He still has fire in his belly

Glenn McGrath may have retired from international cricket, but the legendary pace bowler is still making every ball count. For a young and vibrant Delhi Daredevils, he has been niggardly with the ball, doing simple things right. In the format of big hits, he has been a hit, writes S. Dinakar.

Forget the numbers at the auction. Forget his age. Forget the fact that he has retired from international cricket. Forget Twenty20 cricket is loaded against the bowlers. Remember, Glenn McGrath is a man for all seasons and all formats.

The legendary pace bowler is still making every ball count, still hits the right areas of the pitch. McGrath is still as valuable as they come. For a young and vibrant Delhi Daredevils outfit, he has been niggardly with the ball, doing simple things right. In the format of big hits, he has been a hit.

When Sportstar caught up with the legend in Chennai, McGrath said he almost did not make it to the Indian Premier League this season. “It was 50-50 about me joining the IPL this season. I had to be sure about my wife Jane’s health. I am a pretty loyal person. My family comes first, cricket next.”

His wife, battling cancer, has been McGrath’s primary concern over the past few years. Says McGrath, “I did not quit the international scene because I was not up for it physically. In fact, I feel as strong now as say five years back. It was only due to the mental side — I wanted to spend more time with my family.”

Now to his latest obsession. Twenty20 has been created to favour batsmen and encourage big hitting; the boundaries are shorter and then there are the free hits. McGrath eyes the challenge. “The margin for error is less and the execution will have to be perfect. I still believe that early wickets are the key here.”

He elaborates: “I think you have to tune yourself mentally. For instance, when I played one-day cricket I played with a mind-set that going for four runs an over was all right. In Twenty20, if you concede eight runs or less than that, I think it should be fine. It is up to you to make scoring as hard as possible for the batsmen. You should know when to use the slower ball. The change of pace and length are crucial.”

McGrath is excited by IPL’s popularity and hopes cricket’s shortest format would do the game only good. “I hope it doesn’t force players to retire early from international or domestic cricket,” he says.

The 38-year-old McGrath, with 563 Test and 381 ODI victims, still has a lot going for him. A smooth run-up, a high-arm action that complements his height to achieve bounce, a relentless line around the off-stump, accuracy, the ability to seam the ball both ways and an incisive cricketing mind that can spot chinks in a batsman have put him in the pantheon of the legendary fast bowlers.

His machine-like precision masks subtle changes of pace and length. In fact, McGrath takes great pride in thinking a batsman out. Nailing Jacques Kallis in the World Cup semifinal last year was one of those special occasions. “There are times when the ploy comes off. Kallis hit me for a boundary through covers. That got both of us thinking. He expected either a length ball or a short-pitched delivery next. He took another chance. I bowled a yorker-length ball. I hit the stumps. It was a crucial dismissal.”

McGrath essentially gets the batsmen to jab at shoulder high deliveries around the off-stump. His away seaming balls are difficult to leave since he delivers them from close to the stumps. There are occasions when he is hard to pick due to his open-chested action. His ideal wrist position enhances movement off the seam and he pulls down his non-bowling arm to extract the most out of his action. He uses the crease and alters the angles, over and round the wicket, without losing control. McGrath can set the batsmen up with the leg-cutter and consume them with the ball darting back. There are no easy moments for the batsmen.

He takes immense pride in duelling it out with the other legends. Says McGrath, “I think getting Brian Lara out, caught behind by Ian Healy, at Bridgetown in 1995 was a breakthrough dismissal for me. I went on to secure my first five-wicket haul in Tests. Mentally, it was a huge boost for me. Lara and Sachin Tendulkar were probably the best batsmen I bowled to. The challenge of bowling to them lifted me. I enjoyed the competition. Mentally, I was at my sharpest.”

McGrath then sheds light on his great control. He says, “Cricket is a simple sport but the complicated thing is to keep it simple. I believed that if you bowled 99 per cent of the balls hitting the deck on top of the off stump or around that area, you were bound to be successful. You need to work around your strength. My strong points were my height and the bounce I could extract from most surfaces. I was not a big swinger of the ball.”

The New South Welshman also changed his length according to the conditions. In Australia, the famous three-quarters length or thereabout was his ally. During Australia’s triumphant campaign in India in 2004, he altered his length. “Yes, that was a tour when I pitched the ball up more and achieved some swing with the new ball and reversed the old. You need to adapt,” admits McGrath.

Ask him about the various captains he played under and McGrath’s answer is illuminating. “They were all different captains. I played for a short while under Allan Border and he rebuilt the side from a very difficult situation. He led by example. Mark Taylor was a lot more aggressive captain and he had a better side under him. He wanted to win from the first ball. Steve Waugh was ruthless. He wanted to crush opponents from the first ball. Perhaps, Ricky Ponting’s job was the most difficult one. When a side is winning everything what do you do next? How do you take it to the next level? I think he has done remarkably well. He has won two World Cups and so many Test series. He’s a tough bloke who wants to win.”

McGrath backs Ponting to regain form. “He’s a class player, among the greatest of batsmen. He should end up as the highest run-getter in Tests.”

The Aussie head-hunter is delighted at the success of leg-spinning legend Shane Warne in the IPL. The two, with Taylor striking upon the idea, formed a formidable pace-spin combination in Tests.

“Bowling is a lot about creating pressure. Pressure creates mistakes and pressure is created by accuracy. Both me and Warne were very accurate bowlers. We dried up the runs and the batsmen made mistakes. It does not have to be pace and pace or spin and spin from both ends. It’s more about landing the ball in the right areas and putting the batsmen under stress.”

McGrath feels Warne would have made a wonderful captain for Australia in Tests. “His biggest regret was that he could not captain Australia in Tests. He would have made an attacking captain. He has a natural feel for the job. And he’s still a tremendously innovative and consistent bowler.”

McGrath then turns his attention to Jason Gillespie, the other half of a famous pace bowling pair. “Jason (Gillespie) was a quality bowler, pretty hostile and a tremendous partner for me. He made my job easier. In fact, I think he should have got more wickets than me. He beat the batsmen more times than I did. We got more wickets as a pace pair than any other pace combination for Australia.”

What McGrath did not mention here was that subtle movement was more dangerous than exaggerated deviation. His control and the hint of movement — just enough to find the edge — fetched him a lot of wickets.

Adam Gilchrist combined with McGrath in several dismissals. Talk to Gilchrist and he says, “McGrath, he is so ruthlessly accurate.”

McGrath is lavish in his praise of Gilchrist, another legend in a team with several immortal names. “A match-winner, a great character and one of a kind. His explosive batting at No. 7 in Tests gave us the kind of advantage no other team had. The opposition feared him and he could change the course of a match in a matter of a few overs. Gilly is a fine ’keeper as well and a fine bloke,” acknowledges McGrath.

He was delighted by Gilly’s blistering hundred against Mumbai Indians in the IPL.

During the IPL, McGrath caught up with his childhood hero. “Dennis Lillee was my idol growing up. I wanted to bowl with the same kind of control he did. He is still an inspirational figure and a fantastic coach. He spent a few days with the Daredevils side and it was a great experience for the younger bunch. I think we have some young, talented bowlers.”

McGrath himself is a role model.

T. A. Sekar, Head, Cricket Operations, Delhi Daredevils, talks endlessly about McGrath’s commitment and work ethics, his guiding influence on the younger cricketers.

McGrath talks less about himself and more about his mates. He is a great admirer of Matthew Hayden’s methods. “Hayden is one of the few batsmen who can actually intimidate the bowlers. He can walk down the track to the quickest of bowlers. He actually sledges them than the other way round. You need enormous confidence in your ability to do that without the fear of retaliation.”

He adds: “The biggest challenge for us would be to find replacements for Warne and Hayden, when he retires 12 months from now.”

McGrath, however, is pleased with the current Aussie pace attack. “Brett Lee has stepped in to take over the mantle of the spearhead. Mitchell Johnson is improving with every game; he is a left-arm swing bowler with considerable ability. Stuart Clark bowls line and length. I think Bollinger, who has done extremely well in domestic cricket, is a tremendous prospect. There are some others too.”

McGrath then dwells on Australia’s winning ways and how the team shrugged off complacency, motivated itself for all those clean sweeps. “We hated losing. Rather, we enjoyed the feeling of bonding well in the team and winning. We were mates who played to win. I remember the moment when I was first handed my baggy green cap. There is tremendous pride in representing Australia. There are certain things money cannot buy,” he says.

McGrath is at pains to explain that the Australians do not sledge any more than some other sides. “I think the issue of sledging has been over-played by our opponents and the media. You see, we bat well, bowl well and win most of the time. So sledging was one issue where we could be targeted. I don’t think we sledge any more than most teams.

“The funny thing is that there is probably more sledging in domestic cricket. But then you don’t have those many cameras that pick every word, capture most of the action. And when an incident is replayed on television more than a hundred times, it appears worse than what it actually is.”

McGrath reveals he was saddened at the media coverage of India’s tour of Australia this season. “I felt let down by the manner in which the events were projected after the Sydney Test by the media. Imagine how the Australians playing in the series would have felt. I think it put them under enormous stress, to the extent they did not play their normal cricket in Perth.”

He also gives the Indian team credit for a spirited performance down under. “The Indian team came with a different mind-set this time. They weren’t bothered about the pace and bounce in the pitches. They had some firepower themselves in Ishant Sharma. Then they had Harbhajan who brought with him a lot of aggression to the side.”

Ishant, he says, is an exciting talent. “He bowls at a good pace, can achieve bounce and operates in the right channels. How he looks after himself physically will determine how far he can progress,” says McGrath.

He is impressed with his pace partner in the Daredevils side, Pakistan’s Mohammad Asif. “Asif is a tremendous bowler. He gets the ball to seam and swing. He uses his wrist to get the ball to fizz off the surface. Some people say he should be bowling quicker. I feel that is rubbish. He tests the batsmen with every delivery bowling the way he is doing now,” says McGrath.

He believes the human element in umpiring should be retained. “The third umpire is all right for the line decisions, but the cameras are not hundred per cent right for caught behind, leg-before or catches in the outfield. The technology is there but those cameras, perhaps, would be too expensive to be used for cricket,” McGrath points out.

A country boy who was undaunted by the glaring lights of the city, McGrath comprehends the value of sacrifice and the price of success. He travelled miles on caravan, on dreams, hope and little else. He has enjoyed the ride. “It made me tougher mentally. I often travelled 500km for a game and did not have the distractions of the city lads. It has been a long journey. I was a part of Australian teams that won a lot and have no regrets. Probably, I said a few things which I should not have said. But then I am very upfront as a person. I don’t say or do things on the sly.”

His greatest disappointment was sitting on the sidelines for two Tests when England triumphed in the 2005 Ashes. “Missing the two Ashes Tests in England and seeing my team in trouble but not being able to play because of injury was a shattering experience. But all credit to England. They played some good cricket. They bowled very well, swung the new and the old ball.”

When fit and firing, McGrath’s intensity in Tests was all consuming. He would come steaming in at the fag end of a long, tiring day. Batsmen would almost see through a spell before succumbing towards the end of it. McGrath was patient and could strike. He was also strong. In fact, his physical fitness enhanced his mental strength.

“I trained so hard during the off-season that it was like taking a holiday physically during a Test,” he says.

McGrath is saddened by the fact that the pitches around the world are becoming batsmen-friendly. “In Australia, a few years ago every pitch had a different character. Perth was quick. Sydney helped the spinners. Brisbane had bounce and carry. Melbourne had a bit for everyone. Now, all these pitches are essentially batsmen-friendly. It is not good for the game.”

There are some bowlers who can still conquer the conditions. Glenn McGrath, for instance.