Published on Yahoo! Cricket, November 17, 2010
When Punter waxed sardonically that Australia would shellack England 5-0 this summer in the Ashes, it seemed like he was just putting it on to uphold tradition. At best, his claim came as a puny reminder of past editions, where that cranky ole codger Pigeon took it upon himself to put the irons in the fire in advance of the impending party with the Poms. That used to be Glenn McGrath’s designated role. He did it best – even in 2005, when he was forced to eat humble (pigeon) pie and watch grumpily as Freddie and gang set about busting up the Aussies.
The last images of him we have from the cricket field are those of him lounging in deck chairs boundary-side during the IPL in South Africa, looking like an irritated schoolmaster clad in pajamas. But as the Aussies hunker down for the Ashes this summer, his name will pop up again and again as the five match series unfolds. I don’t think we realize how much we really miss that tetchy old dog in the Aussie lineup — or in world cricket for that matter.
Not to hold anything against the current lineup of fast bowlers the Aussies sport. Dougie looks like the frat-boy pal you want behind your shoulder at a pub fight. Hilfy is the grizzled reliable neighbor who would help you repair your lawnmower in a jiffy; Mitch, the boy-band leader who hangs around with the cute babes at the local mall. As far as Pigeon’s cohorts in retirement go, while I do miss Warnie (more than any cricketer who has retired in my lifetime – bar Viv), that rectangle of meat Haydos and the lopsided grin of the axe-wielding Gilly, Pigeon stands as a poignant (did I really say that about him now?) reminder of something sorely missing in cricket these days.
Mohammed Asif offered tantalizing glimpses of this loss this summer, only for it to all end in ignominy and accusations. If there ever was a more hypnotic sight in recent times than Asif pulling on the yo-yo strings and harassing the England batsmen in a one square foot window outside off stump, I don’t remember it. His run up was from an action replay – minimalistic, languorous and borderline lazy. But the agony of concentration was writ large on the brows of the batsmen. With the conditions abetting his brand of skullduggery, we watched as batsmen lost their minds repeatedly, suffering collective amnesia about the location of their off-stump. No pyro-techniques involved here. Just a Swiss watchmaker’s adjustments made each ball – a few inches here on the pitch, a few there in that window of obfuscation – and the batsmen went fishing and got hooked on the line to boot.
Asif more than anyone in cricket has been an exponent of the art of Pigeon. His exuberant teammate Mohammed Aamer, and peers like Zaheer Khan, Dale Steyn, Lasith Malinga, Mitchell Johnson and James Anderson have all provided special moments since Pigeon flew the coop, but in distinctly varied styles of their own. As did the three enthralling-but-now-missing-due-to-knackered-bones fast men Shane Bond, Brett Lee and Andrew Flintoff. But only Asif has done the pigeon dance. Presumptuous comparisons of Munaf Patel to McGrath have been ludicrous up to this point – more so due to Munaf’s utter inability to muster up enough attitude, display a semblance of aptitude or at least convey the image of basic fitness needed for a walk in a neighbourhood park. And just weeks ago, gawky Peter George had to bowl just two overs in Bangalore before an overzealous hack in the commentary box started twittering about pigeons.
Nagging is a more oft used word in cricket than in a marriage counselor’s office. A cliché it is, but it was dogma to McGrath. But haranguing would be more apt for what he embodied and Asif is able to emulate when he isn’t hashing it up in Dubai or holed out with lawyers in Lahore. This is an art which is more Boston Strangler in its modus operandi than Jack the Ripper. One that relies on messing with the batsman’s head at moderate pace, driving them to distraction by forcing them to concentrate furiously. For the option of leaving the ball alone is never available to the harassed, who live a life of anxiety in that famed (and clichéd, yes) corridor of cricket. But it is not uncertainty they are afflicted by, but a surety. A surety that they will have no choice but to play at the ball, all the while knowing that a plot is being hatched – one millimeter at a time. A pitch map of McGrath’s bowling for the entirety of a Test match of the 2007 Ashes (his swansong series, to boot) had revealed not a single delivery drifting down leg. His meditation on the top of off stump as the batsmen committed seppuku was as compelling a sight as cricket can dish up at its best.
And then there was his demeanor. “He wasn’t one of the happiest guys. He always moaned and whinged”, related umpire Rudy Koertzen. Fans all over were inured to his sarcastic smiles, snarky lips and maniacal mutterings en route to the top of his runup. A chronic potty-mouth in the eyes of many, his shenanigans of the verbal variety were always in the news. Cricket watchers had relished what they felt was comeuppance on some memorable occasions – like when Sachin Tendulkar requested him to go fornicate elsewhere (“I almost dropped the ball in surprise”, said McGrath) or when Ramnaresh Sarwan stood up to his foul barrage belligerently. But in their heart of hearts they always knew that he would pry open the lid of the cookie jar sooner or later and this he certainly did, all too frequently enough to list here.
Just hark back to the first day of the first Test match of the 2005 Ashes at Lord’s, a day which stands as a microcosm of McGrath’s art – and career for that matter. His spell in the last session of the day’s play was a distilled and concentrated version of everything he embodied. “I have never seen him bowl a better spell than this”, observed Richie Benaud in the box. Using the slope at Lord’s to perfection, McGrath’s bowling was spell-binding in its clinical simplicity and variations. At his patented haranguing best he was.
It wasn’t just his bowling which was encapsulated in that mesmerizing spell. So was his smirky bravado. Just weeks earlier, he had landed in Heathrow and held his own press conference for the baggage handlers by proclaiming that it would be a fifer for the Aussies in the Ashes. But on that day at Lord’s, it was his fifer that garnered attention. And he got it going by coming true on another ludicrous prediction he had made – that he fancied Marcus Trescothick as his 500th wicket in Test matches. Wipe that smirk off his face Tresco, we had willed the England opener from our couches.
The set up took only a few overs of limbering up. Pigeon was soon up to his usual tricks. With Trescothick finding his feet against the looseners, he zeroed in on the blind spot just short of length and played Tresco like a violin, drawing the bow to the left and right in minute and intricate strokes. The solo was a short one. Pitched on middle and off, a nanometer shorter than the previous deliveries, Trescothick was flummoxed into thinking he could reach it and really could play it towards on. Turned inside out like an old sweater, his eyes looked towards mid-on. The ball nestled cozily in Langer’s hands in the cordon. 500 at Lord’s and the smirk was lording it up, ball held high to the crowds.
Trescothick was instant wallpaper. Strauss, Vaughan and Flintoff followed, but no dismissal needs to be studied more to cherish the art of the pigeon than Ian Bell’s that afternoon. Bell had no chance on the day. A tyro to the mental torture that McGrath could inflict, he walked out to bat with the noose already around his neck. And throttled he was, in almost painful fashion by seemingly identical balls pitched agonizingly short of a length. The two minds he walked in with – whether to play forward or back – never deserted him. Then, the epitome of perfection: a ball he was forced to play at, almost knowing beforehand that things were about to go awry. Things like the bails, which looked skyward, trying to spot the offending pigeon that had laid a dropping precisely on top of off-stump. The freeze frame shows Bell cramped up, on his toes, almost cringing, with his bat offered in submission, the intact stumps juggling with two airborne bails.
As the Ashes unfold in the coming weeks, memories of his past deeds are destined to surface and sometimes come flooding back. And we will be reminded again of that miserable and cranky face going about strangling batsmen world over. Heck, we won’t even be able to escape his memory when it comes to batting. For the acuteness of his absence is just as felt when we realize that he was one of the last in the grand tradition of bunnies in world cricket (a 7.36 average). And we will reminisce about the look on his face when he was sent packing from the middle, appalled and muttering to himself like a crime against humanity had just been committed. Here is a gem to search out on YouTube – his LBW that ended the magical Test match in Kolkata in 2001. Just look at the expression on his face!