Glenn McGrath is still very much an Australian citizen. But since being appointed the Director of the MRF Pace Foundation back in 2012, Chennai has been a second home for the legendary pacer, who has spent a good part of the last decade inside the MCC Higher Secondary School in Chetpet, working endlessly with the brightest fast-bowling talents from India.
The efforts put in by McGrath and everyone else at the foundation are evident now more than ever: across the past 12 months alone, four MRF Pace Foundation Graduates — Prasidh Krishna, Avesh Khan, Sandeep Warrier and Chetan Sakariya — have made their international debuts. And with every passing year, the list is bound to only keep growing.
The pandemic meant that McGrath, unfortunately, was unable to visit the academy for no less than two years but normalcy has now been restored: the 52-year-old has been reunited with his second home and is back to overlooking proceedings at the foundation, where currently an Australian developmental side is sweating it out as a part of a unique 10-day camp.
Last week, we, at Cricket.com, visited the foundation and were privileged enough to have a sit-down with the World-Cup winner, exploring a vast range of topics.
Excerpts from the interview:
Could you talk about your partnership with the MRF Pace Foundation. How did it come about?
The partnership between myself and the academy has been going on for 10 years now. Dennis (Lillee) did it for 25 years after which he was looking for someone to take things over from him. He asked me if I could take over. Coaching was not something I wanted to get involved in but when I came over, I liked the way they did things, I liked the people involved. The environment was very professional, the facilities were great and there was very good support from MRF. All in all I thought it was a great concept and really liked the way they did things. So I came on board and I’ve been doing it now for 10 years.
Given you reside in Australia, how often do you visit the academy?
I do three trips a year, two weeks at a time. Normally it’s February/March, one in June and one in August. They differ depending on the tournaments that are being played, when we can get all the boys (in the academy) together and so on.
Talk about the vision of the MRF Pace Foundation — has it remained the same since its inception?
Back when it started, it was about finding and producing fast bowlers and helping them come through the system. The academy also wanted to make the players realize what it meant to be a fast bowler — you’ve got to have skill, you’ve got to be fit and strong and you’ve got to have a strong mental game as well. There are a lot more facilities these days compared to when the foundation was started but ultimately the vision still remains the same. We want to see our trainees go on to play state cricket, in the IPL and ultimately for India.
What are the attributes you look for while recruiting pacers to the academy?
We are, first and foremost, looking for fast bowlers. You can get someone to bowl a yard or two quicker but you can’t turn a 130 kph seamer into a 150 kph tearaway. That’s just the way it is. It’s about identifying talents who can bowl fast, but also guys that are tall, can generate bounce, swing and seam. We look at all different attributes — this comes under the skill side of things.
Then, secondly, we ask the question: are they prepared to work hard? You’ve got to have a really good work ethic to be a fast bowler. You’ve got to be prepared to work hard and put your body through pain. And then on top of everything, mental strength and attitude. The difference between a good bowler and a great bowler lies in the mind. Same as how the difference between a good cricketer and a great cricketer is the mental approach, the attitude, routines and how the individual handles things (coping with pressure, ability to adapt and so on).
We try to provide an environment where they can learn and get to know themselves better because the best coach they can have is themselves. That’s what we try to impart on the players at the academy.
Since you mentioned express pace, let’s explore Umran Malik. There’s been lots of talk about how he might need to slightly cut down on pace in order to gain more accuracy and be consistent. What would be your advice to a tearaway like Umran, and how would you go about managing such a unique bowler?
I haven’t seen a huge amount of Umran Malik but the fact that he can bowl at a good pace is impressive. Sheer pace is unique. You can’t teach someone to bowl 150-plus, they’ve got to be able to naturally do that. I hate seeing bowlers slow down to get control. I like to see bowlers working harder on control, putting the time and effort in the nets to get to know their game while still bowling at top pace. Because someone who bowls at excess of 150 kph is very rare. I don’t like to see express pacers slow down to get control.
Mitchell Johnson, for me, is a great example. He was able to bowl express pace and then one year he worked on his action and run-up and got very good control. He went from a dangerous bowler to a lethal bowler.
Moving on to a couple of hot topics, could you give us your thoughts on the future of ODI cricket? How can the format be saved?
It’s a tough one. T20 is very popular and I’d like to think Test cricket will still be held in high regard. The one that’s under pressure is one-day cricket. So they’ve got to find ways to keep the format exciting, keep people coming to the games. There’s different things I guess they can do, to keep things exciting.
But you can’t make it too much of a batsman’s game where the bowlers become irrelevant. So I guess the ICC has to keep marketing it, tweak the rules a little bit to make it a challenge for the players and make it more interesting for the people watching. ODI cricket has got plenty of challenges coming its way over the next 4 or 5 years, we’ll see how it goes.
Baz-ball has been the talk of the town when it comes to Test cricket. Firstly, your thoughts on this brand new phenomenon? And secondly, as a bowler, did you prefer bowling to batters coming at you or was it more convenient to bowl at the ‘traditionalists’?
I was happy either way. If the batters are looking to score and challenge the bowlers, obviously there are more chances of taking wickets. It’s about bowling good plans, being able to execute your plans and bowl to the field you have.
England have started well, they showed great attitude in those four Test matches where they won chasing big totals in the fourth innings. While things are going well, it looks great. But it’s not always going to happen that way. A couple of times if the bowling side takes early wickets, puts pressure on them and bowls them out while they’re still attacking, it’s going to be interesting to see how it goes. I like teams to back themselves. With the bat, but also with the ball. Bowlers need to work out how to bowl to more aggressive batsmen.
So, what should a bowling side ideally look to do against a team that’s throwing the kitchen sink at them?
In Tests, there are different ways to take wickets compared to ODIs and T20s. You’ve got to back yourself. There are going to be opportunities and you’ve got to take them. But bowlers and teams will have to come up with plans as to how they’re going to take wickets. If they’re just letting the batters dominate, bowling without a plan, that’s the bowling side’s fault. When teams chase 300 or 400, there are going to be opportunities. It’s about creating chances. If a bowling side can do that, they’ll win more often than not.
Talking of ‘plans’, how does someone approach bowling to 360° batters like Suryakumar, Maxwell and de Villiers?
Don’t let them control where you bowl. Make them play those sweeps and reverse-sweeps and laps off very good deliveries. I look at someone like Josh Hazlewood. He still bowls really good length balls in T20 cricket and he’s been very successful. He’s got good control over his length ball, bouncer and yorker.
Bowling to the 360* batters is always a challenge, but make them play the fancy strokes off good deliveries. 2 or 3 times out of 10, it’ll be tough for them. If you start drifting away from your game plan and start bowling differently, where they want you to, it’ll be too easy for them. Embrace the challenge.
What do you think of the direction in which Cricket is headed in? Franchise cricket seems to be taking the sport over
Cricket definitely has a bit of a challenge with respect to the direction it's heading, but it’s exciting. There’s more people coming and watching the game. There’s more people playing the game. There’s more money currently in cricket than ever before. In that respect, Cricket as a whole will be healthy and will be held in high regard. T20 is a format that you can take to the US, to Europe where they don’t play a whole lot of cricket so more interest can’t be a bad thing.
Let’s end the interview on an Aussie note. Your thoughts on the team’s tour of India next year?
Obviously the single biggest challenge for Australia is coming to India, performing well and winning the series. We were lucky enough to do it in 2004. You’ve got to come up with good plans, the batsmen have to learn to adapt on turning pitches and the bowlers have to learn to bowl in those conditions.
I think with IPL, a lot of players have been over here (in India) regularly and have hence experienced the conditions. The current Australian team, evident from their showings in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, are starting to get a better understanding of how to play on subcontinent wickets. That being said, India is still the ultimate challenge. I think they’re up for it.
You were someone who had great success bowling in India. What, according to you, as an overseas seamer, is the key to succeeding on Indian wickets?
You just need to come up with a plan that works. Pitches in Australia are quicker and bouncier so you can bowl those good areas. The secret is still having control, bowling outside off-stump or just outside. The length will obviously be different so it’s about adapting to the lengths.
You still will need to look to take wickets with the new ball. Then once it gets softer, you’ll have to ask yourself, ‘how can I stop the opposition from scoring?’. You could probably bowl a bit straighter, have more of a ring-field and make it hard for the batsmen to score. It’s just about having clear plans, but then being able to execute those plans for long periods of time.