McGrath - Cricketing economist worthy of a Nobel
By H Natarajan
Glenn McGrath is not the archetypal fast bowler. He does not have that intimidating run-up, blinding speed or a follow-through that sets up eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with batsmen. Neither does he indulge in theatrical appeals. He is a minimalist. Even the famous shake of his head, while walking to the top of his run-up, is not exaggerated.
Yet, McGrath rates among the most feared fast bowlers. He can run in morning to evening and peg relentlessly away on a spot that has made him one of the great economists in the game. But what makes his bowling truly lethal is the fusion of subtle lateral movement and steep bounce from his 6'6" height with his programmed precision line and length. That has made him rare specie in terms of parsimony and productivity. In the elite 300-plus wicket-takers in Test history, McGrath is the only bowler who figures in both, the top five strike and economy rates with figures of 50.6 and 2.53 respectively.
Nobody in Test cricket has been as confounded by the McGrath magic as Michael Atherton. The Lancastrian must have felt like a condemned man walking to the gallows every time he went out to open the innings against Australia, with McGrath waiting for him like an executioner. McGrath got Atherton out 19 times. The Aussie could have justified rephrased a famous jingle:
Ashes to Ashes,
Dust to Dust.
If I don’t get u now,
Overs later I must.
Atherton’s only consolation – if any – could be that McGrath hounded Brian Lara as well, getting the West Indian 13 times. McGrath publicly targets the main batsmen of the opposition – captains in particular - before the series and then relentlessly pursues the target, as Lara and Sachin Tendulkar would vouch for. He is a master of the mind game – off the field with his verbal challenges in parliamentary language and on it with vocabulary that would fail to meet Vatican’s approval – who tests, teases and torments the batsmen in the corridor of uncertainty. Another example of his audacious mind game was when he imparted technical lessons to Tendulkar on how to play the hook! Coming from the worst No 11 batsman to the best batsman in the world, right in the middle of a Test match, was like a teenage choirboy giving the Pope a discourse on the Bible!
What makes McGrath so special is his consistency in getting as close to the stumps as possible and bowl an unwavering wicket-to-wicket line. That has played a huge contributory factor in fetching him 102 leg before dismissals – almost 20% of his victims. Sixty-five of his wickets have been bowled, five caught and bowled and one hit wicket, which totals up to 173 without any assistance. But the one compelling statistical evidence of the quality of wickets he has taken is the fact that a staggering 40% of his dismissals have been either opening batsmen or those coming in at one-drop. In fact, only 25% of his wickets comprise tailenders – No 8, 9 10 and Jack. His away record, too, speaks very highly of his performances compared to Tests at home, reflecting his adaptability to varying climes and wickets.
McGrath, not surprisingly, has made a huge impact in the ongoing Ashes series - he won the first Test with the ball and saved the third Test with his bat! Injury saw him miss the second Test, which England won to come level pegging in a series that has so far lived up to high expectations.
It was not long back there were question marks over his future in international cricket after he underwent two operations on his ankle. But at 35, he looks physically strong and mentally stronger. McGrath, ever the perfectionist, may be upset when his calculations go wrong but never does his body language looks that of a defeatist. Not even when doctors broke the news that his girlfriend Jane – he was not married to her then – was suffering from aggressive breast cancer.
Jane said in an interview sometime back: “One of the qualities I really love about Glenn is his positivity. It doesn't matter what is happening in our lives - and it's fair to say we've been through a lot together - there's nothing Glenn loves more than a challenge. He takes nothing for granted - works very hard for everything and always looks at the bright side, rather than the negative. That was emphasised during my battles with cancer. Glenn was right beside me every step of the way and was a positive influence. He made sure nothing was going to get either of us down. He saw that period as another challenge and one to which we had to rise.”
The couple have since set up a charity called the McGrath Breast Cancer Foundation to raise funds for breast care victims.
McGrath recently spoke about playing in the 2007 World Cup. Nobody can deny him a place on performance, which has been truly meritorious in the twilight years. Since coming out of that of a forgettable 2003 in which he has played just four Tests, McGrath has taken 83 wickets in 16 Tests @ 18.51 apiece and currently heads the LG ICC Bowlers’ Rankings in Tests as well as One-Day Internationals. So McGrath’s optimism about hoping to play in the next World Cup, despite getting into pensioners age bracket for international fast bowlers, is not misplaced.
Ironically, despite his commanding displays in the Lord’s and Old Trafford Tests, his future in the game may depend on how the rest of the series unfolds for Australia. He has seen many of his distinguished colleagues losing their places in the national side when they had form and public support in their favour. He knows selectors Down Under have been known to wield the axe mercilessly if they deem it’s in Australia’s long-term interest. Sentiment has no place in Australian cricket. But the Ashes series is not yet over. And McGrath still could change the script.