Glenn McGrath stands with hands on hips

I'm a little teapot, tall and not all that stout

© Getty Images

Hate to Love

All hail the grim reaper

If you were an England batsman of the 1990s and 2000s, the chances were pretty high McGrath had your scalp in his bag

Scott Oliver  |  

The best and, simultaneously, the worst way to be dismissed in cricket - aside, perhaps, from freakish run-outs at the non-striker's end, the mankads and fingertip deflections - is, I would aver, being nicked off while defending, pushing forward to a ball of probing line and testing length, difficult to get to and impossible to leave, and yet a delivery that you feel, for the greater part of its journey toward you, will be comfortably negotiated, only to suddenly lose the flight path, hear the snick and turn round to see it being swallowed by cordon or keeper.

It's the worst because there's nothing you could have done about it; the best, because there's nothing you could have done about it, and are thus absolved from blame when the wreckage of your innings is later being autopsied.

Exactly how many batsmen were dismissed in this fashion by Australia's champion fast-medium metronome Glenn McGrath during the course of his decade-long stranglehold over England's (and the world's) best batsmen is difficult to ascertain, but there is someone who could probably tell you: Glenn McGrath.

Famously, McGrath's total dedication to his craft, his remorseless pursuit of the outer limits of his potential, his absolute immersion in the ball-by-ball, over-by-over, session-by-session, game-by-game, series-by series construction of the career-sized monument to his brilliance was accompanied by the commitment of all 563 of his Test wickets to working memory: the mode of dismissal, the venue, the hapless victim's name. Total recall.

Which is all very Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Or Australian Psycho, perhaps:

"I had the batsman trapped on the crease, paralysed, transfixed. There was nowhere for him to go. He knew it; I knew it. I was suffocating him. Strangling him. His eyes radiated fear, yet he smiled at me after the sixth or seventh time I passed the edge, hoping for some sign of mercy or pity. I felt absolutely nothing except the sadness of having to end his cowering misery, after which I put on INXS' much-underrated eighth album, Welcome to Wherever You Are, and jet-washed the patio".

For an England supporter programmed by his nation's media to view all things cricket through the prism of the Ashes, and having just come to terms with the jaw-dropping emergence of Warne, the arrival of this scrawny, scarecrow-ish figure looked like the end of hope (sure enough, of the 30 Ashes Tests he played, McGrath only lost one when the urn was still on the line). The fact that he came from the bush, something both menacingly unknown and lethal, would only enhance his aura.

Wrist of fury: McGrath had pace and bounce a plenty

Wrist of fury: McGrath had pace and bounce a plenty Greg Wood / © Getty Images

Australian geography has always seemed a good approximation of the Freudian psyche. The barren red expanse of the outback represents the id, the realm of primitive drives and pre-social desires (at the heart of which sits Uluru, symbolising death, the great existential universal, a meteor collision conditioning the human drama of us all). Flickering on the edges are the nation's cities, its consciousness or ego, where the waking life skips along blissfully unaware of its continuous infiltration by the phantasms of that elemental unconscious world, the deadly fauna and indigenous cricketing archetypes.

McGrath himself bubbled slowly through to the cricketing consciousness, bowling boots in a carrier bag, caravan for a home, a weekend cricketer on the Sydney Grade scene until he suddenly hit the fast lane. Almost 23 years old when he made his first-class debut, within a year he was in the Test team, and it would only be a further 12 months before the old enemy first glimpsed him at close quarters: a none-fer at the Gabba, three Tests on the sidelines learning lessons, and then six at the WACA. For England, however real the flesh-and-blood challenge, McGrath would forever inhabit the id, standing impossibly tall in a vast cobalt-and-terracotta Salvador DalĂ­ canvas, crowing amid the melting clocks and illusory zooters and formicating scar tissue.

Physically he was the perfect build for an aggressive fast-medium bowler: long limbs, no excess weight, strong and skilful fingers. There were few major stress injuries, assuming you exclude the chronic stress he caused batsmen, particularly once he had metamorphosed from the flat-out terroriser his youthful testosterone had impelled him to be into the state-of-the-art instrument of torture that we all know and (hate to) love. Efficient and excruciating.

McGrath was king of the beehive, but it wasn't so much where it arrived at the batsman's end as how it got there: snapped from the wrist at the maximum height, and tight to the stumps, meaning he seldom required extravagant movement to threaten the edge, and at a respectable enough clip to render the confrontational theatrics dramatically credible.

Early damage to the England innings thus always had an air of inevitability about it. Ask Michael Atherton, dismissed 19 times by "Pidge" (the most for any batsman by a single bowler in Test history) while groping around at the far end of the corridor of certainty. The logical default setting for an England supporter in the 1990s and into the early 2000s was rational pessimism, but with McGrath no one ever said: "We're struggling here if he gets it right..." It was a given.

A crushing predictability about it all, then, just as there was about his predictable predictions: Australia were always going to win 5-0, and he was always going to be targeting the best players. It was gauche and cringeworthy. Boxers' weigh-in talk. A sideshow. But there was also the unmistakable hue of genuine, demented belief behind it: "We've got me (and Warnie isn't too shabby), so how are we not going to win 5-0...?" Talk was talked and walk was invariably walked. Night followed day. Bears shat in the woods.

Of humble beginnings are monsters made: McGrath hangs up the washing after hearing of his call up for Australia, back in 1993

Of humble beginnings are monsters made: McGrath hangs up the washing after hearing of his call up for Australia, back in 1993 Tim Clayton / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

That solitary non-dead-rubber defeat came in his very first Test on English soil, at Edgbaston, when he picked up 2 for 149 (at an un-Pidgean 3.82 per over). He followed up with 8 for 38 in the first innings at Lord's - it was as though there were a Playstation Pidge in his brain, recalibrating things if he got too wide ("C'mon, Glenn, one coat of varnish straighter") or too short ("Four blades of grass fuller, Glenn") - and ended with 36 wickets for the series. Next time they toured it was 32 at 16.93 apiece. Either side of that 2001 series, there were 43 wickets at a shade over 20 in two home Ashes wins.

The tediousness of his domination started to grate: "Oh man, not McGrath again. Can't he just stand on a ball or something?" But eventually Stockholm Syndrome kicked in and this 6'6" destroyer of dreams had to be embraced. Yes, he represented mortal danger for England's batsmen, but you simply had to admire the engineering of those payload-bearing MIG fighter jets roaring overhead, the shock-and-awe potency of the delivery system.

Then 2005 happened, which, of course, started with McGrath demolishing England's top order on his favourite gently sloping patch of north London greensward with 5 for 2 in 31 balls. But amid the fretful here-we-go-agains came a baggage-free debutant in Kevin Pietersen - not someone who ever thought "nothing can be done about it" on a cricket field - who audaciously smote a perfectly respectable line-and-length McGrath offering high into the upper atmosphere and down into the laps of the members, prompting an almost endearingly rueful grin from the bowler. Was the spell breaking? As Freud said: "Where id was, there shall ego be." KP was, it seemed, curing our Pidgophobia.

But then - and you won't believe the coincidence - he actually did tread on a ball. The great apex predator of the antipodes, ashen-faced on the Edgbaston outfield, suddenly appeared mortal, vulnerable, someone worthy of our sympathy as he sat out two games, limped through another and only briefly, on that enervating final morning at The Oval, resembled the old tormentor-in-chief.

He wasn't quite done with us yet, though, and 18 months later McGrath signed off from Test cricket with the long-awaited Ashes whitewash - the stopped-clock 5-0 prediction eventually coming true - pocketed a third World Cup (as leading wicket-taker, obvs), then finally stopped bothering us. Yes, the spell was over. We could at last get up from the couch.

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper

 

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