McGrath profits from sweat and perseverance

Derek Pringle talks to the country boy set to lead the Australian bowling attack this summer against England
Click to follow
The Independent Online
With this year's Ashes series still to get underway, Glenn McGrath is probably not the English housewife's favourite Aussie. That accolade, for the moment at least, belongs to Shane Warne - he of the blond thatch and ripping wrist. Yet all that may be about to change, as McGrath, a man almost unknown in these parts until his repeated scuttling of Brian Lara, takes on England's batsmen as the undisputed leader of the visitors' pace attack.

Australia have always loved their fast men, lauding them like other countries laud footballers and pop stars. And yet McGrath, despite taking 100 wickets in just 23 Tests (one more than it took Dennis Lillee to reach the same milestone) was not as revered as his record might suggest.

For that reason, the Lara episode is instructive. In six Test innings last winter, McGrath dismissed the left-handed Trinidadian five times, a feat that at last brought him to the notice of those unused to fawning over sweat and perseverance as methods of success.

But if he had never wilfully drawn attention to himself in the past, the rangy bowler did not eschew it now, even going public to explain to anyone who would listen just how he had managed to do it (the world's seam bowlers were all ears, apparently).

Like all plots it was hardly revelatory, and was hatched after something he had spotted in passing rather than by a think-tank sporting shorts and heavy moustaches, huddled round a barbie.

The outcome was that McGrath would bowl around the wicket to cut off Lara's scoring options, which is not as simple a strategy as it sounds, though one the tall bony bowler known as "Pigeon" executed to perfection. Then, when he sensed Lara's frustration reaching boiling point, he would toss him something juicy to hit outside the batsman's off stump, and Lara would either edge it behind or carve it to gully.

But wasn't he surprised that such a simple plan had turned the world's most talented batsman into a serial sucker? And why hadn't Lara, given his experience, worked out, that someone had worked him out?

"Brian's a proud man although I think he began to believe I had it over him, especially after I went public and the press avalanched over it. However, his pride dictated that he had to keep going for his shots simply in order to disprove what was happening."

Such unflinching confidence appears to be endemic in Australians, who adapt far quicker to pressure situations than their English equivalents. Take for example Australia's tour of the West Indies two years ago, when McGrath, now 27, was fourth-choice seamer behind Craig McDermott, Damien Fleming and Paul Reiffel. Before a ball had been bowled in anger, McDermott and Fleming were forced home through injury. Suddenly the Pigeon was thrust into the hottest seat in the cauldron - which ended up as the finest seat in the house, with McGrath the leading wicket-taker as the mighty West Indies were finally toppled from power.

Once again the Aussies had managed to fill a potential chasm in their pace attack. McGrath, sensing his opportunity, had performed as if to the manner born.

"Well, I'd only played six Shield games before playing my first Test, so I guess I knew what the deep end was like. I've always wanted to be the No 1 pacer, the guy 'Tubby' [Taylor] looks towards to make the breakthrough or bowl the bulk of the overs. It's how I prefer it."

Surprisingly, perhaps, to those lamenting the dearth of bowling talent in this country, his success has been based on the English formula of accuracy and upright seam, albeit one delivered with typical Aussie hostility and a willingness to bowl all day. In fact there is rarely anything so mystical as swing. Just a precise marriage of thought and deed, performed at a pace a level below such express trains as Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram.

"I've always been a straight bowler, which is a handy thing to fall back on" - something Darren Gough struggles with on occasion, and why, when things are not going his way, he can be just a tad expensive. "I don't try to bowl flat out every delivery as I find it's just as effective to have a quicker ball in the armoury as a slower one. I'm learning to be more patient, but bowling can be a frustrating business."

With rain and sluggish pitches dogging the tourists' every move, he has not exactly found the going easy on this tour yet, and has struggled for wickets. But then, as those who watch him most will reveal, he is a notoriously slow starter, who, before this tour began, had only bowled seven overs in English conditions - seven more, it has to be said, than his 21 year-old new ball partner, Jason Gillespie.

To counter that inexperience, he sought the ear of Tony Dodemaide, an Australian bowler who recently played for Sussex, as well as those of Taylor and Steve Waugh, both undertaking their third Ashes tour.

"Tony's advice was to bowl a fuller length and commit the batsman forward. He also pointed out the changes Merv Hughes made from the way he bowled two series ago [19 Test wickets] to the way he bowled last time [31 Test wickets]. If I can get close to that I'd be very happy. Mind you," he adds with a grin, "I reckon I'll still be testing out the pitch to see if there is any bounce in it."

Remarkably - something all bickering county chairmen should take note of - McGrath played just a single Shield game for New South Wales last season. "Generally its optional and left down to the player. But with the amount of international cricket we play these days, State cricket doesn't get much of a look in."

He has clearly come a long way, for the luxury of picking his games would have simply had no truck with a country boy like McGrath, brought up on a sheep and wheat farm in Narromine, a small town in the depths of the New South Wales bush.

Trapped between the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney and the scorching red interior, it is a place where everyone is on first-name terms and pig shooting is all the rage, though many say the shooters are wilder than the pigs.

Not, you might think, the sort of place in which to find potential Test cricketers. And yet country towns have produced many of Australia's finest, including, as it happens, the current captain, Mark Taylor, and his opening partner Michael Slater, both of them hailing from Wagga Wagga.

In fact, McGrath first came to notice as an 18-year-old, when Doug Walters, the larrikin former Test batsman, played against him in a Toohey's Cup match in Dubbo.

"I bowled pretty well," McGrath remembers. Strangely, however, even for a fledgling Antipodean quick, he does not recall trying to knock the maestro's block off. "I took it easy on him. I certainly didn't try to kill him," he says. "At least not that time anyway."

Whatever he saw, Walters did not keep it to himself. Within weeks McGrath had received two letters from Steve Rixon, then player-coach at Sutherland, a Sydney grade club, and now New Zealand coach. So down to the smoke he went to spend the next 13 months pursuing his dreams of becoming a cricketer, an ambition that necessitated living on his own in a caravan and moving up through the grades with Sutherland.

"It was the first time I'd been away from the country, he recalls. "It was a bit of a struggle but I got through it. I went down there with the intention of one day playing for Australia. The lure of that was simply too strong to get homesick. I'm not really sure why I did what I did, but looking back now, it does seem bloody cool."

They say Australia is the lucky country and that providing a fellow isn't shy of some hard yakka, he should be able to enjoy a high standard of living. McGrath's success has certainly brought that and he has long since swapped his old caravan for a beachside property in Cronulla, a haven for surfies and a des res for those less inclined towards Sydney's bohemian centre.

He also knows what it will take to keep his slender 6ft 4in frame at the top, and he has hired a personal trainer to "lessen the chances of injury". By using weights, sometimes as often as five times a week (Dominic Cork please take note) McGrath has increased his bulk from 12st 1lb to 13st 5lb and has so far managed to keep both serious injury and anti-inflammatory tablets at bay.

"I just love taking wickets. It's my incentive for playing cricket. Fortunately I don't need much to get me in the mood. I just see that batsman down the other end. That's usually enough."

Comments