This piece was first published earlier this week at World Cricket Watch as one of the series, My Favourite Cricketer.
The more one looks at cricket, the less one sees. This strange, cooperative competition (played on a big field, between stumps set 22 yards apart; by eleven men on each team, but just two at a time; using ancient materials like wood and leather, and 21st century technology like high-speed cameras and computer tracking) reveals a little, only to show you how much more it keeps hidden. And cricket is at its most coyly contrary whenever superlatives hove into view – the best, the fastest, the most graceful, the, in this case, favourite are all questions likely to generate more heat than light.
Even if I limit myself to players I have seen (and I am doing so) I could make a case for the South African England man who batted for a few glorious years like a West Indian – KP; the sublime VVS Laxman, my admiration for whom I wrote of here; the terrible beauty of Michael Holding, especially when hunting in that fearsome pack, the subject of my favourite sporting photograph; the wholehearted local hero Ian “Bully” Austin, the last of the lads who looked like us and talked like us, but happened to be international quality cricketers (okay, only just in Bully’s case).
But I’m picking none of them, as I’m looking elsewhere in the landscape of our wonderful game to a place where resides a tribe of players from which every successful team needs to pick one or two. I’m looking to a man who stood out even amongst a team of such men (some would say a nation) largely drawn from that tribe. To a man who played for Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting and was head and shoulders over even them in the wiles of the tribe – ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Tribe of Bastards’ Leading Bastard, Mr Glenn McGrath.
Oh, but he was good though wasn’t he?
Let’s start with the numbers. There he is atop the list of Test wicket takers among the faster men with 563, clear by 44 of his nearest challenger, the indefatigable Courtney Walsh. Pidge ran in for over 13 years, slowing a little in later on, but tight to the stumps at delivery, always thinking, never letting the bastardness drop for a second. He paid just 21.64 runs for those wickets, bettered only amongst those with more than 300 wickets by the bowler who most resembled him in method, Curtly Ambrose, the bowler who resembled him most in thinking about cricket, Malcolm Marshall and the bowler who most resembled him in his unashamed willingness to express bastardness, Fred Trueman. He sent back 377 top six batsmen, 17 more than Anil Kumble one step above him on the all-time list and only three fewer than SK Warne. The key to winning Test matches is the taking of 20 wickets and the hardest to take are those at the top of the order – Glenn McGrath did the hardest job in the game better than anyone else.
And never better or more bastardly than at Lord’s in 2005. Having been whipped out for 190 on the opening day of The Ashes by England’s adrenaline-fueled pace attack, Ricky Ponting turned to two metres of bastard at the Pavilion End and told him to get on with it. What he got was the McGrath method at its deceptively simple best – bowl a length that gives them nothing to hit and a line that means they have to play every ball, push them back in the crease, then pitch one up that does enough to move half a bat’s width and… the scoreboard was suddenly showing 21-5. Years and years of practice and experience went into that spell and it was driven by a competitive spirit that was always dialled up to ten and sometimes, as Ronnie Sarwan and a few others found out, could go to eleven.
That competitive spirit did not just manifest itself in a thirst for top order wickets that no opening bowler has matched, but in a willingness to challenge himself to (wait for it) step outside his comfort zone. He was never a batsman, but he knew he had to contribute, so he turned himself into a reliable late order blocker who once made a fifty (vs New Zealand) of which he was inordinately, and, for those of us who batted 11 because there was no 12, touchingly proud. He was never a fielder either, but took one of the best catches I’ll ever see, this time diving out of his comfort zone.
Glenn McGrath was on the winning side in 84 of his 124 Tests and lost only one Ashes series (and the moment that turned that series England’s way was the moment his ankle turned on a runaway cricket ball, an injury that kept McGrath out of the two Tests England won). Home or away, it hardly mattered to him – he paid less than 30 per wicket everywhere, except in his five Tests in Pakistan, where he still only went at 31. He was every bit as much of a bastard in ODI cricket as he was in Test cricket, never letting up. He played in four World Cup finals, winning three and going for less than four an over in the one he lost. Did the grind of English county cricket wear him down? Not a bit of it – his 2000 season playing for Worcestershire brought him 80 first class wickets at less than 14 and 34 one day wickets at less than 10. Truly, the bastardness was never turned off.
Except when he crossed the boundary rope on the way off the field. We then saw the man behind the bastard, the country kid who lived in a caravan to get a start in pro cricket, the loving husband nursing a terminally ill wife, the doting father, the eloquent speaker, the magnaminous victor, the gallant loser. And now the charity campaigner.
Glenn McGrath did two of the hardest things in cricket – knock the top off Test match batting line-ups and play like a total bastard on the field while being a decent bloke (more than that, really) off the field. For this double whammy, Glenn McGrath is my favourite cricketer.