McDermott leaves pace renaissance behind
Craig McDermott's contribution to Australian pace bowling over the past four years can be summed up through the story of Peter Siddle. In September 2011, at the time of McDermott's arrival for his first stint as pace-bowling coach, Siddle had played 22 Tests, taking 74 wickets at 32.10 and only eight in his past four matches.
Move forward to 2016 and Siddle is assured of a highly respectable place in Australian cricket history, having passed 200 wickets this summer. Since beginning his association with McDermott, Siddle improved his record markedly: a return of 134 wickets at 28.65 and a strike rate of 60.2 over the period ranks very favourably with any Australian paceman outside the legendary likes of Dennis Lillee, Glenn McGrath and, latterly, Ryan Harris.
For now, Siddle's future is uncertain, as he seeks to recover fitness after back and ankle problems at the age of 31. When he does return, it will be as a mentor as much as a fast man, carrying on much of McDermott's advice now that the older man has parted ways with Cricket Australia.
While his record is not quite spotless - last year's Ashes series blots the copybook of all involved, as does a poor series against Pakistan in the UAE - there has been undoubted progress made in McDermott's time. Siddle's record speaks a wider truth, as Australia regained the hard edge of pace and skill that had been missing for several years before his arrival. At the same time a private goal between pupil and mentor has been achieved.
"Peter was teetering on the edge when I became involved with the side," McDermott told ESPNcricinfo. "We sat down and went through a number of things and he certainly bought into some of the philosophies. We changed a few things with his action, he did all the hard work and I now see him talking to the young fast bowlers about the same things whether it be in state cricket or the national team.
"I remember at warm-ups in Perth during the India series in 2011-12 I said to him 'You're going to be a 200-wicket taker for Australia easily' and I was unbelievably happy when he finally got his 200th Test wicket because it was one of our little private goals we stashed away between us and he finally got there.
"I hope Peter gets over his back and ankle injuries and is back around the team at some stage. He's certainly got a lot to offer cricket in general and a lot to offer young fast bowlers with his experience, his tenacity and his true grit."
McDermott's two spells with the Australian side in 2011-12 and 2013-16 took place after several years of decline in the fortunes of the team's effectiveness as a bowling unit. The 2010-11 Ashes, where the likes of Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell were utterly dominant, sits uneasily in Australian memory.
A simple philosophy demanding the ball be pitched up to tempt the drive, with strong use of the bouncer to muddle footwork in between times, was to bring much improved results for a range of bowlers, from Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus to Harris, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson and, more recently, Josh Hazlewood. As a coach first at the then Centre of Excellence and later the national team, McDermott played a role in both background and foreground.
"There was a fair bit of work done back in those times," McDermott said. "The younger guys that have come through have done work with myself at the academy and other coaches as well around the country, let's not forget there are other coaches who have taken on similar philosophies because they're very simple and they work. Prior to 2011 we'd gone away from that and our bowling was suffering greatly.
"So to be involved with that side at that particular time and work with blokes like Hilfenhaus, Johnson, Siddle in particular really changed the way Peter bowled, and then obviously Patto came on the scene in 2011-12 against New Zealand and India as well. That was really pleasing, and I really enjoyed my time working with Nathan Lyon as well, even though I'm not a spin coach by any stretch I've loved seeing him grow and become Australia's greatest offspinner."
If there is a disappointment to McDermott's era, it is that the cycle of injuries to Australia's pacemen has abated only intermittently. The ability of Siddle, Harris and Johnson to bowl unchanged across the last home Ashes series looks a miracle when lined up against various other ailments for the quicks, and McDermott has conceded there is not much more to be done other than accept the physical toll inherent in the job.
"I really think it's the nature of fast bowling," he said. "We're doing enough to reduce all those things. Having Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris retire for instance puts extra load on other guys and I take my hat off to Josh Hazlewood this year, he's played every Test match bar one in the last 13 months and done a great job. He just continues to improve, I'd been a little bit nervous about him for a while playing so much cricket in 12 months but he's handled that with a spell in one-day games here and there, but not a lot of rest overall.
"If we can do anything it is to get six to eight blokes fully fit all the time, which is a big wish list, you can pick and choose through a four or five-Test series who you're going to play. That can help. But we thought we were in pretty good position this time then Patto got injured, Nathan [Coulter-Nile] popped his shoulder and all those sorts of things really test the depth below. Jackson Bird's gone to New Zealand and bowled very well with the new ball and bowled very good reverse. Patto bowled very well as well, and in that series Josh bowled magnificently without the rewards he deserved."
No bowler sums up the fitness conundrum more so than Pattinson, another bowler McDermott worked particularly closely with. His pattern of injury, rehab, recall, performance and another injury has been repeated more than anyone would like, and McDermott hopes simply that his charge can find the room away from the cricket calendar to build the requisite strength in his legs for the long haul.
"James [Pattinson] has now got his action where he feels very happy with it, and he's now got to get himself strong and fit enough to stay on the park," McDermott said. "The rest he's on now is important as will be getting him ready to possibly go to Sri Lanka. He's a work in progress still, where others like Josh and Mitchell have stepped over that stage. Starcy's ankle impingement is not uncommon, Bruce Reid had one of those, and if you're going to bowl fast, you're going to get some niggles and injuries. Good he's been operated on and can come back better than ever now."
The most promising emergence over the past year has been from a somewhat unexpected source. In the absence of Starc, Pattinson and Pat Cummins, the allrounder Mitchell Marsh has emerged as an impact bowler of considerable hostility. During the recent New Zealand tour he earned promotion from into-the-wind to with-the-wind duty, and his second-innings dismissal of Brendon McCullum in the Wellington Test was rich reward.
"Mitchell Marsh has come along unbelievably well over the last 12 months with his bowling. He's been great to work with and I can only see him becoming a better bowler as he goes forward - I'd just like to see him get some runs!" McDermott said.
"Particularly in Wellington he started bowling into the wind and Smudger [Steven Smith] moved him to bowling with the wind and with Birdy into it, and he got McCullum out last over of the day in the second innings. I think he's really starting to grow and think better as a bowler. His pace has increased over the last six months, he's looking after his body, so he's only going to improve and it'll be interesting to see how he develops."
From here on McDermott will be watching that evolution from a distance, after his contract with CA was not renewed. He is eager to work more fully on an expanding academy business affiliated with numerous Australian tertiary institutions, and will look to expand it overseas also. There will also be time to spend with his wife Ann-Maree and young children Ella, Emma and Zac, and perhaps the odd short overseas coaching stint.
He is unsure who CA will find as his replacement, with the likes of Shane Bond, Ryan Harris and Jason Gillespie touted. Whoever it is, they will find Australian pace stocks in decent shape, and with a strong idea of how to keep it that way.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig