Glenn McGrath and Craig McDermott, Australian bowling aces-turned-coaches, currently at the MRF Pace Foundation, chat about the past, present and future of fast bowling

With his lean visage and cold eyes, you could visualise the lanky Glenn McGrath riding into the mean terrain of the Wild West. Oh yes, he was on target.

‘Billy the Kid’ shot from the hip too. Not for nothing did Craig McDermott earn the name of a famous gun-fighter from the Old West — he was ruthless when pulling the trigger.

Pace bowling throws up several images — of intensity and combat, movement and lift, shattered stumps and bruised egos, cut and thrust, speed and destruction.

If the aggressive McDermott was the lynchpin of the Australian attack from 1984 to the mid-90s, the incisive McGrath took the role to the next level with a priceless attribute — control.

One a legend and, the other, a great bowler, it was wonderful to watch McGrath and McDermott together at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai — the two now coaches passing on knowledge gained from sweat, toil and years of experience in a batsmen’s game to aspiring pacemen.

The 43-year-old McGrath recalls a nugget to drive home a point. “You know, to avoid the traffic, I travelled on a suburban train one morning in Sydney. The man sitting in front of me appeared stunned to see me. ‘You are Glenn McGrath, aren’t you? Why aren’t you guys travelling in limousines,’ he asked. My reply was, ‘Friend, it is only the batsmen who do so in cricket!’”

A blue-collar job

McDermott laughs. Pace bowling is indeed a blue-collar job requiring immense physical toil, not to forget career-threatening injuries and a slew of laws favouring batsmen.

“More so when trying to get a leg-before decision against Javed Miandad in Pakistan!” McDermott’s sense of humour is intact.

McGrath says the scenario is grimmer for the current crop. “You see the wickets all over the world have slowed down. The pitches in the West Indies are like those in the sub-continent. In Australia, every pitch had a character of its own. Now, most of them look the same.”

The topic shifts to reverse swing. “I reversed the ball when I was in India in 1986. But I could not consistently do it. Those days, the theory about reverse swing was different. We tried to make one side of the ball heavier with moisture. Now, they try to get it rougher,” McDermott reveals.

“I recall Imran Khan reverse swinging the ball in ’85 and ’86 in Australia while playing for New South Wales. And he swung it big,” he adds.

McGrath re-enters the conversation, “Then came Waqar Younis. I think guys with a sling action have a better chance of reversing.” McDermott agrees, “Look at Tait (Shaun).”

Queried about the ball tampering controversy that erupted during the recent ICC Champions Trophy, McGrath says, “I cannot speak about what happened there. But you do not have to adopt illegal methods to maintain the ball. It can be done so legally.”

Asked about the impact of the game’s shorter forms in respect of present-day batting — several teams tend to collapse on pitches doing a bit — and McDermott comes up with an interesting response. “Several contemporary batsmen who have played plenty of shorter-duration matches on flat tracks tend to be bottom-handed players since they use heavy bats and want to thwack the ball on the leg-side. I think you have to be a good top-handed batsman to do well in all conditions.”

Cut to the present

Talking about the present Australian batting, McGrath admits the batsmen tend to play too many shots in Tests. “We do not have batsmen such as Allan Border or Steve Waugh who would bat till their legs came off.” Those were the days.

And are the ODIs and the Twenty20 matches adversely impacting the high-risk outswing bowling? Says McDermott, “I was an outswing bowler all my life. Outswing will survive because of its wicket-taking possibilities. I think from where you swing the ball is important. When I was the Australian pace bowling coach, I got the pacemen to draw Sachin Tendulkar into a stroke and swing the ball away from the fifth stump in the 2011-12 series. The plan worked.”

McGrath chips in. “A bowler should bowl to his strength. I once tried to bowl fast and swing the ball and was hit all over the place. Then I realised that I should return to what I do best — seam the ball and get bounce.”

“Sitting on the fence, mate,” McDermott takes a jibe at McGrath after the latter does not pick the best from the long list of heavyweight captains he had played under.

For McDermott, Mark Taylor is the finest skipper. “He was tactically stimulating, attacking and had vision.”

Cricket connects people in different ways. It was a freak injury to McDermott before the first Test of the 1995 series in the West Indies that propelled a young McGrath into a central role against a formidable adversary. The rest is history.

One gunslinger had made way for another.