'Bowlers control the game'

Interview Glenn McGrath : The Aussie pace great speaks on how he developed his craft to maintain upperhand over batsmen

'Bowlers control the game'

Test retirement at his home venue (the Sydney Cricket Ground) after a sweep of the Ashes series in 2007 and one-day swansong a few months later after the World Cup triumph in the Caribbean where he was also the man of the tournament…. Throw in another two World Cup wins and several Test series victories across the World, and Glenn McGrath says he couldn’t have scripted his career any better.

One of the finest pacemen to have graced the game of cricket, the Australian finished his career with a whopping 563 Test wickets and 381 ODI scalps. Along with fellow paceman Jason Gillespie and leg-spinning great Shane Warne, he enjoyed great partnership that played a key role in Australia maintaining their superiority over the rest of the cricketing world for over a decade. The 45-year-old, who dabbles in commentary and coaching, is in India promoting Hardys Wines as its brand ambassador. The former paceman opened up on a range of issues in a free-wheeling chat. Excerpts:    

What did pace bowling mean to you?

I always wanted to play cricket for Australia and as a fast bowler. If I had my time over again, I'd still choose to be a fast bowler over a batsman any day. The bowlers control the game. The batsmen may say that they do, but they stand there and they can't do anything till the bowler runs in and bowls. I always loved the fast bowler. Some days things can go horribly wrong, but you've always got the ability to turn things around. One ball can just turn it around whereas a batsman...one ball he's out and he goes and sits in the shed. I just loved being part of the game. When we were fielding, I wanted to bowl every second over of our innings. I'd prefer to be a fast bowler any day. I think we have a lot more fun than the batsmen. The batsmen will say they're more intelligent but actually it's the other way round.

Though you were not express fast, batsmen feared you more. How did you manage to be so accurate?

A lot of it is hard work; there's no substitute for hard work. I always practised as hard as I could and I prepared as well as I could. If I could have bowled at 160kmph, I would've done that. But physically I couldn't do that. I didn't swing the ball a great deal. But I was tall, I got good bounce, and I was pretty accurate. They were my strengths, so I stayed within my strengths, while always looking to improve and adding new things. My goal was always to bowl what I classed as the perfect game, where every ball I bowled went exactly where I wanted it to. As a bowler that's all you can control; the type of delivery you bowl and where it lands.

Who was your inspiration as a fast bowler? Did you follow anyone consciously?

I never modelled myself on anyone. Dennis Lillee was my hero growing up plus also the West Indian teams of the early eighties – (Michael) Holding, (Joel) Garner, (Malcolm) Marshall, (Colin) Croft, (Andy) Roberts. I enjoyed watching them, but I didn't model myself on anyone. I didn't play any red ball cricket when I was younger. The first coaching I ever had for my bowling action was when I was 22. I was a little bit late there but my action developed naturally. I think that probably held me in good stead because if I'd had coaching when I was younger, they would've tried to get me more side-on. Then when I had coaching at 22 at the cricket academy with Lillee, it was all about getting as much out of the action as possible.

How important is a smooth bowling action for a pace bowler?

A smooth bowling action allows for less things to go wrong. You can keep it a lot simpler; you're more efficient and there's less chance of being injured. When you talk about bowling actions and working on the technique, it's to become more efficient, so you use less energy to bowl each delivery which means you can bowl longer spells. You can come back in your second or third spell and bowl at top pace. With a good sound action, you don't need to worry about taking wickets. You can just focus on bowling.

You and Shane Warne made for a strange yet a very successful bowling combination, talk us through your partnership...

We had Jason Gillespie and I; we formed a very good partnership. Together we took more wickets as an opening combination than any other partnership in Australia. We had the opening bowlers but as the game got on, Warnie and I bowled very well in tandem. We were two totally different bowlers in that I was a fast bowler and he a spinner but we were similar in other ways. We had good control, good accuracy, and we could build pressure from both ends. That's what it's about at Test level, building pressure. If you bowl three to four overs (maidens) in a row, the chance of getting a wicket goes up substantially. That was our bowling plan.

Were you the sort of bowler who believed in setting up batsmen?

Most times, it’s just bowling in good areas. Hit the deck, top of off-stump, just outside, building pressure and have the slips. Occasionally, you will be a little bit different. But if you have got certain plan, you bowl, you set the batsman up and just one ball you are going for the wicket-ball because you have set him up. And if you get that wicket, it’s a great feeling. But probably nine out of 10 times or 99 out of 100 times, it’s just constant pressure; getting the ball in the right area and the batsman making a mistake.

You are one of the few visiting pacemen who had success in the subcontinent. What did you do differently?

I think to be a truly great batsman or a bowler, you’ve got to be able to perform in all conditions rather than just your home conditions. I did quite well back home in Australia with the extra bounce and extra pace. England’s a little bit different as in you’ve got to bowl different lengths. There’s more seam movement and a different ball, and I used to love bowling with the Duke ball. But in India it’s probably as tough as it gets. You’ve got to be able to adapt. I had a slightly different bowling plan in India.

I knew I wasn’t going to get the same bounce, same pace or same carry. The new ball is hard, so it will go through okay. So with the new ball, you’re looking to get the edges, bring the slips into play. As the ball gets a little bit older – it stops and doesn’t swing, gets a little softer and doesn’t bounce and carry through as much, then I’d get a little bit straighter. I would keep it tight, give them no runs, no free shots. Work on the ball and hopefully start getting a little bit of reverse swing. And then you’d have a short cover, short midwicket, and you’d bring the field in a lot straighter and I’d bowl more at the stumps rather than outside off-stump. That was the way I felt was the best way to build pressure and take wickets in India.

You were perhaps one of fittest bowlers of your time despite playing constant international cricket. But with so much advancement in injury management, why do we still see so many fast bowlers breaking down so often?

I played 53 Tests in a row without being injured. I think there’s a couple of reasons why bowlers get injured. One is, it’s just the nature of the beast. Being a fast bowler is a tough thing. There’s a lot of stress on the body. Every time our front foot comes down, there’s over seven times our body weight going through that front leg. It’s stressful and probably a slightly unnatural action to be a fast bowler. And they say our bones don’t really harden up until we’re about 25-26, so you’ll find a lot of young bowlers have more bone injuries or stress injuries. But once they get to that age, they have less. This is what I’m told. It’s also how much work you do off the field. I had a really good work ethic, worked as hard as I could off the field. I had a trainer (Kevin Chevell) who just punished me. He tried to make me as fit and strong as possible, tried to make me unbreakable as he would say.

Three World Cup triumphs, many Ashes wins, perfect retirements… Could you have scripted it any better?

Probably not. When I made the team, if I wrote down how I wanted the next 14 years of my career to turn out, it was probably pretty close to the way it did. To take 500th wicket at Lord’s, to finish at the SCG, my home ground, with a 5-0 (Ashes) win and get a wicket off my last ball. Then, go to the World Cup, the boys play incredible cricket and we go through undefeated, and then to get Man of the Tournament… I couldn’t have scripted it any better, I was very happy to retire, and I haven’t missed it.

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