Fearsome threesome

Glenn McGrath celebrates the fall of Yuvraj Singh's wicket. The deadly Aussie pace proved too much for the Indians at Super Sport Part.-— Pic. AFP

Brett Lee, firing close to 100 miles an hour, Glenn McGrath, the monarch of the tight quick ball and Jason Gillespie, the zanier, more imaginative, slightly slower, most controlled of the three are as nasty a combination as any batsman will wish to avoid, writes TED CORBETT.

Three fast bowlers. They say fast bowlers hunt best in pairs but we have discovered in the past few weeks that triplets of pace form a murderous combination.

Watch the modern Australian attack as they topple the best in South Africa; trust that the Pakistani threesome will show their true power in time to make an impact on this World Cup.

Brett Lee, firing close to 100 miles an hour, Glenn McGrath, the monarch of the tight quick ball and Jason Gillespie, the zanier, more imaginative, slightly slower, most controlled of the three are as nasty a combination as any batsman will wish to avoid.

Lee will, with luck and at altitude in Johannesburg or Harare, hit the century mark before this tournament is finished. McGrath, rusty after an injury lay-off, will be back at his peak. If Gillespie avoids injury he could be man of the tournament.

No combination of three bowlers has been so effective since Don Bradman set Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Bill Johnston on England in 1948. The pressure is just as relentless, the skill just as obvious and for all they are all right handers - - Johnston was a left-arm over the wicket merchant - - there is every variety a captain requires.

The 2003 bunch are a powerful team, each one a thinking fast bowler, all at the height of their careers and capable of reducing any team on earth to a total that leaves the match finished in quick time and the losing dressing room embarrassingly silent.

It is why Australia are favourites for the World Cup and why, try as the gambler may, he cannot find a side likely to put one over on Ricky Ponting's men, even though the Waughs and Warne are absent, hurt for one reason or another.

Blond, tall and handsome Lee is the star of the show from the moment he paces out his run-up with an eagerness that would not be out of place in a schoolboy. You know, as he cradles the ball in his hand and marches - - left, right, left, right at light infantry pace - - back to his mark somewhere hidden in the sponsor's circle that this man will bowl the ball as quickly as anyone who has ever hurled it at a batsman since shepherd's erected their first hurdle on the Sussex Downs.

'Demon' Spofforth, Charles Kortright, Alfred Mynn, Tom Richardson are just be 100-year-old names on the pages of a history book; Martindale and Constantine, the mercurial, sometimes fast sometimes medium often slow are men from the Caribbean remembered almost as an oral history; Ed Gilbert is an Aboriginal myth, too much for Bradman, dangerous and swift and too soon removed from the forefront of Australian cricket for us to know if he was quick. (Or simply quick for a native bowler in that racially unimaginative land).

You don't have to produce a speed gun to measure Lee. The blink of an eye is the only guide you need to see that, as seasoned batsmen stagger away from the wicket unnerved, as tailenders are hit, as naive batters stand bewildered, he is the most threatening bowler in South Africa at this time.

Dennis Lillee told me during my recent sojourn in Australia that all the coaches at the Academy recognised Lee as the stand-out rookie of his batch. Since that moment Australia has devoted everything to honing his run-up, his delivery, the position of his hand and his head, his arm movement and his follow through.

Now, at 25, he is the most beautiful fast bowler of his generation; smoother than Shane Bond of New Zealand, a Rolls Royce compared with the muscular tractor also known as Shoaib Akhtar. You will say that is not difficult for Lee to look handsome alongside the angular McGrath, or the mass of arms and legs that comes together precisely at the right moment to show us what a fine bowler there is behind the enigma called Gillespie.

If this trio does not win the World Cup there is no justice although the newly determined Sri Lanka might give them a close match and Brian Lara, back in form as soon as he returned from his illness, might run up a score that West Indies can defend.

But it is difficult to see how this triptych of speed can be reduced to human scale any more than Madonna and Child can be reproduced in a painting-by-numbers book.

They offer the Australian captain Ricky Ponting variety. Against Pakistan, he kept Lee back; in the India game he handed him the new ball and reaped riches even he cannot have imagined possible.

Bowling consistent 95 miles an hour outswingers precisely pitched, Lee had sowed seeds of doubt in Sourav Ganguli's head within an over. The panic spread through the Indian ranks but there is no disgrace in that. Many another side will be wiped out by this exactly orchestrated burst of speed both during the World Cup and afterwards.

McGrath we think we know. ''I like that McGrath,'' Ted Dexter said, shortly after he vacated the chairmanship of the England selection panel. ''He runs in, delivers the ball with a simple action at a pace that is uncomfortable on a length that is difficult. Then he turns round and does it all over again. It is a recipe for wickets.''

The Gillespie menu is more complex but then so is the man. McGrath relies on a steady stream of trying deliveries and variations so subtle even the eagle eyes of ex-cricketers strain to keep them under review. He is the poker player among fast bowlers, his face a mask, his cards held firmly against his chest.

Brett Lee makes a vociferous appeal during the match against India. Lee had a good quota of wickets in this match.-— Pic. V.V. Krishnan

Gillespie is more obvious, a gambler with a handful of silver dollars and a mania to subsume. His first ball may be wide, his second a slower ball, his third a yorker. Only at the crucial moment of delivery is his action in sync; he is the Alex Higgins of cricket, his action imperfect save at the vital moment.

How lucky Australia are to have such a triple shot in their armoury. It is rarely possible for a single team at any level to put together so many quicks at one time. England thought they might be able to when Fred Trueman, Brian Statham and Frank Tyson were near the height of their powers. They managed it once, at Adelaide in 1958-9 and Australia won by ten wickets.

There was a feeling among the game's rulers in England at the time that playing more than two fast bowlers was immoral and they preferred to field what is still known as a balanced attack. Pundits sometimes cry out for a return to the days of two quicks, two spinners - one left-hand, one right-hand, of course - and an all-rounder bowling medium pace. It adds a neat variety to an attack; but why are we playing cricket? As an aesthetic pleasure or to win matches?

Using fast bowlers in numbers is so obviously a match-winner that the day of the balanced attack is finished. Yes, I'm sorry too but look how groups of fast bowlers have brought results in the past. MacDonald and Gregory, Larwood and Voce, Lindwall and Miller, Trueman and Statham, Willis and Botham, McDermott and Hughes, Ambrose and Walsh, Gough and Caddick; hunters with a mate, pairs who relied on their pal to keep the game tight, loosen up the batsman, prepare the way for their own natural ability to grab wickets.

When they both got it right the result was devastating.

Jason Gillespie celebrates as captain Ricky Ponting hugs him. Andy Symonds (left) runs in, after the pace ace has claimed the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar. The Aussies, no doubt, have an enviable attack.-— Pic. REUTERS

Then came the West Indies with their quartets of pacemen. The eyes still stand out from the head at the mention of such bunches of frightening quicks like - - to mention only two of several combinations - - Croft, Roberts, Holding, Marshall (with Garner, Patterson and Daniels in reserve), Ambrose, Walsh, the two Benjamins Kenny or Winston and Bishop.

Their trouble lay in the fact that every one was good enough to win a match alone so that during 1985-6 in the Caribbean their fast bowlers won the Test series 5-0 but not one of them collected five wickets in an innings.

Too much of a good thing? The old English professionals used to mutter "if three can't bowl 'em out, four won't make any difference."

Australia have shown that three fast men are usually enough to bowl out England, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India this year alone; the Pakistan pacemen have still to prove their case.

Wasim Akram, with nearly500 victims in his bag as I write, is clearly coming to the end of a long career. He had already played Test cricket when he turned up at Old Trafford in 1987 to announce that he was about to sign for Lancashire and sat in on the dinner to mark the opening of the new Press box, which rightly celebrated Manchester's contribution to the art made by Neville Cardus.

Waqar Younis arrived at the Oval a couple of years later and immediately impressed Surrey with (a) his pace and (b) his modesty. ''I'm not much of a batsman,'' he told Keith Medlycott, now their coach. ''Don't you worry about that,'' said Medlycott, an inveterate joker. ''I think we might owe you a few runs if you bowl at that pace.''

So the great two Ws have had to battle on alone — and very successfully too — until Shoaib Akhtar joined them; but somehow the chemistry is not right. Perhaps it is an age thing. Yet, one day in the unpredictable Pakistani way, it will all come together and then we will be able to judge whether the Lee-McGrath-Gillespie combo is superior to the Wasim-Waqar-Shoaib union. At this moment the Aussies have it, as they have superiority in most parts of the game.