Great bowlers aren’t those who merely disturb the timber. Or, beat the edge of the bat by the thinnest of margins. It could be argued great bowlers are those who possess the craft to make batsmen think and probe their own art. If you can enforce an error from a batsman who seems set to give statisticians some serious work then you know you’re special.
He didn’t boast of the most disturbing mile of pace. He didn’t bowl with the intent of mowing down batsmen. But he could do what most others couldn’t: disturb the mindset of batsmen and make them dance to his moves. With a lean, lithe frame, rhythmic run-up and, a beautiful high-arm action, Glenn McGrath asserted a distinctive presence in the game.
Not often have bowlers afforded the luxury of having era’s named after their class and craft.
In his case, one gets to hear commonly that a Lara and Tendulkar battled for batting supremacy in McGrath’s era. There is little irony then that it was McGrath and not Akram or Ambrose who dismissed Tendulkar on more number of occasions: 13. And unsurprisingly, some of the best of Sachin and Lara also came against heavy resistances that McGrath imposed on curbing the masters’ impact on the game. Would we’ve considered Lara’s epic 153 at Bridgetown, Barbados as a great knock had it not featured arguably Australia’s most celebrated fast bowler?
In an era where the rigours of cricket were still confined to playing the 5-day game, there being no T20s, McGrath had enough in his repertoire to enforce an early end to the game. In the lighter vein, it is hardly a surprise that today one sees advocacy of introducing 4-day Tests. Did McGrath have something to do with the idea is anyone’s call?
Possessing an almost notorious ability to stick around the middle and off length with more consistency than what one sees in an umpire raising a single finger in announcing a dismissal, McGrath’s menace owed itself to partly restricting batsmen to free their arms. And partly to his ability to move the ball in either direction, the craft of reverse swing enabling him to prolong a decade and a half long career until 2007.
Playing the game at the highest level for 15 long years, part of McGrath’s success owed itself to his incredible ability to stay fit. And it might’ve had had to do with his clean, uncomplicated run-up. It could be argued where the likes of Ambrose, Walsh, Donald, Shoaib and, Waqar exerted force from long run-ups, McGrath added a yard or two to his pace by restricting his run up and drawing strength from the pull of his bowling shoulder.
There would be no brutal pace. No stifling of batsmen either by deploying a barrage of clever variations but with real consistency by maintaining a stern line and length around the batsman’s middle and off stump. In an age where there was no shortage of brutal pace- Donald and Waqar– and no lack of expertise in hurling bouncers either- Ambrose and Walsh- McGrath made a name for himself by restricting batsmen for space and continually hitting the deck hard courtesy a pitch-perfect good length.
While you attribute a yorker as Waqar’s stock delivery and the inswinging yorker as Akram’s greatest strength, you attribute McGrath’s fierce discipline as his greatest strength. Whether those who were exposed to McGrath’s stoicism in their career- Lara, Kallis or Sachin, or those who squared off later- Sanga, Mahela, McCullum or Inzamam- he would upset all by restricting the flow of runs and making them think harder of protecting their off stump.
His greatness, it ought to be said, stemmed from his effectiveness to emerge with wickets on all kinds of surfaces. Back in the late nineties and early 2000s, where a Perth produced bounce and a Jamaica some swing- McGrath globetrotted with his band of match-winning Aussies to emerge triumphant even on greener tops and batting friendly sub-continental pitches.
You are immediately moved in awe when you recollect that off his 563 Test wickets- a world record for a quick bowler- 274 came on overseas tours, just 15 more than his accumulation at Down Under. In the contemporary era where we’re often searching for menacing monsters with the bowl, a rare joy to spot in times of the utter ruling of the bat- we often sideline discipline and immense focus, two of the greatest strengths ‘Pigeon’ contested with.
Let it not be forgotten that McGrath remained at the top sans possessing searing pace. Could there be a greater testimony to judge the speedster’s success?