The art and menace of Glenn McGrath

ROHIT BRIJNATH

A DAY before the 1999 World Cup final in London, I was strolling through the Australian team hotel. The players had just finished a press conference and were mingling with the press, seemingly at ease, and confident, as most Australian cricketers are with the media. If nothing else, they are well tutored.

In one corner, easy to identify, the lanky Glenn McGrath was momentarily standing alone. For a moment I hesitated: of all modern players he is the most unsettling; on-field there is a grumpiness to him, constantly muttering to himself like an old man who can't find his dentures, or standing hands-on-hip with a school-boyish petulance.

Still, I approached him and he was charming, a smiling, engaging fast bowler, generously willing to re-examine a craft he is even now the acknowledged master of. Of course, had I been 22 yards away, and McGrath had a ball in hand, our conversation may not have been printable.

Still, as his 5/37 against New Zealand at the Champions Trophy last fortnight demonstrated, McGrath can be relied on for two things. A ready scowl, and an unswerving ability to place a round, red or white object on a spot the size of a rupee coin, whatever the pitch, whatever the conditions. It is a delivery with no margin for error.

In a sense, McGrath reminds me of Lleyton Hewitt, for they play their sport without complication. There is no fuss to Hewitt's game; it is built on a premise of consistency, on basic fundamentals. Hewitt unerringly gets the ball back. McGrath reliably puts the ball where it is supposed to. He is no master of curving movement through the air, or searing pace, or reverse swing, he merely intimidates through repetition. He asks the same question repeatedly, and batsmen, searching for an adequate answer, are lulled into error.

McGrath's explanation of his art is as straightforward as his action. At Colombo, he said: "I don't bowl that quick. I don't do a great deal with the ball. All I do is I land the ball pretty much where I want to. I think accuracy is my key, and a little bit of bounce.

"I don't think there's any secret to fast bowling, If you can land the ball 99 times out of 100 where you want to land it, hitting the top of off-stump, then you are going to take wickets. That's the theory I work on."

It reflects the doggedness in McGrath's character. He is not a brutish artist as the West Indians once were, whose intent was obvious havoc, whose message was destruction. Instead, he is a man of science, of mathematics, his bowling is about calculations and formula. It is constructed to frustrate, and astonishingly, by the very knowledge that he will keep going like some battery-powered robot, he also intimidates.

If Sachin Tendulkar's gift is hitting even the good ball for four, then McGrath's gift is bowling very few bad balls. He is bowling's Shylock, he is also a recurring invitation to risk.

This relentless application of pressure is heightened by McGrath's own arrogance, his reassurance in his own efficiency. It allows him to do what bowlers would rather not: that is to not just pick a target, but advertise it. Few bowlers, none in this age for sure, have been able to say prior to a series, I am going to get this batsman, I am going to make him my bunny. With McGrath it has become a pattern. He uses the media to make a declaration of intent, to unsettle the opposition long before a ball has been even contemplated, let alone delivered. By the time the player arrives in Australia, it is all anyone can talk about. It began perhaps as a joke, a tease; it is now a weapon.

The psychology is obvious. For all an opposing batsman's skills, his own soaring confidence, McGrath's words cannot be ignored, they nag like an old woman at the sub-conscious. It is there in the newspapers, on radio, in press conferences, in the crowd, and it creates a disquieting buzz. In effect, when the batsman walks to the crease he does so with an invisible bullseye tattooed on his forehead. It is a game within a game.

Sometimes the batsman may be defiant and say, 'I'll show this fellow' and thus play shots outside his normal sphere; sometimes he may be overly cautious and say, 'I will outsteady him' and build a uncomfortable shell. But merely by doing this he is reacting, he is disturbing his own equilibrium, and thus already succumbing to McGrath's subtle plan.

McGrath's effrontery is boundless. First, because his plan carries a powerful risk of failure, and therefore, for a proud man, the potential for acute embarrassment. He can have no excuse, he must be as good as his word, and perhaps this targeting is an artificial stimulus that spurs him on. Secondly, what makes this individual confrontation within a team structure even more intriguing is that McGrath does not challenge lesser batsmen, he targets the best.

He said it of Brian Lara and that was it. In 18 Tests against the West Indies, he has taken 94 wickets. The batsman he has dismissed most is Brian Lara, a staggering 13 times.

He said it of Michael Atherton and delivered on his promise. In 18 Tests against England he has taken 98 wickets. The batsman he has dismissed most is Atherton, an even more startling 19 times. (Alec Stewart, dismissed 9 times, was next on the list and the comparison is telling).

Of course, some Australians believe he has done the same to Tendulkar but the evidence is not as persuasive. In 7 Tests against India he has taken 37 wickets, and while he has got Tendulkar the most times (5), he has dismissed V.V.S. Laxman on an equal number of occasions.

Nevertheless, this year, he is at it again, or rather an excitable press (and why wouldn't they be) is prodding him on. The Ashes are some months away, but talk of Michael Vaughan, easily England's most accomplished batsman as the Indian series demonstrated, being the next target has already begun.

When asked, in Colombo, McGrath said: "To be honest, I haven't really considered who I'm going to target now that Athers isn't in the side any more. But I'm always happy to (target someone)."

He said he had bowled to Vaughan once in county cricket and had him caught the first ball he bowled to him, and no doubt he will share that precious memory with the England batsman at the appropriate juncture. Still, McGrath says: "What I saw and what I hear from guys is that (Vaughan's) a pretty decent player. He waits for you to bowl to him. He lacks the flair of, say, a Tendulkar or Lara. He's pretty correct."

How correct, how resilient, how methodical, how concentrated Vaughan truly is, is something we will discover this Australian summer when McGrath putters in. For in modern cricket, the ultimate examination of batsmanship is facing down this scowling assassin from 22 yards.