Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Stumps Called on Cricketing Greatness

As most people in the sporting world know, January 5 2007 saw the curtain come down on two of the great careers in the history of test cricket. It was a fitting culmination for two of the best bowlers of all time in Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, running rampant as part of a crushing 5-0 victory over the English, a team officially rated number two in the world. This was the first Ashes whitewash in over 85 years and "Warney" and "Pidgeon" typically played major roles.

A lot of people have referred to Shane Warne as the greatest bowler of all time (and he's got a world record 708 test wickets that argue this point very convincingly). It's impossible to compare different eras, with players such as Dennis Lillee, Curtley Ambrose, Fred Trueman (and I'm sure there's a huge number of other names that people would put forward) and many others all able to stake their claim. Talking about players from the same era though, it's very hard to put anyone above Glenn McGrath. He's got 563 wickets of his own (a record for fast bowlers that will last a VERY long time), but perhaps more importantly, in my opinion, is that he was responsible for so many of Warne's wickets. The fact that he just offers nothing to batsmen and keeps up that practically unplayable line and length for long spells means that Warney was there to capitalise at the other end also. And trying to get S.K. Warne away was a suicide mission.

It was as a team that they were truly fearsome for opposition batsmen. They were a perfect compliment for one another: the grinding, metronomic accuracy of McGrath and the dramatic, ripping leg-spin of Warne. Both equally unplayable in their own way. They have over 1,250 test wickets between them and over 1,000 in games that they played together (a record that may never be broken). It was fitting both that McGrath took a wicket with his final ball in test cricket and also that these legends finished their test careers bowling in tandem.

Warne was always the entertainer. He brought spin bowling back as something of an art form and something that kids wanted to bowl. Turning balls square, the slider, the googly, the zooter and the legendary flipper - it was never dull. He produced the "ball of the century" in his first Ashes delivery ever (spinning the ball the width of Mike Gatting - a feat in itself); single-handedly rescued the 1999 World Cup in a match against South Africa when many had lost faith in him; set an Ashes record in 2005 with 40 wickets in the series and an all time record with 96 wickets in that calendar year: for a generation of cricket fans, both Aussie and otherwise, knew that no matter the situation, it's not over 'til the fat man spins. He finished his career saying that he hoped he's made things interesting and that people have enjoyed watching him play. "I'd like to think it's been enjoyable", he said. It has.

McGrath, as already mentioned, has taken more wickets than any other fast bowler in history. The guy's strength of character has come out in his complete unwillingness to allow a batsman or circumstance put him off his game. One of the things that separates him from so many others in the game is that he always targetted the opposing team's best batsmen. Almost without fail he would pick up one or both of the openers as well as others in the top order (as an indication, his two most dismissed batsmen are Michael Atherton and the great Brian Lara). Taking out Sachin Tendulkar for just four and sealing the 2003 World Cup final for Australia was another example of his showing up at crunch time, and his average speaks for itself. I was fortunate enough to meet McGrath on one occassion while I was in Sydney, and his natural warmth and friendliness (as well as the size of his bloody hands!) are impossible to miss (although not many batsmen saw this friendly side).

Warne and McGrath both personified the spirit of the Australian team they were a part of. They perfectly embodied some of the major properties of great champions:
  • When it seems like they've got absolutely nothing left they reach down and somehow find something more;
  • They always think they can win, whatever the situation;
  • They never, ever, ever, give up.
A selfish part of me wants to see them playing for ever and quietly hopes that Warney and Pidgeon will announce they're comeback, but they both seem very happy and comfortable with their decisions. It's fitting, I guess, that these two champions walk away still at the height of their respective powers (or very close to it) rather than after a slide into mediocrity. The advice given to Warne from Ian Chappell (originally passed onto him by another Australian legend, Keith Miller), was to "retire when people are saying why did you, rather than why don't you", is spot on.

They, along with the other retirees this Ashes series, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn, will be sorely missed by the Australian team. As much of a cliche as it is, it still holds true: world cricket, and indeed world sport, will be poorer without them.

That's How I'm Seeing It,


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