Retaliatory concerns barely entered his mind. “I always suspected I was going to cop a couple, but I felt if I watched the ball I could get out of the way so I was more than willing to give it to them,” recalls McGrath, who’s equally happy to send down a few seamers for old time’s sake in a Sydney laneway. “It was an opportunity for me to lead the attack and show them what I was made of.” In the decades since McGrath has proven many times over that what he’s made of is rugged stuff.
He returned from the West Indies a hero, though a troubled one. His series-deciding efforts had stripped seven kilograms from his already slender frame. If he wanted to stick around at the top, he would need to rebuild himself. He tracked down a trainer, Kev Chevell. “The first question he asked me was, ‘What are you prepared to do?’,” recalls McGrath. “And I said, ‘Whatever it takes’.” Right answer. “Kev’s philosophy was to train me harder than anything I’d experience in the middle. He’d say to me, ‘You won’t be training for fast bowling – you’ll be training your body to be unbreakable’.”
It was mission accomplished. Compared to today’s quicks, who seem to spend more time on the physio’s table than in the nets, McGrath was as resilient as a rod of iron. The secret: targeted workouts: “I didn’t care about beach muscles. It was about strong legs, strong glutes, strong core.” He’d been 77 kilograms when he linked with Chevell. When the next summer rolled around he was a rudely fit 98kg, and he stayed around 94 till the end. Ever wondered how McGrath performed with such precision in long spells? There’s your answer. The same pluck that allowed him to pepper West Indian helmets gave him the confidence on the eve of big series to nominate, publicly, the opposition batsman he would be targeting. Used by a weaker soul it’s a tactic that could have backfired horribly. But it never did for McGrath. “I figured if they were good enough to beat me at my own game I could live with that,” he says, “but I always had the self-belief I was good enough.”
DEFEND AND PROTECT
Listen up, says McGrath: life can hit much harder than Test cricket. In 2008 his first wife, Jane, died of breast cancer. “Easily the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do is tell my children that their mum was going to pass away a few days before she actually did.” We all have our battles, McGrath says. The key is picking yourself up. He remarried – to Sara – and they’ve had a daughter, Madison, “who’s brought the family even closer”. McGrath feels lucky. And wiser: “Most of the things we worry about,” he says, “just aren’t important.”