Back to the future for McDermott
Ten days ago, Craig McDermott returned to Australia feeling a little downbeat. After mentoring Australia's Under-19 bowlers in a quadrangular tournament in India, he had wanted to stay on to work with the senior team for their ODI series against the hosts, an earlier offer knocked back by Cricket Australia. As far as McDermott was aware, he remained at arm's length from the national team, offering only occasional help via the Centre of Excellence. The flight home seemed a journey away from where he wanted to be.
But a few hours after his arrival in Brisbane, McDermott's phone buzzed with a message from Darren Lehmann, asking him to meet with the national coach and the team performance manager Pat Howard. Soon enough, he was handed the role to coach Australia's Test match bowlers, with preparations for the Ashes in his immediate sights. Recalling the earlier conversations about India, McDermott chuckled. "Those things are always planned well and truly ahead of schedule, so maybe they were already talking about things behind closed doors," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I don't really know..."
Whatever their sense of timing, Howard and Lehmann had not forgotten the way McDermott worked tellingly with fast bowlers young and old in 2011 and 2012, a phase in which Australia's pacemen had been the most incisive in the world. Nor had the bowlers themselves, who within minutes of McDermott's appointment being announced, flooded their former coach's phone with messages. The strength of those relationships will be as useful to Australia's bid for the Ashes as the clear and fruitful advice that had won their trust in the first place.
"I'm really looking forward to getting back with the boys. I've had Sidds, Patto, John Hastings and a few other guys contact me already, so it's great that they're happy I'm back and that I've been appointed and they're contacting me," he said. "So that's a positive start from my point of view. I've kept track of the Ashes and some of their one-day and T20 cricket, so I'm up to speed with where everybody's up to.
"It'll just be good to get around the states in a week or so's time when I start to see some Sheffield Shield matches and some practice sessions prior to Shield matches. I'll make sure that guys are up to speed and talking through any technical things we might want to look at as well and make sure we're back on track from where I left it 15 months ago, the mantra and all that sort of stuff I set out for the lads. On their side of it as well they accepted where we wanted to head on certain ideas, and also Michael Clarke embraced that very well as well."
All that good feeling and mutual understanding does not disguise the fact that McDermott's task is a hefty one. While Australia's bowlers fared better than their batsmen in England, heavy workloads during the series and repeated defeats across two series overseas, have sapped the pace battery of strength. James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Jackson Bird are unavailable, while Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris are creaking rustily back into gear. Ben Hilfenhaus remains sturdy, and Mitchell Johnson has been swerving the white ball at speed. But much remains to be done to return the attack to the heights they scaled against India two summers ago while avoiding the pitfalls of the 2010-11 Ashes series at home.
"We certainly want to make sure we get to what we were doing 18 months ago," McDermott said. "That's my focus. I'm not too bothered about the previous Ashes series in Australia. We improved on that and we've shown we can do it, so we just need to have four, six, eight guys knocking the door down and bowling well to give the selectors some variation and some things to think about when it comes to what wickets we're dealt with.
"In Brisbane do we play four quicks if the wicket's good enough, or do we play three and a spinner and Shane Watson or whatever it happens to be. They're things the selectors have to sort out, but my job is to get our blokes bowling well with the red ball … and that doesn't stop somebody else in Shield cricket knocking the door down by getting a lot of wickets in those early Shield games because you need guys who are in form."
McDermott's pace bowling tenets have always been simple. When he was first appointed in mid-2011 he advocated accuracy, a fuller length and the rediscovery of swing. When consulting in Brisbane on the pre-Ashes camp, he told the squad members "be prepared to be boring" in sending down ball after ball in the right spot. Now he will be working with the states to ensure the selectors' nominated eight fit fast men are thinking simply and clearly, while also helping to plan that none are unnecessarily blown out by a domestic schedule featuring six Shield matches in as many weeks.
"It's always good to have plans, but injuries always upset plans don't they?" McDermott said. "We've got to make sure we've got those guys fit as well as the next echelon below that, so if we do get two or three injuries like we do have with Pattinson, Cummins and Starc, that we've got other guys who can take over from them and bowl well in Test cricket. That's part of my role as well, to make sure the next lot down are preparing for possibly injuries and coming to the fore in Test cricket. I've had a fair bit to do with most of those bowlers, whether it be through Australia A, the CoE and the Australian set-up."
At the same time, McDermott will work in concert with Ali de Winter, the man who replaced him last year. Howard has indicated their split roles may be the first of several across formats, allowing support staff to spend a little less time on the road as the composition of the teams also diverge. Both McDermott and de Winter are contracted until the end of the World T20 in Bangladesh next year, before a break that will allow the former to work on a few of the projects he built up between national team stints.
"It'll be interesting to see where it unfolds," McDermott said. "I'm through until after the World T20 and so is he, and then we'll just see where it all leads after that. But they look like they're heading towards that track and then next year it there's four months off in the FTP, so that allows me to run my Billy's Cricket Academies as well and do some work with Australia A and also the CoE. It's a pretty good mixture I can see for the next 9-12 months."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here