Too close to call, says McGrath
'I've dug a hole for myself," Glenn McGrath admits with a quiet laugh as, a week before the Ashes begin, he wonders whether he can seriously offer his ritual forecast of a convincing Australian victory.
The last time he and I did this amusing little dance, back in 2005, McGrath was still in winning form as one of the greatest bowlers in history, and he was happy enough to predict another 5-0 whitewash. He didn't really expect it to be so easy, but neither did McGrath anticipate that England would regain the Ashes in the most tumultuous series of a career that spanned 124 Tests and brought him a record haul, for a fast bowler, of 563 wickets.
Australia have lost McGrath, Shane Warne and other outstanding players since then – and have spent 2013 in chaos.
Last Monday, amid the circus, they fired their coach, Mickey Arthur, and replaced him with a man called "Boof".
Yet the decision to appoint Darren Lehmann as the new coach could be the smartest idea Cricket Australia has had in a very long time.
McGrath, as astute now as he was magisterial on the field, is better equipped than most to comment on the recent fiascos. He is also intriguing company – whether reflecting on personal tragedy, fighting cancer or revealing a surprising new interest in contemporary art. Yet it feels imperative, in the predictable spirit of Ashes cricket, to persuade him first to cough up one of his assertive prophecies. It's never going to be "five-zip to us", not these days, but what is McGrath's hand-on-heart prediction?
"Um …" he hesitates, "when I was playing it was easy. But now I find it tough to make a prediction. I'm a very loyal, parochial Australian and I can never say we're going to lose a series. So I'm going to say it'll be a good, tough series."
McGrath has the grace to chuckle at his sidestep, but he is genuinely tickled when told that another old Ashes warrior, Ian Botham, has claimed that a 10-0 sweep for England is not inconceivable as this summer's series is followed by a five-Test return in Australia.
"Ten-0?" McGrath echoes in mock indignation. "I don't think people in Australia even have nightmares that bad. No, it's going to be much closer than people think. I have no doubts we can regain the Ashes, but if we get off to a bad start, it could be a very long summer."
McGrath, once England's arch-tormentor, can expect some good-natured flak. "Oh yeah," he concedes, before joking: "But I've got a safety net to get out of the country after the first two Tests."
It used to be different. McGrath only lost four of the 30 Ashes Tests he played and, in his lethal targeting of England's best players, he dismissed Mike Atherton a record 19 times – no other batsman has fallen so often to the same bowler in Test cricket.
Mick Jagger famously tagged him "a bastard" after he repeatedly reduced England to quivering rubble – whether taking 8-38 in his first Test at Lord's in 1997 or collecting nine wickets during Australia's crushing win in the opening match of 2005. He was 36 when, with his last ball in Test cricket, his final wicket all but sealed the 5-0 demolition with which Australia yanked back the urn at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2007.
"You look at that side and over the next two years we lost seven players. That's going to knock any team in a big way," says McGrath. "But I wasn't aware of the extent they'd allowed things to slip until it all blew up in India in March. The way the 'homework' saga was handled was pretty poor. There was no way anything like that could have happened under Steve Waugh. There would have been no turning up late or not doing this or that. When you let that discipline slip, you're going to have big problems on the field. We had some big personalities but they really pulled together."
He is withering about the 2am bar-room punch David Warner threw at England's Joe Root last month. "With Warner's track record, it's blowing up in his face. He needs to weigh up how much he wants to play international cricket. If he does, he's going to have to be a lot more disciplined in his off-field behaviour."
McGrath was in India when he heard Arthur had been sacked. "I was surprised by the timing, but the more I think about it the more positive it seems. Something had to happen because the way things were drifting it would have gone from bad to worse. Arthur had a good record with South Africa, but I wasn't overly impressed by the decision to appoint him. That's the parochial Aussie in me again."
Lehmann, naturally, can be more readily trusted. "I played quite a bit with Boof and he's pretty relaxed. But he's also old-school. He was a class player and he's done great things as a coach. I've talked to guys who've played under him at Queensland and in the Indian Premier League and they all think he's great. Players warm to him and respect him and he brings out their best. That's what this team needs. I actually think Australia have got the players to perform pretty well and win back the Ashes – as long as the selectors have enough guts to pick the right team.
"Our bowling attack has been our strength for a long time, but the top four batsmen have struggled. Chris Rogers brings a wealth of experience and he knows English conditions well. They should pick him. And now that Brad Haddin is No1 keeper again, that experience and old-school hardness will be great for this team."
McGrath likes Australia's pace attack – Peter Siddle's "immense improvement as the leader", James Pattinson's "match-winning enforcer role", and Mitchell Starc's "left-arm swing with the new ball".
The Ashes, however, could be influenced most by an English opening bowler, Jimmy Anderson, about whom McGrath speaks in the vein of one master assessing another.
"He's undoubtedly a quality bowler. I was always quite a big fan but, years ago, Anderson struggled when he went overseas and bowled with the Kookaburra rather than the Duke ball. But he's now a great bowler wherever he plays. I'm just very impressed with the way Jimmy Anderson goes about his business."
McGrath is less effusive about the old enemy. "They're not a bad unit," he says of England. Such faint praise echoes McGrath's miserly streak as a bowler. "You look back at their 2005 team and they were very confident. Even a few years ago they deserved their world No1 ranking. But they've dropped off a little and they're not the same team of a few years ago. Still, they'll be quietly confident."
Before the first Ashes Test in 2005, McGrath had taken 499 wickets. He describes the ensuing match at Lord's from a deeply personal perspective. "My parents split up when I was 16 and, while Mum came to a few Tests, Dad didn't make many. So I was glad he was at Lord's. Dad thought it was incredible, but he loved the crowd interaction most.
"He sat with the Aussies and on the first day – when [Steve] Harmison was knocking us over – the crowd just gave it to the Australians. Then, when we came out and took quick wickets, the Aussies in the crowd gave it back to the English. Dad was fascinated. When I got my 500th wicket, they found out he was my father and they were all congratulating him, both from Australia and England. The whole series was so vivid – even though, in my mind, the wrong team won."
McGrath laughs wryly, but he is more modest when reminded that Australia only lost the two Tests that he missed through injury. "I dunno about that, mate. The thing that stands out for me was walking down the street and people coming up to me saying they'd never watched cricket before and suddenly they couldn't miss a ball. I remember Old Trafford on the last day [as Brett Lee and McGrath denied a rampaging Andrew Flintoff and Harmison in the final overs] when so many people couldn't get in. That atmosphere, and especially the cricket, made it the best series I ever played in."
Defeat was galling, but "we became a better side while England, having achieved what they wanted, fell away. We won the next Ashes, which was the last series for me and Warnie, 5-0. It was the perfect way to bow out."
His wife Jane died 18 months later, in June 2008, when her cancer returned with terrible vengeance. She and Glenn had set up the McGrath Foundation six years earlier and the growth of that charity to fund the nursing of breast cancer patients helped him to accept her death when their children, James and Holly, were just eight and six.
"The support has been incredible," McGrath says. "From four nurses we're now employing 84 and we've supported 20 000 families over the last four years. It blows me away."
McGrath remarried in 2011, after he met Sara in Cape Town. She was as oblivious as his first wife had initially been to his fame. When they first went out Jane used to be confused that, in public, people would shout McGrath's name.
Apart from riding his Ducati, which Sara's father brought him as an Italian-flavoured wedding present, and attempting to earn his helicopter licence, McGrath is coaching fast bowlers in India and commentating. "When I retired, there were two things I didn't want to do – coaching and commentating. Now I'm enjoying them both. Sara and I have also opened an art gallery, Mclemoi, in Sydney. We specialise in contemporary art. It's a natural progression from opening the bowling for Australia to running an art gallery, isn't it?" – © Guardian News & Media 2013
The first Ashes Test starts on July 10 at Trent Bridge