It is a measure of what a near Ashes series we have in prospect that even Glenn McGrath has selected to”sit on the fence” instead of offering up his conventional”5-0 into Australia” prediction.
Anderson, such as McGrath, continues to operate at the summit of his powers after his contemporaries have begun to succumb to the ravages of time. Though he turns 37 on Tuesday, he is nevertheless the ICC’s No.2-ranked fast bowler in Test cricket with 575 wickets to his name, and he is much the same age as McGrath himself was when he spearheaded Australia’s 5-0 Ashes triumph in his farewell series in 2006-07.
“To be 37-plus, and also to have played 148 Test matches, it is absolutely amazing,” McGrath told ESPNcricinfo. “To believe that he’s set his body through that much pain and stress, and everything that goes into being a fast bowler, and he’s still going out there and going the business.
“When that ball’s swinging, in English conditions using the Dukes chunk, there’s no-one better. So yeah, if Australia can get on top of Jimmy, that is going to be a huge decider in this Test series. But if Jimmy comes out, bowls well and yells the Australians over, it’s likely to be another difficult series for them.”
Adapting to the Dukes chunk will be a significant factor in Australia’s effort, but not only for the batsman facing Anderson and Co, but their own coterie of fast bowlers who look, on paper, as strong a outfit as has toured England in many a series. England know full well about Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, however James Pattinson’s kind is particularly noteworthy from the lead-up to Edgbaston, as shown by his own achievement on a playful practice wicket at the Ageas Bowl a week.
“It is going to be an amazing series,” said McGrath. “I feel this Australian bowling attack is looking as good as it has been for quite a while. To possess James Pattinson back and what he offers… he’s been incredibly well, but it is just that attitude and’white-line fever’, I guess you would call it. As soon as he crosses the line, he is very dangerous.
“To have this wealth of quick bowlers, that’s tough for the selectors, and it is going to be interesting to see which way they opt for that first Test match. But it’s a fantastic thing to have.”
It is an especially tantalising proposition awarded the insecurities in England’s batting order at present. In an outstanding Test against Ireland at Lord’s last week, England were bowled out to 85 in the first innings and lost 7 for 77 at the next, and McGrath confessed that the Australians would be itching to reopen a few wounds.
“They will be eager to have a peek at that top order as soon as possible,” he stated,”but they will still need to bowl in the right places. I think that’s very significant. Should they bowl badly, and let those men get settled and find just a small amount of assurance, the series is finished. But if they could bowl well at those guys, get together with them, and get Joe Root in at 3 to 30 rather than 3 for 300, it makes a huge difference, and it’s a huge match-up for the sequence.”
If it comes to bowling the perfect span in England, nobody exemplifies it better than McGrath, who hoovered up 87 wickets at 19.34 in his three tours in 1997 to 2005, including a remarkable 33 at 11.50 at Lord’s, the place for the next Test. But even he had to learn the hard way, following a chastening first outing at England at Edgbaston in 1997.
“I remember that’97 series really well,” he explained. “It was my first tour of England, also at that first Test match, we likely bowled more of the Australian span. England dominated – they won that Test by nine wickets – and the day afterwards, Geoff Marsh, the coach of the time, got us out for two hours straight, off a lengthy run in the center of Edgbaston.
“It was about bowling the right length, getting it up there slightly fuller. And that had a massive effect. So yeah, you need that time to adjust. The great players adjust and adapt a good deal faster, and that’s the difference between a good and a fantastic player.”
Bearing that in mind, Australia ought to be acquainted with the conditions as you can. Not only have nearly all the squad been over in England competing in the World Cup, many others are involved in the Australia A tour that has been running simultaneously. Plus, many players with points to prove, including Pattinson as well as the coming Cameron Bancroft, have been honing their abilities in county cricket.
But, McGrath isn’t quite as bullish about his fellow countrymen’s prospects since he could once have been.
“I am always convinced that the Aussies are going to do well, but I have probably made a rod for my back with my predictions in the past,” he said. “I will sit on the fence for this one, and just see what happens in this first Evaluation. If Australia can come in and control – or not so much dominate, however if they could win that Test – then you are going to be hearing 5-0 again. But I will book my forecast until after the first game.”
Meanwhile, McGrath has a trip back into some familiar ground to look ahead to, in which a familiar incident is guaranteed to be replayed ad nauseum in the build-up into the Ashes opener – that moment, on the dawn of this 2005 Edgbaston Test, when he trod on a stray cricket ball to reverse the tide of this sequence.
“It is not my fondest memory,” he explained. “But every time that I return to Edgbaston, the groundsman and the natives remind me exactly which patch of grass it occurred on, and they’ve always told me that they will put a little plaque there just to commemorate it.
“But that 2005 series was an unbelievable series, that game at Edgbaston went directly down to the cable. Hopefully we will see another show that matches that one”