When it comes to ODI World Cup wickets, Glenn McGrath sits atop the pile with 71. One of the greats of the game, he was a major reason the Australians won the tournament three times in a row, from 1999 to 2007. Such was the dominance of that team that McGrath had to bat only four times in four World Cups. The batters would do their jobs every time. As would the bowlers.
A decade and a half after winning his last World Cup, McGrath talks to THE WEEK about Australia’s chances this time, the importance of Mitchell Starc, the workload of bowlers and his picks for the semifinals. Edited excerpts:
Q/ What is it about Australia and the World Cup? They have won it five times. Is it about the professionalism of Cricket Australia or is it something in your culture?
A/ Once you get to these tournaments, there is no complacency―you back yourself, you go out there and play the best cricket you can. Australia have always been a big-match team, they like [to step up] when it counts, in front of big crowds. This team, obviously, is different to the era that I played in, but I think it is the attitude that Australians have.
I think it is something in the culture. Australians are very competitive, [more so] when you are playing against your mates; there is a bit more banter. From a young age, you are competitive at school, playing different sports, and I think it is just the Australian way.
Q/ You were part of four World Cups; you won three. You are the leading wicket-taker in World Cups, and arguably the best fast bowler ever. What does it take to be so formidable across conditions?
A/ I do not know if I am the best bowler. I have got the most wickets; maybe it is because I played quite a few tournaments. I think to be classed a great bowler [you have] to be able to adapt to all different conditions. It is the same for the batsmen. The team that does that the best is always going to be tough to beat. You have got Mitchell Starc, who, if he has a great World Cup, could take over that mantle as leading World Cup wicket-taker (Starc is on 50).
In that era that I was lucky enough to play in, pitches in Australia all had a different character. So you have got to learn and adapt to play in different conditions in your own country. Now, wickets in each country are very similar. [Teams] do not learn to adapt. And I think probably more so when teams travel these days, the home team dominates. That is probably more in the longer version. The shorter version of the game is totally different now. I remember when I first started, you could score 200 runs and defend that. Now you score 330 and you think, ‘Oh, I wonder if I have got enough.’ The T20 format and IPL-style tournaments have had a big impact on scoring rates.
Q/ There are a lot of injury concerns with bowlers these days. You only missed once match in your career because of injury. What’s the secret behind maintaining that fitness?
A/ Back when I played, we had an off-season. Each year, for a couple of months, you could actually not bowl, get into the gym and get the strength back into your body. You look at someone like Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad. They know their bodies so well. They only play one format. So they have got time to recover and put that strength back in. Now [cricket is] nearly 12 months a year. For a fast bowler, you have to really decide what you play. Because if you keep playing week in, week out as a fast bowler, sooner or later you are going to break. It is like driving a car. If you do not fill it up with fuel, sooner or later, you are going to run out of fuel.
I had a very stress-free action, so I was probably a little luckier than most. You look at someone like Jasprit Bumrah―incredible bowler, but he is so explosive right at the end. He puts quite a lot of stress on his body. So, he needs time to recover and get strength back into his body. It is a shame that he was injured, but he is coming back now. And fingers crossed, he will be good.
Q/ Is Cricket Australia addressing that? Are they looking after their bowlers? Are they trying to make sure they do not play in certain leagues?
A/ You look at the fast bowlers these days.... horses for courses is spoken about a lot. It is rare for a fast bowler to play every game in a Test series. Which I’m not a huge fan of, because I like to get into a zone and then just maintain that. It is a lot different these days. They are trying to manage [workload] by not playing every game.
And then it is up to the individual whether they go and play the IPL or other such tournaments. They cannot stop players from doing it. Starc has taken the option not to go [to the IPL] to help him maintain his strength and fitness... and be prepared to play at his peak in international matches.
Q/ Coming back to the World Cup, which one of your wins is your favourite?
A/ It is hard to choose a favourite. In 1996, it was tough being runners-up. We wanted to make amends in 1999. We started poorly. We got into a position where we had to win every single game.... To get across that and then to win the final was very, very special. That match at Edgbaston (semifinal against South Africa) would probably go down as one of my all-time favourite cricket matches that I played in. So, 1999 was special in that respect.
Then to go over to 2003. We had a good team to go through undefeated. It was tough losing Warnie (Shane Warne was banned for 12 months; he tested positive for a banned substance). But the other players stepped up [and we won] undefeated. And then obviously 2007 in the West Indies. We were not really challenged in any game. For me, personally, [I got] to finish my career on a high. That was my last match for Australia.
Q/ You mostly played under two captains, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. One cool as ice, while the other always ready for a fight. How do you compare them?
A/ Yeah, they are who they are, and I loved playing under both. They let their natural, true character come out. Steve did not want to give anything away. He would run through a brick wall just to win a game or to do well for his team. Then you have Rick, who... just has that love and passion for the game. Wears his heart on his sleeve. I think he actually cooled down a bit the older he got.
Q/ You did play under Tubby (Mark Taylor) as well. How would you compare him with these two?
A/ Tubby was very astute, tactically very good with the game. He grew up in an era where Australia were not probably as strong all the time. There were a few issues, but AB (Allan Border) and Bob Simpson turned the team around. Mark Taylor came up through there. So he had done the hard yards. So, yeah, I was lucky to play under four Australian captains and [I have] huge respect for all of them. They took the team from a certain spot and left it in a better position.
Q/ Tubby has said that Ashton Agar not being there to help Adam Zampa would be a negative. Is there a bit of concern in the spin department?
A/ I think Zampa has done really well, so it is great to have him there. But with [Josh] Hazlewood and Starc and [Pat] Cummins, you have three senior bowlers who know the game very well. Hazlewood’s done well, especially in the shorter format in India, too. So they have that confidence. Cummins is a great bowler and Starc is just a wicket-taker. When he is on song in the one-day format, he has the X factor. I think Starc’s a big key to that Australian team. If he performs well, takes two or three wickets in his first spell, Australia’s right on top. I think he can carry the team and they would not miss that extra spin option. [Glenn] Maxwell has done well and a few other boys can bowl bits and pieces.
Q/ You talk about Starc being the X factor in the bowling attack. What about among the batters?
A/ You have got the big names in [David] Warner and [Steve] Smith, and they both have to play a big role. Warner’s form looks like he has been okay recently, which is good. Smith, I think, can live for the big games. [But] Mitchell Marsh is the one for me. He is such a powerful player, opening the batting. If he hangs around and gets a bit of form, he can be very destructive. We saw Marnus Labuschagne, who was not even in the squad, come in [as an injury replacement] and all of a sudden he has played incredibly well. Maxwell as well. He has always had that X factor, but I would like to see him come off a bit more often. And I am a fan of Cameron Green. So they have three quality all-rounders. And if those guys fire, too, that can make a big difference.
Q/ Who are your semifinalists?
A/ I thought the four would be India, Australia, England and Pakistan. But after that first game [where New Zealand thumped England]... that was an incredible first game. South Africa have sort of turned things around. I probably gave England a little bit more credit than maybe they deserve. I thought they (New Zealand) were very unlucky not to win that previous World Cup. They will be hungry. So, India, Australia, New Zealand, and then it is out of Pakistan and England.
Q/ As director of the MRF Pace Foundation, how do you see the future of Indian fast bowling? Is it getting better?
A/ Oh, without a doubt. You look at the Indian Test team at the moment; they have a quality lineup. I think India have never produced fast bowlers [like this] in the past. That is brilliant. We have been doing our work with the MRF Pace Foundation for, what is it now? 30, 36 years, and are really focusing on developing fast bowlers. We have some great talent there. There are a few guys on the edge. We have seen Prasidh Krishna doing okay. Avesh Khan has gotten the odd chance. But when you have a set bowling attack, like the Indian team has sometimes, it is hard [to get in].
With the Australian team when I played, they said it was harder to get out of the team. Once you are in, you are performing. So yeah, there is no shortage of quality, young fast bowlers coming through. We have seen it in the IPL. To be involved with the MRF Pace Foundation is something I am very proud of. Fingers crossed, we can have a few of our boys having more of an impact at the international level.