They talk of intimidating batsmen with pace….140+, 150+ and so on. How can a fast bowler be intimidating at a modest 128 kph? How can batsmen get nightmares over such breezy pace. Pardon me the liberty of calling it breezy! He was lively in the first half of his career with pace dropping naturally thereafter, but the X factor remained intact… Such was his class. Hailing from rural Narrowmine in Australia’s New South Wales, he was far fetched from the modern hustle and bustle and had not seen a train till he came for cricket clinic in sydney. The simple outback roots had a bearing on the outlook of this modern day great.
“He can hit a coin placed on the pitch 99% of times” claimed Ricky ponting, a rather well documented fact about the mastery of the man they called Pigeon. How did the name came along? Well it was attributed to the lanky pacer’s stick thin legs in the early days at NSW Blues. Often taunted as the worst batsman to be produced by Australia, Steve Waugh took it upon himself to train the fellow New South Welshman….in vain. But it was his bowling prowess that made him the star he was. Some argue that McGrath tops Lillee as the best fast bowler from Australia, well his stats support the fact, but puritans will fight it out till eternity. Taking reigns from Lillee at MRF pace academy, the best fast bowling academy of the past few decades is a fitting reckoning.
Post retirement he is a mellow shell of what he was in his peak. He had a mean streak, quite similar to Lillee’s. You had to be watching the games to believe that. A real mean streak, spurred by the popular Australian way of getting under the skin of the opponents. He had a very interesting way of picking top targets and soft targets alike. He would invariably make sharp claims before the beginning of any series and follow it up with some more mental pressure on field. If you happen to watch one of those prey catching videos from National Geographic, you would get where the description is heading. It is quite evident from the fact that he had bunnies in Lara, Atherton, Tendulkar, Kallis…the best of the best. True that Australia played majority of their matches home, but McGrath was successful in all conditions, flat or grassy, it didn’t matter. The success he tasted perhaps has to do more with his attitude and positivity than mere talent. He was one of the most diligent professionals and gave a 100%, if not any more. His mantra: ‘Keep it simple stupid, He’d blow a kiss to the one’s he dismissed like that, only if our society was a lil’ less judgemental. True to his positive and frolicking nature, he was the master of practical jokes in the dressing room.
It did not come easy for McGrath. His inspiration were the deadly accurate Walsh and Ambrose, who were among the top bowlers in the world. In those days the West Indies pacemen used to bounce the tailenders as well to enforce intimation deep in the heads….no mercy was the message ‘loud and clear’. It was till ’93 that West Indies (the mighty Windies till then) won their last series in Australia and it was a bitter experience first hand for him. A fast bowler likes to give more than he can take, the receiving end is not a virtue. A lesson learnt first up and it was the foundation of the ‘McGrath way’. The point of inflexion in his career was the Ashes of 1998 in England where he destroyed the English top order match after match. He played in an era where the batting in first 15 overs of an ODI saw a revolution, However when McGrath bowled the new rule of scoring the most when the field is up often took exception as the batsmen focussed more on seeing him through- the bone of contention to one and all. He was a member of the Aussie juggernaut that triumphed at the World cup three times straight. He had significant roles in all three of them. It is very important to mention that McGrath could produce an A game even at the fag end of his career, quite unlike pace bowlers who last a decade and a half. When he hung his boots, he left a void that remains to this day too much to fill.
He was helped immensely by the fact that Australia had started to peak during his initial years and by the time he was at his peak, they were the best in the world by a country mile. He had batsmen who put up great scores to bowl at and bowlers at other end who were very apt at attacking as well as piling on agony or what we refer to as pressure. A side boasting of Warne, Waughs, Gilchrist, Hayden, Langer, Ponting is one to contempt with as an opposition, they were dreaded ubiquitously. Having said that, it is very difficult to make a place, that too permanent in that galaxy of stars. Remember there were pacers like Damien Fleming, Paul Reiffel, Michael Kasprowicz, Andy Bichel and Brad Williams who could have had longer careers in any other side of the world.
An inspiration to many of his generation and times to come, highlight how unique mannerisms thrive and flourish in this game. There is a space for everyone, provided the efficacy is taken care of. For being a flagbearer of the old school though of cricket – keeping things uncomplicated and focusing on basics, McGrath enriched the game. During his play days he lived the horror of his wife battling cancer, to which she succumed some time after McGrath called it day. It spurred him to work towards cancer awareness through the McGrath Foundation. The Pink day or the Jane McGrath day at the Sydney test every year is a brainchild of his and has been a fantastic gesture towards the cause.