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McGrath earns chance of perfect finish

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Glenn McGrath always seemed to walk half a step behind Shane Warne in one of the outstanding partnerships in the history of cricket. On Saturday, though, he has a chance to equal Warne in reaching a perfect conclusion to his international career.

Warne finished by helping Australia complete only its second ever 5-0 Ashes whitewash of England at Sydney in January. McGrath concludes by playing against Sri Lanka in the World Cup final in Bridgetown, Barbados. Victory would complete an unprecedented Australian hat-trick. It would also, like that Ashes victory, be revenge for one of the very few significant defeats of his career, in this case, Sri Lanka's victory over Australia in the 1996 final.

The 'partnership' label is usually confined to players with similar functions - opening batsmen like Australia's Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist or quick bowlers who share the new ball as McGrath did for several years with Jason Gillespie.

Paceman McGrath and spinner Warne often bowled at different times and were favored by different conditions. There is no doubt, though, that opponents saw them as a pair - the two bowlers who between them terrorized world cricket over more than a decade of Australian hegemony. If both were playing, Australia was all but invincible.

That half step behind reflected both a less flamboyant personality and the difference between an exceptional player and a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. Measured by any other standards other than those set by Warne - who was voted one of the five greatest cricketers of the 20th century - McGrath, 37, has had a remarkable career.

He has been the pre-eminent fast bowler of his generation. His 563 wickets in five-day tests are the most ever by a paceman. The 70 he has taken in World Cups are an all-time record for any bowler. He has never been ultra-quick but he combined aggression, unerring accuracy and ability to use his 6-foot-5, or 1.96-meter, frame to make the ball bounce.

Allegedly unsentimental, Australians are increasingly wont to stage elaborate farewells for their cricketing greats. Yet McGrath's place in the team is anything but a reward for past services.

He remains the keystone of Australia's bowling. His three wickets in Wednesday's semifinal against South Africa in St. Lucia took his total for this World Cup to 25, the most ever in a single tournament. He tore out South Africa's middle order, starting with its most gifted batsman, Jacques Kallis. With South Africa reduced to 27 runs for 5 wickets there was no longer any chance that it would set a challenging target. That fact was recognized in the award of the Man of the Match trophy to McGrath.

One possible rival for that prize was Australia's young quick bowler Shaun Tait. He took four wickets to ensure South Africa progressed no further than 149. Tait is 24 and exceptionally fast. He is not always accurate and can be very expensive. Australia has been able to take risk him because it knows McGrath will pressure batsmen from the other end. It has been rewarded. Tait's 23 wickets in the tournament are second only to McGrath, and equal with Sri Lanka's prodigious spinner Muttiah Muralitharan.

The contrast with South Africa's bowling was stark. You could admittedly assemble an all-world battery of bowlers and see it fail to stop Australia when it needs only 150 to reach a World Cup final.

Individually there is nothing wrong with any of its bowlers. Shaun Pollock has for much of his career been McGrath's closest rival in accuracy and efficiency, if not quite in bounce and aggression. Charl Langevelt, Kallis, Andre Nel and Andrew Hall can all bowl out top international batsman.

As a group, though, there is a sameness about them: right-armers delivering the ball at 80-85 mph, or 128-136 kilometers an hour. There is no one to supply the forked lightning of Tait, the different angles provided by Nathan Bracken's left-arm pace or the lively spin supplied by Brad Hogg at the end of a run-up so relaxed that it suggests a man taking his dog for a walk rather than someone bowling in international cricket. These are all options for Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting.

All this and McGrath too. Little wonder that Australia's batsmen prospered where South Africa had struggled, and eased to a seven-wicket victory. Less still that Australia is now six for six in World Cup semifinals, while South Africa is zero for three.
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