian Lara are among those who would attest to the contrary.

Accuracy, in any sport, can be an underrated virtue in an age of flashy flamboyance. Again, the benefits of pace can be overstated. The years may have deprived McGrath of a yard or two of the latter; if anything, it has enabled him to enhance the former. Refreshed, and motivated by that year out, recovering from surgery on an ankle, he remains relentless, monotonous even, in his attempt to pick off that top of the off stump with every ball. Even between overs, he is plotting within the more evil recesses of his mind what slight variations on a regular theme he plans for his opponent.

Even with McGrath, there are occasional aberrations. One over in Friday's first session, with Kevin Pietersen at his most vengeful for the terrors that the bowler had inflicted on his comrades, produced a four. Then a six. Another four. And a single. Merv Hughes ruefully declared that it was "beginning to sound like a phone number". The Pavilion Ender looked to the skies, not so much seeking absolution, but in a demand for justice, though McGrath does not play the role of victim too convincingly.

Miser is a word that may be more apposite, as we witnessed at The Oval in the final match of that interminable one-day series when he recorded five overs, five maidens, one wicket (if only Jason Gillespie had not played errant juggler with a facile catch).

His initial entrance into this theatre of blood, for an eight-minute but potent batting performance, producing 10, had induced abuse from some quarters, presumably on account of his prophecy of an Australian 5-0 series triumph. What else would McGrath say? Only a wimp, or a Pom, would yield anything, even on paper, and do a kindness to the opposition. Anyway, McGrath's calculations are based not so much on arrogance, but on the rationale born of many years' experience.

Regardless of the dénouement here, McGrath will continue to haunt England, the 6ft 6in spectre always in their peripheral vision, "this machine who rarely has an off day", according to Dennis Lillee, even when he is rested from the attack. Never mind the adage that suggests you shouldn't play the bowler, but play the ball. Try reminding his prey of that. In 23 Ashes Tests, he has garnered 122 wickets, at an average of something less than 20 runs each.

Comparisons are made with Harmison, nine years McGrath's junior, but while the Durham paceman inflicted both internal and external haemorrhaging in a quest which produced five first-innings wickets, McGrath's art is a more controlled one. In England's first innings, the Australian wreaked damage which was less physical and more psychological.

Harmison, the first to applaud McGrath, had merited his own plaudits, although it was Andrew Flintoff, features so contorted he might have been an entrant in some gurning championship, who has twice brought a premature conclusion to Gilchrist's occupation of the crease, and once each those of Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, who made as significant a contribution.

Where McGrath, belatedly, could learn from his England counterpart is some vocal restraint. The bowler admits there are times when he wishes he could revisit and delete some of his worst excesses, developed over the years principally as a psychological tool but sometimes arising as an instinctive response. He reacted angrily in Antigua two years ago when he thought he heard the West Indies batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan refer to his wife, Jane, who had recently recovered from breast cancer.

Mostly, though, he has been the aggressor. When he removed Andrew Strauss in the one-dayer at Bristol, he pumped the air with his fist and yelled at him: "That's the first one". Though there was truth in that relatively benign proclamation, the left-hander becoming his second victim on Thursday, McGrath's tendency to target such individuals with language not in common usage at a church fête has led him to concede that it has, at times, made him appear "a real pork chop".

That is not his principal concern, though. McGrath has been rather more attuned to offering a swift, spirited retort to those with the temerity to suggest that this tour would be his valedictory appearance.

True, the man from Narromine, a small farming town 150 miles north-west of Sydney, has already bought a 34,000-acre estate in New South Wales bushland in readiness for his international retirement. But he maintains that he has the 2007 World Cup in mind, at least. In the intervening period, there is another Ashes series, at home next winter, although for the moment, residence at Lord's, his home from home, suits

him admirably.

As for whether he is in decline, McGrath offers a terse reply to the inquiry. "I'm the best judge of that," he states. For the moment, the verdict is "Not guilty".

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