After a break of more than two-and-a-half years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian pace bowling great Glenn McGrath is back at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. He took over as its director from fast bowling legend Dennis Lillee, who held the post since the inception of the foundation in 1987. The foundation has played a key role in shaping the careers of some of the world’s best fast bowlers, including Brett Lee, Zaheer Khan and more recently, Avesh Khan and Chetan Sakariya.
In an interview with Sportstar, McGrath talks about the state of pace bowling, what pacers need for sustained growth and why bowling consistently in the nets can help address the no-ball issue in the game.
Indian cricket has witnessed a fast-bowling revolution in the last five years. How do you see your work here in light of this pace bowling surge?
Dennis Lillee was my hero growing up. Taking over [as director] from him was just a transition and an attempt to continue the great work that the MRF Pace Foundation has done for a long time. Indian cricket realised it needed a quality fast bowling attack to be world No. 1. There are so many fast bowlers coming through now. That’s also due to the pitches in first-class cricket. There’s more in it for fast bowlers, whereas earlier, maybe it was spin and batting friendly. That change, combined with a strong work ethic and passion for the game, has facilitated the growth of youngsters. I’ve been coming to India since 2013, and there has been no shortage of fast bowlers. To see some of the boys who have worked here go on to play Ranji Trophy and then for India has been heartening. We’ve had Prasidh Krishna. He is bowling well in the IPL (Indian Premier League) and limited-overs cricket. Avesh Khan isn’t far away. Khaleel Ahmed and Basil Thampi have also made a name for themselves.
It does look like if they do well in IPL, it gives them a jumpstart for the next level. But whether it is the best way to go, we will have to wait and see. I think it is a big ask to go from T20s [to Tests]. It might be their first year [in IPL], and their names get spoken about, which is great. But I think you have to have overs under the belt in Ranji Trophy. I had played six games for NSW (New South Wales) before I got an opportunity to play for Australia, and I grabbed it.
Maybe now it is the shorter version where you make a name for yourself. The IPL is televised, you are playing in front of large crowds and rubbing shoulders with big names. If you perform at that level, it shows you have mental strength. To do it for one year is fine but doing it year after year is what you want to see.
Jasprit Bumrah is a master of variations in T20, but he has also translated his white-ball skills into Test cricket. How challenging is that adjustment?
In ODIs and T20s, especially in T20s, you don’t want to be bowling two balls in the same spot. You want to mix it up. It boils down to control — to be able to land the ball where you want to land it. Bumrah is so good because he can bowl at consistent levels, across formats. Sometimes, you get away with it in T20s because you don’t have to be consistent. You end up bowling six totally different balls, and that’s fine. But once you get to Ranji Trophy and Test cricket, you have to be able to build pressure by bowling tight lines and lengths.
In the age of T20 cricket, with all the different kinds of shots batters play, are yorkers, as a form of delivery, losing the surprise factor?
Batters these days get down and lap the yorker over fine leg. But if a guy can do that, he will give a signal to the bowlers. So, the bowlers need to run in with a backup ball in mind. If they see a guy shaping up to lap, they have to go wide or short. The problem with yorkers is that the room for error is small. You have to hit it perfectly. If you miss a yorker, then it is a half-volley or full toss. You have to land it on top of their foot.
You come from an era where discipline was very important. Are bowlers trying too much too early nowadays?
If I can bowl six balls exactly where I want to in Test cricket, then I should be able to bowl six different balls in T20s. In T20s, bowlers get away even when they don’t have control, and nobody knows if that’s where they wanted to bowl. The onus is on the bowlers to put the work in the nets. Here at the MRF Pace Foundation, we practise bowling the right length, operating in different scenarios, and not bowling no-balls. The boys practise bowling good yorkers — full at toes and wide yorkers — and a good bouncer. I am not sure if bowlers, these days, are practising that much in the nets. Batters don’t want to build an innings on defence. Even in the nets, they are heaving. They are giving bowlers the charge and reverse sweeping length balls. So, it is imperative that bowlers have the confidence to land the ball where they want.
You talked about not bowling no-balls. How can bowlers and coaches address this issue?
In the nets, a lot of guys don’t worry about it [bowling the no-ball]. Sometimes their back foot is over the front line, and you worry about how that transforms to the game (laughs). If you don’t bowl no-balls in the nets, you will never bowl a no-ball in the game. With free hits in place, there are big consequences for bowling no-balls. I have bowled no-balls in Tests and got wickets off them; it is the worst feeling. It happened because I wasn’t as disciplined in training as I should have been.
You shared the dressing room with some of the fastest bowlers in international cricket. Did you ever want to emulate them in terms of the pace at which they bowled?
We all try to bowl as quickly as we can. If I could bowl 100 mph, I would’ve done that (smiles). But you’ve got to know your game well. Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Brian] Lara always said it was tougher to face someone who bowled in the mid-130 kmph and got the ball to bounce off a length than a bowler who clocked 150 kmph and skidded it on. So, it is that bounce. If I tried to bowl too quickly, I lost my bounce which was my most dangerous weapon. In saying that, in search of control, I would hate to see bowlers slow down.
Lesson to learn: “I always go back to the Ashes series in 2013-14, when Mitchell Johnson (in pic) terrorised England with his bowling. He put in so much work in the lead-up to the series that he was able to combine sheer pace with consistency. If you do that, you graduate from a quality bowler to a lethal bowler,” says McGrath. – Getty Images
It takes a lot of work. I always go back to that Ashes series in 2013-14, when Mitchell Johnson terrorised England with his bowling. He put in so much work in the lead-up to the series that he was able to combine sheer pace with consistency. If you do that, you graduate from a quality bowler to a lethal bowler.
The pace is natural. You can’t teach someone who bowls at 130 kmph to bowl at 160 kmph. I bowled a little quicker when I was younger, but the speed gun didn’t like me and docked me about 10 per cent (laughs)… Jason Gillespie was similar to me, but quicker. A lot of times, he would induce the edge and the ball would fly over the slips. But the pace at which I bowled meant the ball travelled to the cordon at the right height.
Umran Malik has turned heads with his pace in this IPL. Should he be fast-forwarded to the Indian team on talent and pace alone?
Sheer pace is important but Umran Malik has to be prepared to put the work in to get that control and if he can combine control with that sheer pace then he’ll get into any team in the world. It’s about doing well in the second season and third season, once the batters get to know your bowling. When you are bowling 150 kmph-plus, that’s a lot of stress on the body and if you don’t put the work off the field to keep yourself strong, sooner or later you are going to break. When you are sitting and watching from the sidelines and they’re not picking you anymore, it’s not much fun.
They say it’s hard work to get to the top but you should work twice as hard once you get there. That’s where a few cricketers, mainly bowlers, probably let themselves down. They do well in the IPL or get an [international] cap and they think they have made it.
That’s when the hard work should start if they want to stay there and be successful. Bumrah — he puts in so much work off the field to stay strong, as do so many other bowlers.
Most of Australia’s forthcoming Test cricket will be played in Asia. The series win in Pakistan, how does it impact the growth of the Test side and Pat Cummins, the Test captain?
I always found Pakistan a little bit more bowler-friendly, a bit more conducive to fast bowling than India and Sri Lanka. Some of the pitches I have played on in India were pretty flat. You have to learn ways to take wickets. Reverse-swing comes into play and then the ball doesn’t bounce and carry through so it takes the slips out of play. You have to bowl straighter with more fielders on the ring. The Test series win in Pakistan would have held the Australians in good stead and given them a lot of confidence. They played well there, in the Ashes and are the World T20 champions — all of that gives them the confidence to go through but I think the true test is Sri Lanka and India. Playing in these conditions over here and being successful.
Fast bowlers as Test leaders are a rarity. Pat Cummins bucked that trend recently. How has he fared so far, according to you?
Pat Cummins has done a great job on the field. To me a fast bowler, when he is bowling, has to concentrate a hundred percent on what he is doing. He can’t be thinking about who is bowling next, what field changes need to be made and where the game is going. What he has done well there is that when he is bowling, he hands the reins over to Steve Smith. To me, you can’t have an ego where you say I am going to captain the whole time because you will burn out if you bowl too much or not enough.
Josh Hazlewood’s Test cricket skills have proved to be rewarding in T20s as well. What do you think about his evolution as a T20 bowler?
Josh [Hazlewood] is a quality player. He bowls good areas and has good control — which means he can bowl the ball where he wants to. He is strong so he can bowl all day. He has been bowling good lengths in T20 cricket where people think you have got to bowl six totally different deliveries.
What is your vision for the MRF Pace Foundation?
I first came here in 1992 when I was at the cricket academy in Australia. I worked with Dennis Lillee for a two-week period and ever since, young Australians have come here and worked for one of the camps. I would like to see that continue. The reason I ended up taking over from Dennis is because of the way they go about things here. They have great coaches, facilities and training camps. For someone who was a batter, [Mylvahanan] Senthilnathan is one of the best fast bowling coaches in the world. I have learnt a lot from him and Dennis. I love the way the boys come in and live, breathe and eat cricket 24×7. When they come in, their action is all over the place. They are not that strong and by the time they leave, you see they are physically strong and fit. Their actions are really good. To see that sometimes they lose that strength and fitness is a bit of a shame because everything is here for them.
Learning from the master: McGrath with the trainees at the MRF Pace Foundation. “I love the way the boys come in and live, breathe and eat cricket 24×7. When they come in, their action is all over the place. They are not that strong and by the time they leave, you see they are physically strong and fit. Their actions are really good,” he says. – M. VEDHAN
If you have plans of going on and representing your country, whichever country that is, to have a facility like this is exceptional. It is very similar to the cricket academy in Australia — I give that a lot of credit for my success. There have been so many guys from here who have represented their countries. It is a great facility and that is why I am involved with it.
The MRF company themselves have been absolutely great. What they have done for cricket, and for fast bowlers in particular, over the last 30-odd years is exceptional.