Early 2007 was a time of retirements. First Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, two of the greatest bowlers of all time, then Brian Lara, one of the finest batsmen of them all and a personal favourite of mine.
As Warne and McGrath slipped into retirement from Test cricket (the Indian Premier League was still for the future), I wrote this.
A routine week, encompassing another couple of England humiliations, but the retirement from Test cricket of two of the greatest bowlers of all time still hangs heavy in the air.
What to say about the two men about whom everything has been said? In the end, I think you’ve just got to tell it as you saw it. And what I saw was this.
Like virtually everyone else in Britain, my earliest memory of Warne dates to June 4th 1993, the day he bowled Mike Gatting at Old Trafford with that delivery. I turned on the radio to find a range of commentators talking in awed tones about a ball which had turned from outside Gatting’s leg stump, gone across his body and hit the top of his off stump. Later that day I saw it on television – an astonishing delivery from a blonde kid with broad shoulders and a simple action who looked as though he could change the game for good.
In fact I’d already seen Warne play before that. Wisden reminds me that I saw him score 11 at the end of the Australian innings of 431 at Taunton a few weeks earlier, but the innings (unlike the typically rapid century which another tour rookie, Michael Slater, made on the same day) hasn’t lingered in the memory. I first saw him bowl at Bristol about a week after Manchester and couldn’t avoid following his progress through the England batting the rest of that dreary summer. When Graham Gooch was bowled round his legs by another vicious leg-break at Edgbaston I started to wonder if anything in cricket would ever be the same again.
The next time Warne faced England, in late 1994, I arrived in Melbourne with everyone talking about his bowling in Brisbane. When he went on to take a hat-trick at the MCG, it looked as though the game was up for England for the next twelve years. And they didn’t even have Glenn McGrath.
McGrath had played at the ‘Gabba but went wicketless and sat out the series until the final Test in Perth, leaving the dismantling of England to Warne, Craig McDermott (so good then), a young Victorian swing bowler called Damien Fleming, and Warne’s brother in spinning arms, Tim May. A few months later, as Australia hastened the end of the West Indian empire in the Caribbean, McGrath arrived four-square in the world cricket consciousness: an Australian country boy, stick-thin but with a relentless line and length, plenty of verbal aggression and a wicked bouncer.
And so it went until the other week. A few failures and many, many triumphs. More wickets than virtually anybody else. By the time the close came at Sydney their bodies and actions were creaking but the fundamentals of their bowling were largely undiminished. Land the ball on a good line and length often enough (like almost every ball) and you’ll get people out. It doesn’t matter what you do with it. Warne did more with it than virtually anyone else ever has, McGrath did appreciably less but always just enough.
By the end Warne was getting wickets through sheer force of personality rather than technical skill, but some of McGrath’s last wickets in Test cricket (I’m thinking of Cook, past a hundred and late in the day at Perth, and Collingwood in the first innings at Sydney) were straight echoes of his very greatest days. Draw the batsman half-forward around off-stump and force him to play. Hit the seam and get it to move away. Take the edge and wait for the keeper to catch it. Celebrate.
We’ll be seeing more of McGrath over the next few weeks in Australia and then as he returns to the Caribbean for the World Cup. For those of us in the UK it should be possible to see Warne plying his trade on Hampshire’s behalf for the next couple of English seasons, although one has to wonder if his motivation and his body will last that long.
It’s a tricky and often tedious drive from here in Devon to the Rose Bowl in Southampton (and last time I went I got lost on the way back).
I reckon I might take it this season, though, because, once Warne’s gone, nothing will ever really be the same again.
Different Shades of Green, 14th January 2007