Robot `n' magician combo - Priceless

Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne have already established themselves as the greatest pace-spin pair of all-time, with 835 wickets between them in 87 Tests, writes SANJAY RAJAN.

Sanjay Rajan

Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath ... a deadly duo.-

AFTER being served for nearly a decade by the world-class pace-spin combination of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, Australian cricket — in the 2003-04 season — found itself facing up to the unpleasant reality of life without the duo.

McGrath, the spearhead with metronomic accuracy, had painful bone spurs on his ankle removed and the healing process after the surgery took close to a year. The blond leg-spinner, on the other hand, was serving a drug ban.

Having to compete without one of them was bad enough; without both, it was indeed a scary proposition. It was during this phase that a resurgent India — the second-best side in world cricket then — ruined Steve Waugh's farewell series by sharing the honours 1-1. After India drew the first Test at Brisbane and won the second at Adelaide, the pressure was always on the host.

McGrath and Warne came back together again only during the two-Test home series against Sri Lanka in July 2004, and subsequently played a big part in Australia's first series victory in India in 35 years. In what was a truly great performance by one of the greatest sides of all time, McGrath took 14 wickets from four Tests — displaying characteristic precision throughout — and Warne 14 from three. It was, however, `Dizzy' Gillespie who topped the bowling honours with 20 scalps.

At Christchurch, in the first Test of the ongoing three-match series against New Zealand, McGrath took six for 115 off 42 overs in the first innings and Warne destroyed the Kiwi tail in the second with five for 39 off 14 overs — his 29th five-wicket haul — as the host nation capitulated under the weight of Australia's bowling might after the first three days produced exciting cricket.

Interestingly, McGrath bowled his first 32 overs in the first innings for 75 runs without a wicket. His greatness lies in his ability to sustain the pressure. It paid dividends yet again, as the host — 330 for four at one stage — was bowled out for 433. It was his 26th five-wicket haul.

Obviously, the power-packed batting display went a long way in securing Australia's sixth successive Test win. But the fact remains that for any victory, the opposition needs to be bowled out twice and hence for a side to be a world-beater, its bowling needs to be top of the line.

Steve Waugh, the most successful Test captain ever, turned to McGrath and Warne for both attack and defence, as did Mark Taylor before him and Ricky Ponting after him. The deadly duo has delivered time and again.

But the question is how much longer? At 35, McGrath (107 Tests, 488 wickets) is in the twilight of his career; so is the Victoria-born Warne (121 Tests, 573 wickets), who is one year older.

The blond spinner, who Richie Benaud described as the best leg-spinner he has ever seen, is already on conservation mode, having restricted himself to the longer form of the game where he is the highest wicket-taker and aiming to go beyond 700.

The two could probably go on for another season or two.

McGrath and Warne have already established themselves as the greatest pace-spin pair of all-time, with 835 wickets between them in 87 Tests. The second-best, at the moment, is the vibrant Sri Lankan combination of Muttiah Muralitharan — Warne's rival in the race for the tag of highest wicket-taker — and the left-arm seamer Chaminda Vaas, with 642 scalps from 69 matches.

McGrath, who grew up at Narromine, broke into the international arena in November 1993, a year after Warne (January '92). Hailing from the outback of NSW, McGarth replaced the big Merv Hughes in the National side, and after a faltering start, went on to emerge as one of the greatest paceman of his time.

Scrawny and with thin legs, which brought him the nickname Pigeon, McGrath did not possess Hughes' aggressive demeanour or walrus moustache, but earned his reputation of a being a silent killer, with his unrelenting off-stump line and immaculate length, deriving bounce for his lethal off-cutters.

By the mid-90s, McGrath and Warne were setting up victories, even specialising in nominating their `prize' catch ahead of a series. Ask Brian Lara or Mike Atherton for more about McGrath.

The paceman has said that his greatest gift — accuracy — was something that came naturally to him. "My body settled on an action that was most comfortable, and I just ran in and hit the deck. I landed it pretty well and got steep bounce, but the accuracy came naturally."

Come to think of it, Australia's concept of aggressive bowling has been about piling on the pressure. This is precisely what makes McGrath and Warne tick together. As the `Pigeon' put it once, "I've bowled pretty well with Warney. When you have two people creating pressure things happen, and that's when I like bowling."

Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas... another enviable combination.-HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES

Australia has won 58 of the 87 Tests that the two have figured in together, an impressive victory percentage of 66.67 which is way ahead of Vaas-Murali, who have together won just 26 Tests, been part of 21 drawn encounters and 22 defeats (37.68 percent).

McGrath, Warne and Gillespie have formed an equally destructive trio, claiming 575 wickets in 43 Tests at a high victory percentage of 65.12 with 28 wins, 10 defeats and five draws.

Interestingly, the former Pakistani trio of pacemen Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis and leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed together also took 575 wickets in 10 fewer Tests, but at a victory percentage of only 48.48 (16 wins, nine losses and eight draws).

In the end, however, it is not about wickets, but about scalps getting translated into victories.

Five leg-spin bowlers figure among the top-10 pace-spin pair-ups (see info graphics), but none with the kind of impact as Warne-McGrath, though the victory percentage of the Warne-Gillespie pair is an impressive 67.39.

There is similarity in attitude between Warne and McGrath as well; they single out opposition batsmen. McGrath has said that this habit was inspired by the West Indian sides of his childhood. "It stems from that. If you can target the best batsman and get on top of him, it can have an effect on the rest of the team," he said.

Warne has been pretty open about this as well. One has to recall the famous Warne v Sachin `battle within a battle' in the 1997-98 series.

The discerning have always held that the leg-spinner — for all his other achievements — has not performed very well in India to be considered the greatest of all time in his trade. India poses a variety of challenges to visiting sides. For a touring spinner, it is about matching wits against men who are far superior players of spin bowling when compared to other countries. After two forgettable tours in 1997-98 and 2000-01, Warne returned his maiden five-wicket haul against the sub-continental powerhouse with an effort of six for 125 in Chennai in 2004. "This is the best I've bowled in India," he said.

With Australia scheduled to tour India next only in 2010, the world champion's visit last October was going to be the farewell series for the two. And now, even as the duo reach the home stretch of their glorious careers — displaying youthful enthusiasm at an age when others would prefer the sun-soaked beaches Down Under — let us cherish every minute of watching these two greats of the modern era.