Demolition man

Glenn McGrath does the simple things right. He probes the batsmen and mounts pressure on them with every delivery. Simply put, he chokes the batsmen before consuming them and leaves them with psychological scars, writes S. DINAKAR.

GLENN McGrath crossing 500 Test wickets at Lord's brings up the question — Where does the Australian stand in the pantheon of all-time great pacemen?

Will McGrath be remembered as a machine with the right settings or a bowler with exceptional mastery over his craft? Does he lack the passion that typifies a fast bowler or is his desire manifested in his single-mindedness?

Significant individual achievements trigger debates, especially when those behind the deeds are of the extraordinary kind. Often, the conclusions are not easily arrived at.

McGrath's run-up is not as smooth and effortless as that of a Michael Holding; he doesn't quite boast of an action as classical as that of a Dennis Lillee or a Richard Hadlee; he lacks the explosiveness of a Malcolm Marshall, the speed of a Jeff Thomson, and the wicked variety of a Wasim Akram.

Yet, at the time of writing this, he is just 11 wickets shy of Courtney Walsh's 519, the most wickets by a fast bowler in Tests. McGrath's stunning success also takes us to the essence of any sport — perfect the basics and then build the edifice.

McGrath just does the simple things right, relentlessly landing the ball at three quarters length or a trifle further up on or around the off-stump. The lethal corridor bowler probes the batsmen, and the pressure mounts with every delivery. In other words, he chokes the batsmen before consuming them. And he leaves them with psychological scars.

It is not just the succinct lateral movement that often sounds the death knell for the batsman, but the deviation coupled with telling bounce, the result of McGrath's high-arm action.

No wonder, the late Fazal Mahmood of Pakistan, an outstanding seam bowler during his time, said this about McGrath — "He is so successful because he makes the batsmen play at shoulder height." The Aussie forces the batsmen to jab at deliveries, a clear recipe for disaster.

His ideal wrist position ensures that the ball lands on the seam and his fantastic use of the non-bowling arm ensures that he ekes the maximum out of his action. There have been pacemen with additional firepower or more variety, but McGrath's strongest flank is his control.

He is 35, but roars in with greater resolve at the dying stages of an energy-sapping day. Some wrote him off when he missed almost a year's cricket from mid-2003 due to an ankle injury that required a surgery.

McGrath's response? A whopping 78 wickets in 15 Tests. This highlights his immense mental attributes. He wins his duels on the field — he has this habit of naming his target ahead of the series and then hunting him down — since the Aussie believes he can do so.

Appreciation follows McGrath. Says Lillee: "I was lucky to be involved with Glenn when he was an 18-year-old raw-boned kid in the New South Wales state squad. He didn't even look like playing Shield cricket then. And to see him do what he has done is phenomenal. He's got temperament. And he's a machine. He can bowl an amazing line and length. He also has a photographic memory of how batsmen play. So he knows where to bowl at them. That's very important."

However, would McGrath have been as successful in the pre-90s period, before ODI cricket assumed the centrestage, and the mindset of the batsmen underwent a transformation? There is an opinion that since the art of `leaving' deliveries outside the off-stump, or the ones pitching on the off and moving away, is dying, batsman are no longer able to frustrate McGrath. Is McGrath more successful because Test batsmen have become less patient?

But then, someone as accomplished as the legendary opener Sunil Gavaskar pointed out that since McGrath delivered from so close to the stumps, opting not to offer a shot was a hazardous option for the batsmen, who are forced to play since the odd delivery could straighten or nip back.

Another alternative, a contrasting one at that, to counter McGrath effectively would be to launch into rasping strokes square off the wicket and upset his rhythm and line. It would have been interesting to see how India's Gundappa Viswanath, who had a rousing square-cut in his repertoire, would have handled McGrath's line of attack. Virender Sehwag, in the home series of 2004, did leave the Australian rattled with punishing strokes through the point region.

Perhaps, aggressive batsmen with horizontal bat strokes stand a better chance against McGrath than those who push, drive or defend tentatively with a vertical blade like the Englishmen did in the first Ashes Test.

The New South Welshman is now hot on the heels of that formidable Jamaican Courtney Walsh, a front-on bowler with a strong wrist action. While his technique might not have been as well refined as that of McGrath's, Walsh could extract unexpected bounce and seam movement due to his supple wrists.

Both are essentially seam bowlers — Walsh was the quicker of the two — with the ability to send down lengthy spells. McGrath tends to deliver from closer to the stumps while Walsh's release was mostly from wide off the crease; this also explains why the Aussie gets his deliveries to leave the right-hander and why the West Indian invariably brought the ball into the batsman. The stinging off-cutter was Walsh's trademark delivery.

On the rare occasion when Walsh got his deliveries to straighten from that angle, he was hard to negotiate. He had a meaner short ball that was extremely hard to pick because of a rather jerky, quick-arm action whenever he sent down this delivery.

McGrath, using the shine, can ruthlessly expose the chinks in a batsman's technique with deliveries of laser-guided precision, slicing through the top-order. Some of Walsh's best moments arrived with the older ball, and on a wearing surface. In fact, the West Indian was well nigh unplayable on a deteriorating wicket.

In the sub-continent, the ultimate testing ground for a paceman, McGrath has 72 wickets in 19 Tests at 23.02, while Walsh, 77 in 17 at 20.53. The delivery darting back into the right-hander is an effective weapon on dry, less responsive tracks, and Walsh had a mastery over this ball.

Interestingly, when McGrath visited India with the Australian team in 2004, he operated to a fuller length giving the ball a chance to reverse and increasingly brought into play the delivery seaming back into the right-hander.

McGrath's strike rate of 50.6 is superior to the Jamaican's 57.8 and he has been more economical too (2.49 to 2.53). Because of his wide-of-the-crease release, there were times when Walsh tended to stray down the leg-side. McGrath's off-stump line is impeccable and, between the two, he is the more consistent paceman.

While aggression is a common virtue among champion pace predators, Walsh was adept at putting a lid on his temper. The intense and occasionally brooding McGrath's anger at himself and his adversaries can boil over in the arena; lately there has been an improvement in McGrath' on-field behaviour.

Walsh forged an effective pace partnership with Curtly Ambrose. In fact, tactically, Ambrose (405 wickets in 98 Tests) had plenty in common with McGrath. Beanpole Ambrose too gave little away, gained steep bounce, and the cordon was always expectant of an offering. Ambrose had a nastier yorker though.

Among the Australians, McGrath has followed in the footsteps of the legendary Lillee (355 in 70 Tests) and Ray Lindwall (228 in 61 Tests). Fast and decidedly life-threatening in his early days, Lillee was forced by a back injury to change his style and transform himself into a complete fast bowler with a clutter of tricks, although the leg-cutter remained his `strike' ball.

Lindwall was a `model' paceman with speed and movement, who could alter scripts even on batsmen-friendly surfaces. Though the surfaces were mostly uncovered during his times, the pitches, unless it rained, were essentially belters. McGrath has the edge over Lillee (52.00) and Lindwall (59.8) in strike rates; Lillee's tally could have been more but for his participation in the WSC series.

After an era of fast-paced tracks in the 70s and 80s, the pitches have gradually slowed down — a direct result of pitch preparation for the ODIs — over the last 20 years. They then became tailor-made for a paceman with control and consistency like McGrath.

While his line is unwavering, McGrath, is adept at finding the right length, which also depends on the height of the man facing him and the nature of the surface. The Aussie forces them on to the backfoot, opening up possibilities.

Among the bowlers who have taken 300-plus wickets, Fred Trueman could breathe fire. Malcolm Marshall of that exhilarating run-up and a whippy action, could generate blinding speed and shatter his way past most defences. Pakistan's Waqar Younis was a bowler cast in a similar mould, although he relied more on swing. South Africa's Allan Donald was a true force of nature. Richard Hadlee was the sultan of swing and cut, Imran Khan could move the ball at great speeds and Kapil Dev had a natural outswinger. Pakistan's Wasim Akram — it must be mentioned here that it is not feasible to compare a left-armer with a right-arm bowler — was arguably the most gifted bowler. McGrath is less exciting, but no less effective.

But then, the tally of wickets need not always be the true indicator of a bowler's calibre. In fact, Lillee rates West Indian Andy Roberts as the most complete fast bowler he had seen, and Roberts took only 202 wickets in 47 Tests. The fearsome West Indian pace quartet of the 70s and 80s cut into each other and comparisons are hard. Big Bird Joel Garner scalped 259 batsmen in only 58 Tests and his strike rate of 50.8 was extraordinary for someone labelled a stock bowler.

The achievements of Waqar Younis (373 wickets in 87 Tests) at a fantastic strike rate of 43.4 are perhaps more creditable than that of McGrath since the Pakistani claimed a significant chunk of these wickets in the sub-continent, his vicious reverse swing bamboozling many a batsman. In other words, he did not have the advantage of bowling on lively surfaces at home. It can be argued here that but for the harshness of the sub-continental pitches for the pacemen, reverse swing would not have been born.

Among the contemporaries, McGrath tops. Shaun Pollock is not the same bowler after a slump in pace, Mkhaya Ntini is a one-dimensional slanting-the-ball-in customer, Steve Harmison, for all his pace and bounce, still has some way to travel and Chaminda Vaas, despite glowing attributes as a wily left-arm paceman, is not as regular a threat as the Aussie. It is McGrath's mate Gillespie, who during a bountiful phase, or the lightning fast Brett Lee, who might pose the stiffest challenge to him.

Deciding McGrath's ranking in the all-time list is harder. It can be impossible to compare eras, for each period makes its own demands. But he will surely have his place high up the ladder. And, yes, he is no mere machine. There can be so much passion in the man's quest for perfection.