“He had a strong belief that if you watched continuously do something well, it will have a positive effect and if you sat down and watched yourself bat, bowl or field badly, that’ll also have an equal effect”.
He was not that quick but his control with the ball defined his career, that would go for as many as 14 years. If he did not have the luxury of swing, pace and physical intimidation, he troubled the opponent batsman with his accuracy, bounce and error-free line and length. He was among the most patient fast bowlers of his era. Ironically, the only character that failed him was his temper.
While growing up near Cuttaburra River, 12 hours from Brisbane and 11 hours from Sydney, he used to zoom away on his quad bike and terrorise the wild pigs. He did that for many years which gave no sign of a bright future, where he would, if not terrorise, but make the batsmen dance to his own tunes. Glenn Donald McGrath – he was just another young Australian boy, who moved from New South Wales to Sydney at 19 as a first step in his dream of playing for Australia some day.
As a 23-year-old New South Wales cricketer, McGrath made his Test debut in Perth against New Zealand, replacing Merv Hughes in the side. He was dropped following his debut Test but returned for the third Test against the same side in Brisbane. He picked 19 wickets in his first seven Tests before the series that’s a test for any Australian cricketer – Ashes – England toured Australia for a regular five-Test series in 1994-95. Even before the Ashes had begun, Steve Waugh, who would captain McGrath later, apparently observed that McGrath was trying way too hard to master art of the consistency, the characteristic that would later on earn him the tag of an all-time great fast bowler.
In his autobiography, Waugh said McGrath “struggled to feel comfortable until enough faith in his potential was shown by the selectors.” After bowling 29 overs, when McGrath went wicket-less in the Ashes opening encounter at the Gabba, Selecting Committee Chairman, Laurie Sawle and his panel were more than convinced that McGrath still needed time to reach that higher level. The situation got more tricky for McGrath because in the same Test, Shane Warne grabbed 11 wickets to help the hosts seal the Brisbane Test by 184 runs. McGrath was played in the first two Ashes Tests before he was dropped from Australia’s Test side again.
He was the 12th man in the next three Tests and the Brisbane Test would go on to be only the first of the five times in 124 Tests that McGrath did not take a wicket. From there on, England never managed to make McGrath a soft target again.
Since McGrath lacked pace and swing, he attained a special technique, which Shane Warne labelled as “torture technique.” McGrath aimed to dry the batsmen mentally, not give them easy runs, slowly build pressure and then get them out. But, in most cases, those emotionally drained batsmen threw away their wickets themselves to gift McGrath a scalp. What made the New South Wales bowler superior to his opponents was his mental strength. He was well aware of his strengths and weaknesses and since he capitalised well on his plus points, that helped him succeed, regardless of the format he played.
“If I could have bowled 160kph or 100mph, I would have definitely been bowling that fast. Physically, I could not. But what I did do well is, I could land the ball. I had pretty good accuracy and I could get a good bounce. I was not that quick, I did not swing the ball a great deal, but what I could do, I did very well. That was my strength.
I only looked to get a batsman out one of three ways: bowled, lbw or caught behind. I thought it is pointless bowling middle stump because it would take all my slips out and it makes it easy for batsmen to score runs on the leg side. So off stump, or just outside, was where I wanted to bowl,” McGrath said in an interview later on.
Among bowlers these days, there is an assumption that if the criteria of pace is ticked off, a successful fast bowling career will be guaranteed. However, that was not the case and McGrath’s decorated career of 14 years, which is the best testimony to that. Since he could not rely on his pace, he concentrated on hitting the deck fine, striking the right lines and lengths, generate bounce and that made all the difference in the favour of him against the best of the batsmen of his era.
“It is all about control. Bowling the ball in the right area, hitting the deck, top of off stump, where the batsman is not sure whether to come forward or go back. I do not like to see guys substitute pace for control. You just need to work harder on getting that control without giving up something else. If you have got control and pace, you are a pretty dangerous bowler,” McGrath recently said.
How credible McGrath’s theory is, can be proved taking the example of Australia’s current two speedsters – Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazelwood – although Starc is the spearhead of the Australian Test side, he is injured more often than his bowling partner. Starc is the one who depends on his pace and power but is injured a lot, there by frustrating his side. On the other hand, Hazelwood’s style has been similar to McGrath’s and that observation was made well at the beginning of his career. Since Hazlewood works more on his control, line and length, he not only makes regular breakthroughs but also is not an injury prone like Starc.
McGrath’s major strength lied on the mental side of the game and not the skill side. He was so confident that even his dreams were positive and negative thoughts were by far away from him. “That is positive reinforcement. I used to call it visualisation. The night before a game, I’d think about who I was playing, and then how I’d bowled against those guys, if I had got them out previously. While I was playing, I could recall nearly all my wickets and how I got the batsman out.”
He had a strong belief that if you watched continuously do something well, it will have a positive effect and if you sat down and watched yourself bat, bowl or field badly, that’ll also have an equal effect. The 1995 injury probably made him a stronger player as well as a stronger human being too. He returned from West Indies in 1995 with a torn intercostal, one of the sides from where fast bowlers generated power. He knew he had to do something different had he wanted to resume playing at the highest level – something he loved doing. “So I found a trainer, who was one of the toughest and worked with him. He made me nearly unbreakable. That was my attitude with what I wanted to do. I think being physically fit and strong is hugely important for a fast bowler,” McGrath revealed in 2014.
With the disciplined tactics, strong beliefs and tremendous hard work, McGrath went on to play 14 years for Australia and in the course, he became the most successful fast bowler for not just Australia but overall across the globe. If he was short-tempered, the only drawback in his career, that was because he was passionate about cricket. As many as five Australian players captained McGrath; Ricky Ponting, who was one of them, once revealed that McGrath was the most difficult player he had captained during his Australian career.
According to Ponting, McGrath got agitated whenever he was taken off bowling. He then would keep asking Ponting the reason for taking him off. “I’d tell him ‘that’s enough mate, have a rest’ and for the next 10 or 15 minutes he’d be walking around with his sleeve over his mouth calling me every name under the sun,” Ponting was once quoted by Cricket Australia website. Ponting further added that McGrath would vent his anger on the crowd by abusing them, standing at the fine leg, because he wasn’t bowling.
However, Australia and captains like Ponting accepted McGrath’s annoying behaviour because he did the very job for them – took wickets, irrespective of the location. Out of McGrath’s 563 Test wickets, 289 came at home, 260 away and 14 at neutral venues. He was one of those rare fast bowlers who struck a balance in his numbers between home and away. As an exhausted Indian batsman once said,”McGrath makes you play his game” – a statement that would stand good for anyone of that level like England’s Mike Atherton and West Indian great Brian Lara. The fact that he had more five-fors away (18) than at home (11) spoke volumes of his talent as a hard working bowler.
McGrath re-wrote history books with excellent figures of 7 for 15 against Namibia in the 2003 World Cup before he lifted his second trophy as Australia defended their World Cup title. He was struck with a few injuries that threatened to derail his quest of reaching the 500-mark in Test wickets. Just when talks about his retirement begun in 2004, McGrath had bounced back against Sri Lanka with yet another five-wicket haul. Three months later, he went on to become the first pacer to play a 100th Test in the Baggy Green. He chose the iconic Lord’s to clinch his 500th Test wicket. It was the first Test of the Ashes 2005. Unfortunately, for him and Australia, McGrath injured his ankle on an off day that cost them the series.
The following summer was horrific for McGrath because of the recurrence of his wife, Jane’s breast cancer, that needed his immediate attention. That gave rise to more retirement speculations. But, it was McGrath; he would write his own farewells. England toured Down Under for the 2006-07 Ashes, where McGrath finished third on the wickets table (21) behind Warne (23) and Stuart Clark (26) as Australia whitewashed England 5-0. The final Test at Sydney, McGrath’s home ground, was his last appearance in the Baggy Green. He then was adjudged the Man of the Tournament during Australia’s successful World Cup campaign in 2007, his final appearance in the yellow jersey.
McGrath was retired for a year when the Indian Premier League (IPL) happened. While he was chilling at home, Delhi Daredevils, across the international waters, picked him. In the first season, from 12 games, McGrath grabbed 14 wickets. But, then things turned ugly. At 39, McGrath, who undoubtedly was the greatest fast bowler ever to have graced the game of cricket, was warming the bench, while youngsters like Dirk Nannes, Ashish Nehra, Pradeep Sangwan and Aavishkar Salvi tried to fill in his shoes.
McGrath, three-time World Cup winner, five-time Ashes holder and world’s best-ever fast bowler, then chose to return to Australia and go back into a much more dignified retirement.