Viciously competitive

Glenn McGrath retires from international cricket arguably as the greatest fast bowler in history not to have relied primarily on pace. Brian Lara's poignant fade-out is the latest evidence of the fact that few professional sportsmen are granted the privilege of leaving the game on their own terms; but McGrath appears to have earned that luxury in both forms of the game, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

Glenn McGrath, it will be remembered a few years from now, was a curious mixture of high profile and low; someone who sledged as a matter of habit and made a career out of peddling self-righteous predictions; a boorish cricketer who rarely made a fuss outside the confines of the game, and was veritably chivalrous while defending his wife from slander on-field.

Not for him controversies surrounding obscene text messages, not for him the trappings of celebrity. Throughout it all, McGrath has essentially remained the affable club cricketer, and still turns out occasionally for the Sutherland Sharks — although one doesn't know if he has sledged lesser opponents and reduced them to tears. His favourite pastime, we're reliably informed, is hunting pigs in the New South Wales outback.

McGrath has played under four captains; despite his experience, he was never invited to captain Australia in Tests or one-dayers. Perhaps his mind wasn't analytical enough, and certainly there were astute leaders around, right from the time the once lean and painfully lanky 6" 4' bowler made his debut under Allan Border. It hasn't mattered: McGrath has made a virtue out of performing as consistently as a pacemaker.

Much was made of Australia's consecutive one-day losses to England and New Zealand just ahead of the World Cup. Stand-in captain Mike Hussey, viewed by many as the next in line to the post, was criticised for not exerting enough pressure during the series in New Zealand; the bowlers in particular were mocked for their inability to defend massive scores.

On the bright side, commentators pompously averred, it would be more of a challenge to predict a winner this time, unlike the last, when Australia first trampled over every side in the competition and then posted a record score in the final against India. Consensus had it there were at least eight sides in the running.

Against all expectations however, Australia has dominated the tournament; it has clawed every side it played including those that filled the other semifinal slots. Fittingly, two of the squad's oldest members have emerged as frontrunners to snatch the two most prestigious individual honours at the World Cup. At the time of writing Matthew Hayden had scored the most runs during this year's edition (580) while McGrath had picked up the most wickets (22).

Lara's poignant fade-out is the latest evidence of the fact that few professional sportsmen are granted the privilege of leaving the game on their own terms. Notwithstanding the Australian Cricket Board's notoriously unsentimental approach to team selection, McGrath appears to have earned that luxury in both forms of the game. His reasonable performance in the 2006 ICC Champions Trophy booked him a spot for the Ashes. McGrath's prediction that Australia would avenge its 2005 loss with a 5-0 thumping was widely dismissed. The final result was unexpected yet cathartic for a man, whose perspective must have taken a jolt after cancer struck his wife a third time, and who had somehow found the inspiration to make another improbable comeback into the side. McGrath plucked his 563rd wicket, that of the last England batsman to be dismissed, in the fifth Ashes Test.

McGrath, 37, retires from international cricket arguably as the greatest fast bowler in history not to have relied primarily on pace. Single-handedly he made famous the employment of a relentless off-stump line; the bounce that he generates with his high arm action is generally under-rated and left-handers over the years have proved particularly vulnerable to his cunning. 66 per cent of his Test victims were out caught, a large proportion behind the wicket, extending to the slip cordon. He made a profitable side business out of getting to former English captain Mike Atherton, whom he winkled out 19 times at an average less than 10; he managed Brian Lara's wicket 15 times.

"I've really enjoyed having a go at Brian Lara from around the wickets, which is another option I've while bowling at the left-handers," he once said. "That creates a new angle, offers more options. I hit the deck hard and get the seam movement that goes away for the left-handers, may be that's the reason. They make wrong adjustments and they nick it."

McGrath's approach to limited overs cricket, where his tally currently stands at 377 wickets, hasn't had to differ significantly from that in Tests. Opening the attack, he cramps batsmen regularly for room, and his ability to generate pressure made it worthwhile to pursue with a slip cordon even if he is coming on first or second change. McGrath's outstanding one-day economy rate — 3.88 an over — conceals the fact that he hasn't done very well at the death, particularly as his career draws to a finish.

But for McGrath, taking wickets has always been the first priority: "That's why I've always preferred the strike rate than the average. How often you are taking wickets should be more important than the cost at which you're taking them. I'm happy to have my strike rate round the 50-balls corner. Only when a bowler isn't taking wickets does the fact come into play that he is giving away only one or two runs per over. My team expects me to take wickets and when I can satisfy that demand, no matter at what cost, I've done the job. And, the strike rate looks after your average anyway."

McGrath's dysfunctional batting skills have been the source of much mirth over the years. He shares, with most specialist bowlers, the peculiar conceit of fancying his chances down at No. 11; but unlike most, he has not shown the ability to improvise.

He makes up for that trivial flaw by guarding his wicket jealously. He hates being dismissed as much as any top-order batsman, and is sometimes spotted practising with the intensity of a shadow boxer, as he approaches the wicket.

It would be embarrassing to lose your wicket first up under those circumstances, but McGrath somehow manages to remain undefeated, having typically survived one ball. The one ODI statistic that could count against him is, when Australia ties a match, McGrath has always batted but never scored.

Always viciously competitive, he enjoys targeting the opposition's best batsmen; but what he had to say, in a recent interview to Sydney Morning Herald, is more a reflection of cunning confidence than arrogance.

"It's a challenge to get the best batsman of the opponent. More often the best batsman is the captain and that may be the reason behind this. And when you get the rival captain out cheaply, it's easier to pressurise the rest. So, it's a challenge worth taking.

"It definitely worked in my favour. I think it started with Brian Lara. I knocked him over, and all the talk was, McGrath had his bunny. I was always happy to go along with it. After a while it had nothing to do with technique or ability. It was a mental thing. I never thought I was setting myself up. I worked better when there was more pressure on me. It was a way of getting more out of myself. When I said we could win 5-0 I meant it."

We might have thought it impossible, year after year, but time has nevertheless mellowed the once fiery paceman. "The longer it has gone on I've thought, `The one thing I didn't want to be remembered for is being a guy who went over the top sledging or doing this or that'. I felt that wasn't who I was."