McDermott's vigilance needs emulating
Entering the second hour of the morning session, Craig McDermott, Australia's pace-bowling coach, was glimpsed on the boundary's edge at the northern end of the SCG. He was hunched over on bended knee, eyes watchful, body pointing to the pitch. It was not clear whether McDermott was intent on relaying a message to the middle or simply taking notes from behind the wicket, but his presence alone provided Australia's bowlers with a reminder of what they had to do.
In truth James Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle were not doing much wrong in the first place, nipping out the hapless Gautam Gambhir and a penitent Rahul Dravid. But too many deliveries had been allowed to pass, and a minor tightening of method was required. Full balls needed to be fuller, off stump threatened more often, and India's batsmen kept guessing by the occasional short ball. Either side of lunch, such a peak of performance was reached, the trio dumping India from 2 for 55 to 6 for 124. Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar all fell during the period, consigning India to a dire first innings on a glorious day.
Amid general dismay at the visitors' spendthrift batting, there was also admiration - just as there had been in Melbourne - for the way the Australian pacemen went about their work. Immense credit for this had to go to McDermott, who has moulded Australia's quicks very much in his image. Against India, it is arguable that this is precisely the method required down under - 20 years ago, McDermott dominated a series won 4-0 over the tourists, plucking 31 wickets by alternating the full and fast with the short and nasty.
Ever since McDermott replaced Troy Cooley as Australia's bowling coach in mid-winter, the fast men have concentrating more or less on this simplest of methods, with increasingly startling results. His appointment was not met with universal approval, and even after South Africa there were sniggers in various places that McDermott was not the man to be mentoring Pat Cummins, Pattinson and the rest. More than once, the phrase "out of his depth" was used.
This muttering has become altogether more scarce since the start of the home summer, as each innings has brought regular wickets for the quicks via the aforementioned means. Pattinson is the bowler to have spent the most time with McDermott since his appointment, and he also happens to be the taker of 24 wickets at 14.45 in seven completed Test innings. Siddle too has improved, gleaning 29 at 24.82 since his recall to the Test side in the third Test in Sri Lanka.
The bare figures do not quite illustrate the improvement wrought from encouraging the Dandenong duo to abandon the shorter length favoured from them in Victoria. More striking evidence can be found with the eyes, and India's second, third and fourth wickets were memorable examples. Dravid drove at a delivery that seamed into him and squeezed a catch to short leg, Sehwag was coaxed into poking at a full delivery and snicked behind, and Laxman pushed out at one bending just enough away from him to take an edge to third slip. This time last summer all three of those deliveries might have been considered too full, the first and third definitely so.
While the batsmen have been tormented by the bouncing, moving ball of full length, the tail have been bounced without mercy. R Ashwin received a Siddle brute in Melbourne after the captain Michael Clarke had pointed sternly at the badge of his cap, and in Sydney the short-leg fielder Ed Cowan was busier than any Australian in the position since David Boon had been for McDermott and Merv Hughes 20 years ago. Simple as McDermott's dictums are, they are not one-dimensional. The short stuff is well-directed, and full-blooded. Nothing is sent down into the halfway zone that promotes the pull and hook shots, instead being higher and sharper rising to prompt flinching and gloves raised in surrender.
Tails are one thing, but perhaps the most salient illustration of the success engendered by McDermott's advice has been the slim scores registered by Laxman so far. For so long Australia's great nemesis, he has batted three times in the series for all of five runs. Twice he has probed at full deliveries and edged into the cordon, and to the third he flicked a full ball from middle stump into the hands of a man placed neatly by Clarke just forward of square leg. In a trice, the mystique of a man who has routinely tormented Australia for more than a decade has been drastically reduced. While it is true that Laxman is older than before, he is also facing more concerted and organised Australian bowling than at virtually any stage of his career. McDermott the bowler, one senses, may have had his measure.
If anything has detracted from Australia's pace regeneration it is the lack of support from the batsmen. While McDermott and his battery have quietly established a modus operandi proven to succeed, their willow-wielding counterparts have indulged in a batting camp yet still managed to slip into trouble in each innings against India. Though the pitches have offered some help in each case, the muddled methods of the batsmen using them have suggested anything but permanence.
History has been littered with batting aristocrats regarding the grey matter of fast bowlers with scant regard, but for the moment McDermott's simplicity is clearly winning out over the cod psychology and pugilism of his batting equivalent Justin Langer. It is to be expected that the team performance manager Pat Howard will be as vigilant about this as McDermott was at the SCG about his bowlers.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo