Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Bowlers have started to close the gap with batsmen: Glenn McGrath

The Australian cricketer and pace legend on the rigours to survive modern-day cricket

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 28, 2020 10:31:53 AM IST
Updated: Mar 2, 2020 06:50:10 PM IST

Bowlers have started to close the gap with batsmen: Glenn McGrathImage: Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Thirteen years after he quit international cricket, Glenn McGrath hasn’t lost a smidgen of spunk. Asked which batsmen gave him sleepless nights during his playing days, the Australian seamer shoots back, “No one.”
McGrath, often called a metronome for his naggingly consistent bowling, isn’t bragging. The man who took a wicket with his last ball in Test cricket at the Sydney Cricket Ground, his home turf, finished as the highest wicket-taker among pacers in Test cricket—before being overtaken by England’s James Anderson in 2018.

His last World Cup in 2007, the third that he won along with his team, was his most prolific as he called time on his career with the Man of the Tournament award. In India as part of a Tourism Australia event, McGrath speaks to Forbes India about his perspectives on modern-day cricket. Edited excerpts:
Q. Congratulations on turning 50 last month. How’s life treating you at 50?
Getting older [laughs]. No, it’s going well. I’m still involved with the game, doing some coaching at the MRF Pace Foundation [in Chennai], so I spend at least six weeks in India. It’s like a second home. I’m doing a bit of commentary as well and enjoying that. My family’s growing up. My son James is now 20 and working in New South Wales. My daughter Holly is just starting university down in Melbourne. So, exciting times for those two, and they've moved out of home. We're all happy for them. The only one who isn't is my four-year-old daughter, who misses her brother and sister.
Q. Looking back on your journey, what are some of the most abiding memories?
To have played cricket for Australia for 14 years is something that I’ve loved. I’ve had a passion for travelling the world and to get paid while you do that is incredible.

There have been some tough times as well, though. My wife passing away in 2008 and the battle she went through with breast cancer was tough on myself and my family. But life goes on and I do consider myself a lucky person not just for what I’ve done in my life but also for the people I’ve had in my life. When you go through something tough, you realise what’s important—and it’s not the things that you worry about day-to-day.

Everyone’s got their own battles and you’ve got to pick yourself up and carry on. I later met my wife, Sarah, and we’ve been married for 10 years now; she’s been an incredible person for my two children and for the daughter we’ve had together. So, can’t complain. You know, no matter what happens, the sun comes out the next day.

Q. You were part of a team that wasn’t just the best of that era but probably of all time. How did a cluster of incredible personal brilliances come together to meld as a unit?   
A lot of teams will have two or three matchwinners, but we had 11 such on the field. Any player could win the game for us. It filled you with a lot of confidence. As you said, there were some big personalities in that team, but as soon as we walked on the field, we came together with one common goal. We enjoyed our own successes, but we enjoyed the successes of our teammates just as much. [Opening batsman] Matthew Hayden had once said we really cared about each other. That was the key to it as well. When you play together for 14 years, you spend more time with them than with your family. The secret to our success is not only the skill level or the mental strength, but just the faith we had in each other. 
Q. Who’s the best captain you’ve played under?
Tough question. I’ve played under four captains—Allan Border, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. All were different and did amazing jobs for Australia. If you ask them all if they were in the same team, who would be made captain, they’d all say Allan Border.
Q. You're counted among the most economic bowlers in world cricket. In modern-day cricket, where the bat ruthlessly dominates the ball, what should bowlers do to pull back?
I hated going for any runs at all, but I wanted to take wickets first. But the game has changed. At the end of my career, T20 cricket was in its early stages, and now it’s such a big part of the cricket calendar. Just the intensity and the pace it’s played’re here one day, travelling the next; you play, you travel.

There was a stage in which the bat did dominate the ball. Batsmen came up with new shots and we saw a lot of innovation, like the reverse sweep, the ramps, and it was tough for the bowlers. But I think, especially in the last 12 months, they have started to close the gap. They’ve started to learn how to play the shorter version of the game. I was a little concerned with the way the bowlers were going, but the batsmen are now finding it a little tougher to get them away. It’s still a work in progress, though.

Q. Which bowlers have been at the forefront of this turnaround?
Amazingly, there’s been quite a few spinners. When T20 cricket first came about, we thought this will be the death of spin bowlers because batsmen will line them up and hit them to all parts. But Rashid Khan [of Afghanistan] is the No. 1 T20 bowler in the world. To have a spinner at the top and some more in the top 5 is brilliant. It comes down to the basics—to control the ball, bowl where you want to, bowling slower to change the pace, and bowling to your field. Another quality bowler who does it is Jasprit Bumrah.
Q. You’ve mentioned you are a big fan of Tests. Do you think the format is withering away slowly? What can be done to revive it?
I’d like to think it’s still going well. We saw when one-day cricket came around, it had a positive impact on Tests—the scoring rates went up and the approach of the batsmen changed. I’m hoping T20 cricket will have a similar impact. To me, T20 cricket is about bringing new people to the game. Hopefully, they’ll gradually filter up and start watching Tests.

But if we leave Tests as they are, then maybe you’re right; it may be dying a slow death. We’ve got to keep the game moving forward. And one of the ways for that is day-night Tests. There’s still a bit of a way to go to balance the contest between the bat and the ball in the twilight period, when the ball fades a bit too much, but we’re at least getting closer. The day-night Tests that I’ve been to, the crowds have come back to capacity.

I’m not a big fan of the four-day Test; I’m a traditionalist. You’ve got to keep it fresh without touching the traditions too much.
Q. We now see a more robust fast bowling culture in India, traditionally known for spinners. What has brought about that change?
It’s been interesting, hasn’t it? India has always been known for its spinners. I’m doing a bit of coaching at the MRF Pace Foundation for the past seven-eight years. When Dennis [Lillee] set it up about 30 years ago, it was time to identify the problem and address it. And I do think the foundation has had a positive impact.

The other thing is what the IPL has done: It has brought cricketers from all around the world to play together. All of a sudden, you are playing alongside a Dale Steyn [of South Africa] or a Pat Cummins [of Australia], and you can learn so much from the way they go about their job. While it has been a positive impact on the batsmen as well, I wonder if that’s been the reason why you see the quality fast bowling attack India has at the moment. They’re world class, they’re without a doubt one of the best in the world.

In my work with the MRF Foundation, I see plenty of fast bowlers coming through, but one has to work really hard to get a run because of the way the Bumrahs and the Ishants [Sharma] are bowling. Md Shami is a quality bowler as well and so is everyone else in the wings. 
Q. As director of the MRF Pace Foundation, what are some of the virtues that you instil in aspiring fast bowlers?
You need to have the skill. You need to be fit and strong. The rigours of fast bowling are a lot tougher than any other aspects of the game. You’ve got to work hard to make it to the state team, even harder to make it to the Indian team and, once you get there, even harder to stay there. For that, work ethic is important, skill is important, but attitude is the difference between a good and a great cricketer. With the guys I work, you can always tell the ones that are going to make it because of their attitude: You have to be prepared to do whatever it takes, and prepared to work harder and longer than anyone else.

Q. Of late, Indian fast bowlers are being dogged by injuries. Bumrah and Ishant have just returned, Bhuvneswar Kumar and Deepak Chahar are still recovering. How should workload for fast bowlers be managed keeping in mind the hectic schedules?
That’s always been the key question. The nature of the beast is such that it’s so tough on your body that you are more susceptible to injuries. When I played, I always needed an off season to get physically stronger to get me through the next year. Now with IPL cricket, you could be playing 12 months a year. There’s no spot for a fast bowler to get physically fit and strong again, which is important. It’s like filling a car with fuel and driving continuously, never topping it up.

Q. Australia’s hosting two T20 World Cups this year? What does it have in store for Indian tourists?
We’ve had some tough times recently with the bushfires, but we are here to let you know that the whole country wasn’t burning. As devastating as it was, we are recovering now. And the majority of Australia and the big cities are all fine. Coming to watch cricket in stadiums in Australia is one of the best experiences, but do come for a holiday as well for an extra week and two [after the matches] to the wonderful cities like Sydney and Melbourne, destinations like the Great Barrier Reef, to the deserts, the rainforests, the beaches, the vineyards, you name it. We’re here to let Indians know that we are open for business.