Sportscene: Paceman on a different track

Sportscene: Paceman on a different track

The zinc cream on his cheekbones and lips, flaming red hair and his vociferous appeals to umpires only added to his persona as a fast bowler. Craig McDermott didn’t evoke the awe of his predecessor Dennis Lillee for his raw pace nor did he possess the nagging accuracy of his successor Glenn McGrath but he did enough to carve a niche for himself. A total of 494 international wickets (Test and ODIs combined) bear testimony to his accomplishment as a fast bowler but the renaissance of pure pace in Australia under his watch is an equally a fascinating story.

Two years after he quit as the Australian team’s fast bowling coach, which saw the re-emergence of Mitchell Johnson, McDermott is coaching the young aspirants in his country and abroad. The 53-year-old is quite happy with the general state of fast bowling around the world even as he refuses to compare eras.

“There are tremendous pace bowlers around the world now. It’s hard to compare eras, West Indies probably don’t have the pace bowlers they used to have, but India have got some good young fast bowlers. It’s exciting to see some young fast bowlers come up. I was in South Africa with Australia (in 2015) when (Kagiso) Rabada came on the scene.”

McDermott himself helped in the development of pacers like James Pattinson, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc as the coach at Australia’s Centre of Excellence and revived the careers of Johnson and Siddle as Australia’s fast bowling coach. It was during his two stints with the National team between 2011 and 2016 that Australia beat India at home, regained the Ashes in 2013 with a 5-0 whitewash and won the 50-overs World Cup for the record fifth time.   

“I was working in the Centre of Excellence in 2009 and we were just about to play England in the Ashes series, and I did some work with the Australian bowlers before the first Test match and I was quite alarmed that we just couldn’t hit the good length,” McDermott pointed out on how his journey as Australia’s pace coach began. “I actually said to Greg Chappell, who was the selector at that time, that if we bowl in the first Test match that we bowled in the practice, we are going to get smashed in the series. And it got only worse as the series went on.”

From 2009 to 2013, England won three consecutive Ashes series before the turnaround came in 2013-14 contest when Johnson was at his fiery best, helping Australia rout England 5-0.   

“On the back of that (the defeats) I was given the opportunity to be the pace coach of Australia. I didn’t have the rocket science to the plan which we went about; all I wanted the bowlers to do was we could bowl the right lengths – the length that they thought was right compared to what I thought where it should be, a good metre and half (fuller). I repeated it many times until we got it right, we started to swing the ball. We bowled better off-cutters, we got the seam position right. Peter Siddle was the biggest change in the first nine to ten months of my tenure. We beat India 4-0 in 2011-12 and that was sort of turnaround, and I suppose the re-emergence of our pace attack and that was all about the thought process,” he explained.

Johnson was simply unplayable, inducing the fear of God among English batsmen as he alloyed his pace and aggression with his accurate bouncers and swing. The left-arm quick claimed 37 wickets in five Tests at a meagre average of 13.97 runs per wicket and a strike rate of 30.5 balls every wicket. McDermott rates Johnson’s performance in that series as good as any fast bowling show in a Test series.  

“His bowling in that series was as good as any whether we were playing England or India or whoever else, he would have smashed anybody in that particular series,” he recalled. “He bowled fast and the Poms were scared, to be honest. There were a few who really struggled against his pace and aggression. Jonathan Trott was struggling and Alastair Cook as well and that he hadn’t done before that. And Mitchell was coming back from injury and he hadn’t bowled well in a couple of Ashes previously, and so it was a great thing for him and a great series for us,” he elaborated.         

What exactly did he do differently to be so successful?

“Johnny (Johnson) bowled fuller, but he bowled more aggressively than he ever before,” he emphasised.

“He was bowling fast, I mean every ball. In the past when he bowled fast, he didn’t have his arm position as high as he should have had it, didn’t concentrate on if his arm position was low. He bowled flatter and so he was easy to hit if he didn’t swing the ball. And that’s because his arm path was lower, and because of which his seam position was terrible, and he didn’t swing the ball.

“So, he went away, he worked on his game, he lengthened his run-up, gave himself better rhythm. He bowled with aggression, he bowled good lengths and he swung the ball, he hadn’t swung the ball for ages. He bowled some unplayable balls to Alastair Cook that smashed middle or off-stump. Did the same to (Stuart) Broad and (James) Anderson. And Poms weren’t the same players, he made them look silly.”

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