Glenn McGrath was actually paying England a compliment last week, when he saidhe expected Australia to win next summer's Ashes series 3-0. "I know," he says, when I mention that his comments have caused a bit of a stir. "You guys shouldn't be too upset with that. You should treat it as praise. Before every other series I reckoned we were going to beat you 5-0."
McGrath is in a good position to judge England's current renaissance of eight wins in the last nine Tests, since he is in London playing county cricket for Middlesex. After a year out of the game with an ankle injury - the same problem as that which has affected Andrew Flintoff this summer - the 34-year-old's plan was to prove to Australia's selectors that he had returned to full fitness.
McGrath did this when he took 10 wickets in two Test matches against Sri Lanka in July, but he still decided to fulfil his obligation to Middlesex, even though Cricket Australia have since asked him to bowl in only half of the games he was scheduled to play in. Australia's visit to England for September's Champions Trophy influenced McGrath's decision, as did his desire to regain the rhythm and form of old, which has allowed him to take more Test wickets than any other fast bowler since his Test debut in November 1993.
During the last month, McGrath has had the chance to weigh up next summer's opponents. "England are going pretty well at the moment," he admits, through only partially gritted teeth. "They have a team that seems to be settled and this helps build harmony. Then the players can relax, concentrate on playing with each other, and this has helped the guys to perform and do well. I don't think England have one really stand-out player, but they have players who have performed well at different stages and you need that if your team is to perform well."
Not that England should get carried away. "We have also improved," McGrath says, happier talking about Australia's strengths. "Most of our side may be over 30, but I always prefer experience to potential. Ricky [Ponting] is in the best form of his life and Matthew Hayden seems to get bigger and stronger every time you see him. Warney [Shane Warne] is not considering retirement."
Most of the players who will arrive next summer have been tormenting England for almost a decade. How much longer will they go on? "There is unlikely to be an exodus from this team over the next few years," McGrath says, and he clearly sees himself sticking around for a while as well.
"I feel as though I still have a few years left in me. My ankle is feeling better than it has for six or seven years and I am hitting the crease a lot better. I am well on my way to top form, and who knows, the best might be yet to come."
This is not something that Michael Vaughan and England's supporters would like to contemplate. In 22 Test matches against the old foe McGrath has taken 117 wickets. But the 6ft 6in beanpole from New South Wales has been impressed with several aspects of England's cricket. He respects the runs England's batsmen have scored and also the bowling of the spinner Ashley Giles.
But it is the presence of another lanky fast bowler, one who has been compared to McGrath himself, which has caught his eye most. "Harmy [Stephen Harmison] is the real deal," he said. "He has got good pace, he hits the deck hard and gets good bounce. He runs in pretty well and now that he has got his radar sorted out he looks the part. He made quite an impact when he came over to Australia on the last Ashes tour. Even though his radar was then a bit haywire everything else seemed to be there. We thought once he got this right he would be quite a dangerous bowler - and he has proven to be that."
Watching the way McGrath effortlessly glides to the stumps and pitches the ball on a perfect length - on or just outside off stump - it is hard to believe there was ever a time when he struggled for wickets.
McGrath was brought up in Narromine, a small town situated on the Macquarie River, 250 miles inland from Sydney. There he used to play bush cricket - Narromine had a turf wicket but the majority were artificial - with tough, uncomplicated people who used to travel for two or three hours for a game.
"I never modelled myself on anybody as a young fella," he said. "Dennis Lillee was my hero, but I didn't start bowling properly until I was 14 or 15. I never had any coaching and I think this helped because my body found out what was the natural and best way for me to bowl."
The desire to be a cricketer had always been there and at 19 McGrath moved to Sydney to play grade cricket for Sutherland. He started in the seconds but quickly moved up and began making his mark. In 1992-93 he won entry to the Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide and in 1993 made his Test debut.
Like many young fast bowlers his Test career did not get off to the perfect start. Wickets initially were hard to come by - only 19 came in his first eight Tests at an average of 43.68 - and predictably there was no shortage of advice. "I had been in and out of the Australian team for 12 months," he explained. "I was travelling with the squad, playing in the odd game and then we turned up in Brisbane to play the first Test of the 1994-95 Ashes. Here everybody started telling me that I needed to start bowling an out-swinger if I wanted to take wickets at Test level.
"So I started swinging the ball, walked off at the end of the game with figures of none for-120 and got dropped for the next three Test matches. I came back for the last Test at Perth, thought 'sod this', and went back to bowling as I had when they first picked me - which was hitting the deck hard and aiming for the top of off stump or just outside."
McGrath took six wickets - including mine - in an emphatic Australian victory and 17 on a tour of the West Indies which followed. Since then he has never looked back. During our conversation it dawns on me how motivated he is, and how much each Test wicket means to him. He tells me that in Perth I was his 24th victim. I think to myself "yeah, alright", and leave the subject. But once home I check and, yes, he was right. "ARC Fraser, lbw b McGrath 5" - the 24th Test wicket of his career. I phoneto tell him and he then reels off the two or three which followed. Again he is correct.
McGrath has never lacked confidence or doubted his own ability. And why should he? For the last decade Australia have dominated world cricket and he has been the game's most successful fast bowler. In a career of 97 Test matches he has taken 440 wickets.
McGrath is yet to identify the England batsman he will target next summer, but it is a tactic he uses before most Test series. "You have to be a mug or a bloody good bowler to say that either Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar is my man," says Tom Moody, a former Australian team-mate of McGrath's. "But he does it. He takes on the responsibility of knocking over the opposition's main man and then does it."
There is nothing flash about McGrath's action or method. He has a simple approach to the art and young bowlers could do much worse than copy his style, if not some of his behaviour - which as led to him being fined by several match referees.
"Glenn is a classic example of someone with white line fever," adds Moody. "As soon as he crosses one he becomes a different animal. This side of it he wouldn't harm a fly but once he steps over one his eyes roll and he wants a piece of the opposition's openers."
McGrath has never been seriously quick, but after the ball leaves his hand it seems to gain pace after it hits the pitch. This and the bounce he extracts from a high action and a flick of the wrist at the moment of release mean that the ball always feels like it is hitting the splice of the bat. Batsmen seldom middle the ball, and it is the combination of this and a lack of balls to hit which drives them to distraction.
But a high arm and a metronomic action explain only half of what he is about, and what is on the inside counts for far more than his physical attributes. McGrath has put in many outstanding displays for Australia - 8 for 38 against England at Lord's and match figures of 10 for 27 against the West Indies in Brisbane stand out - but it was his bowling in Barbados in March 1999 which highlighted why he is a great bowler.
Lara won a famous match for his side with a brilliant unbeaten 153 - an innings which was recently voted by West Indies supporters as the greatest ever by a West Indian. On the final day McGrath bowled almost non-stop in searing heat. For hour after hour he fought exhaustion but kept going and going. The West Indies won by one wicket but he finished with the remarkable figures of five for 92 off 44 overs. Having bowled 33 overs in the first innings, he showed what a huge heart and enormous pride he has.
To walk off as a loser was a strange experience, but he treated it philosophically. "You just have to accept that on some days you will have success against the best players in the world, and on others they will get on top of you. If it takes a special innings like that by Lara to beat us, I can live with that."
Like all good fast-bowlers McGrath has a healthy disregard for batsmen. He begrudges every single run and takes being hit for four as a personal insult. "The intelligence of batsmen has always been over-rated," he happily points out.
"They stand there thinking they are the brains of the game and that they know exactly what is going on. But it only takes a couple of tight overs without a run before they get bored, do something stupid and knick one to slip.
"People often leave disappointed when I attempt to explain what I do. There is no magic formula. I just try and keep things as simple as I can. A lot of coaches and bowlers complicate things by trying too much.
"It may be the one-day game, but people seem to be searching for more exciting cricketers, guys that can bowl at 100mph and swing the ball both ways. But the funny thing is my strike rate is about 50, which isn't too bad for a guy that bores them out. I just work on the principle of hitting the pitch hard and aiming for the top of off stump. If I can do that 95 times out of 100 I will always be in business."
Ready, Freddie? How I'D Bowl To Flintoff
It is the moment every bowler dreads. Andrew Flintoff is unbeaten on 45. The marauding Lancashire all-rounder is moving through the gears and he has just hit your team-mate for a huge six and three crushing fours in the space of a single over.
At fine-leg, you realise that your time in the firing line is about to begin. But you are desperately hoping to avoid eye contact with your captain. Sign a few autographs, mingle with the crowd. Do anything you can to delay the inevitable call to action. But no, it's all over. The skipper realises where you are and asks you to warm up for a spell in the attack.
"Crikey, here we go, I hope he doesn't make a fool of me," would be the immediate thought running through the heads of most bowlers as they stretched their hamstrings and loosened up their back, such has been the impression made by Flintoff in the last 12 months.
But what about Glenn McGrath, one of the meanest and best fast bowlers Test cricket has produced? With 440 Test wickets and just under 300 one-day international wickets to his name, the 34-year-old has plenty of top-level experience to fall back on. I put him in this hypothetical position and eagerly await his reply.
"I wouldn't bowl any different to what I normally do," he replies. "If we did not have any sort of set plan to get him out we would just try to put him under pressure and cut down his scoring options.
"We would set realistic fields and not overdo the catchers, and build up pressure by bowling the way we want to bowl. It's then up to him. If he wants to play a big shot then he's going to have to take a fair amount of risk."
"And what if he hits one?" I ask. "Well," McGrath replies, as though the thought of Flintoff getting the better of him had never entered his head. "If it was from where I wanted to bowl the ball then I can live with that. But if it was a shit ball then I will give myself a hard time. The main thing is to cut out the shit balls - it helps."
And would one of Test cricket's most vocal players try to unsettle the beefy English batsman with a quiet word or two? "Gussie, you know I'm not the sort who says much in the middle," he says, with the slightest hint of sarcasm. "Actually he doesn't look the sort of bloke that a few words would affect too much. But you can take it for sure that I will not say 'Good shot Freddie; my, you are a great player'."Reuse content