In the afterglow of Jacques Kallis’s recent retirement, there was a lot of discussion in the cricketing world about just how good he was. And with a batting average two runs better than Sachin Tendulkar’s, and a bowling average almost identical to Zaheer Khan’s, the answer was clearly “pretty ruddy good.” Therefore, on this basis, the next man in the 51allout spotlight is also pretty special, for his batting average is two runs better than Michael Atherton’s and on the bowling front, averages two runs per wicket fewer than the great Sydney Barnes. Lean in, as we ask, whatever happened to…
Yes, yes, we know that McGrath only played four Tests, thus his averages shouldn’t really count. But who else can say that they’ve got a better bowling average than Malcolm Marshall [erm, Scott Borthwick – Editor Steve]? On what basis should arbitrary thresholds be introduced to determine whether a player is qualified to feature on lists of records? After all, Barry Richards only played four Tests and he’s usually considered to be rather good.
2003 was a funny old year and not only because R Kelly was really popular in the charts. It was four years since England’s nadir and only two until the legendary 2005 series against Bangladesh. So it seems odd that such leading men as Martin Bicknell, Kabir Ali and McGrath featured that summer. Nonetheless, McGrath had been a promising player for some time, having played for the U-19s and been involved several times with England A since his Yorkshire debut in the mid-90s. But whereas peers Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick were fast-tracked into the England team, McGrath had longer to wait. Wisden describes his selection against Zimbabwe as a ‘hunch’, mostly because his first-class batting average was the wrong side of 30.
In the absence of Andrew Flintoff, the Yorkshireman batted at No. 7 and scored 69, whilst his fellow debutant James Anderson took five first innings wickets. In the second innings our man McGrath dismissed Taibu, Ervine and Streak in the space of four overs (Mark Butcher happened to hog the limelight though by taking 4/60 – these were strange days indeed) as England secured a mammoth victory. The second match was Chester-le-Street’s inaugural Test and again McGrath did well, making 81. However he was not called upon to bowl due to the performances of Anderson, Steve Harmison and – on debut – Richard Johnson.
Up next were the South Africans. At Edgbaston McGrath scored 34, followed by just 4 and 13 at Lord’s. Considering Graeme Smith and Co scored 1,410 runs across about ten days, it must have been a disappointment for McGrath only to bowl eleven overs, for which he was rewarded with the wicket of Gary Kirsten. By the time of the third Test, the selectors had clearly seen enough of McGrath to discard him to the purgatory of the record books, opting to play Ed Smith instead.
In truth, McGrath had probably only been considered a temporary stopgap whilst fellow all-rounder Andrew Flintoff was injured. He did however appear on the autumn tour to Sri Lanka, appearing in just one game that featured one of the great England batting line-ups. For another 12 months England persisted to select McGrath for occasional ODIs , but his international career was over before it really began. He spent his wilderness years plugging away for Yorkshire, captaining them at times, never scoring quite enough runs at others. Since his retirement in 2012, he now spends most of his time in a pub just outside Ilkley Moor getting passing tourists to guess his Test match averages. Mind you, if we were him, we’d do the same.