November 8, 2011

Billy says get 'em driving

Australia's new bowling coach, Craig McDermott, has been drumming it into his students that they need to get the ball up there and swinging. The results are now starting to show

Isolated to its most fundamental point, cricket could be described as the duel between a bowler tempting a batsman to drive and a batsman trying to ignore that temptation. Save for Bodyline and a few West Indian bouncer wars, this battle has endured across more than 2000 Test matches, often entrancing spectators as much as it has consumed the combatants.

Last summer in Australia, Craig McDermott noticed that the struggle seemed at times to have been won by the England batsmen before it began. Time after time, England's top order were not sufficiently tempted to drive by Australia's fast men, and time after time Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and others settled in happily for the long innings that were crucial to keeping the Ashes in the visitors' possession. Wicketkeeper, slips and stumps, all likely to be involved at the start of an innings, were often little more in it than the crowds were. With the exception of the Perth Test, Australia's bowlers were not posing the questions that the new ball should invite.

The failing was made even plainer during England's time in the field, when their bowlers zipped the ball about from the foundation of a relentless line. In Adelaide, Jimmy Anderson had at best 20 minutes of early swing and seam to exploit before the pitch turned totally placid. He duly accounted for Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke, pushing firmly at full deliveries, and tilted the match inside its first half-hour.

When McDermott took over from Troy Cooley as Australia's bowling coach, it was with a simple but clear policy for change. The pace bowlers had been dropping far too short, particularly early on, robbing themselves of new-ball swing and narrowing the avenues for wickets.

Unlike Cooley, a modest seam bowler with Tasmania before his coaching career blossomed, McDermott had his own record and method to call on, having harnessed speed and swing to harvest 291 Test wickets in one of Australian cricket's more under-sung careers. His early meetings with Australia's bowlers, at a Brisbane training camp and then in Sri Lanka, emphasised the virtues of a fuller length.

"My emphasis has been, and was when I got this job, to have the fittest attack in the world and also have the bowlers, by being the fittest attack in the world, being able to execute for the longest, at that fuller length - therefore we will win Test matches.

"We showed that in Sri Lanka, and I'm sure that if we do that in South Africa with the attack that we have, we will swing the ball, and we'll take a lot of wickets."

In addition to pressing his case in words, McDermott did it with statistics and footage. Tellingly, he requested a change to the team's video analysis parameters, pushing the "good" and "full" lengths on CA's bowling graphics closer to the bat by about a metre to further encourage deliveries that could swing and catch the edge of a probing bat.

This met with some initial scepticism from bowlers raised on the back-of-a-length, fourth-stump mentality favoured famously by McDermott's former pace partner Glenn McGrath, and a host of coaches and bowlers who followed him. Some states, Queensland and more recently Victoria, have excelled at bowling "dry" - a shorter length that gives up the possibility of swing in favour of bounce, preying on an impetuosity that may be found in Australian domestic batsmen but can be far harder to locate among Test cricket's best exponents. For Australia, the results of one of McGrath's few unsuccessful series, when New Zealand's batsmen shouldered arms repeatedly in 2001, had become something like the norm. On his arrival in Sri Lanka, Ryan Harris was taken aback by what McDermott told him.

"I found it really hard to believe that we were not bowling full enough. [McDermott] showed us footage of fuller bowling and where we had been bowling. You can notice the difference"
Ryan Harris on the new length directive

"The length we were brought up to bowl on, for me especially, was probably half a metre too short and you'd see the pitch maps on the TV that show your short, good and full lengths," Harris said. "We go by them and all the coding that's done on the games these days are done on those lengths. I got to Sri Lanka and spoke to him about that and I found it really hard to believe that we were not bowling full enough. He showed us footage of fuller bowling and where we had been bowling. You can notice the difference, and that's something we've worked really hard on and talked a lot about before Sri Lanka."

Balance and personnel were other significant considerations. In earlier years Stuart Clark had been a vital component of the Australian team, bowling tight yet full enough to move the ball in the air, and in Sri Lanka the tourists had Trent Copeland to call on for a similar service. Shane Watson's presence was also useful, as he had found his first genuine success as an international bowler by pitching the ball up and learning to swing it, either by conventional means in England or reverse in the subcontinent. Combined with the speed of Mitchell Johnson and the fledgling spin of Nathan Lyon, Australia's ensemble in Sri Lanka provided a wide selection of attributes. Bolstered by McDermott's direction, they did far better than anyone might have expected.

"I was very happy with the way our pace bowlers and all our bowlers stuck to their plans," McDermott said. "Certainly in the first Test match it was a very spin-friendly wicket, our quicks stuck to a good, fuller length, which has been important to us over the last three or four months, on the back of the way we bowled in the Ashes last year. Nathan Lyon bowled very well in his first Test on a very spin-friendly wicket."

Out in the field, the likes of Harris and Copeland were enthused by the results to be derived from a fuller length and a tight line. Harris was particularly effective, moving the ball both ways at a length that meant a very late adjustment indeed for any batsman to survive. Having taken 11 wickets at 14.54 in the first two Test before a hamstring strain ruled him out of the third, Harris went home intent on bowling fuller in all conditions. As if to ram home the point, he plucked 9 for 83 against Tasmania at the Gabba before flying to Cape Town.

"After doing it and seeing how much difference it can make, how much more the bowler comes into the game, it is going to be very, very beneficial," Harris said. "I found it quite tough, to be honest, to be able to come in and try to bowl fuller, but it was something [McDermott] harped on every time we bowled in Sri Lanka, and eventually we got it right. There was no coincidence that the results went our way and we bowled as well as we did."

Harris is not the only Australian bowler benefiting from a full philosophy. Mitchell Marsh returned from a stint in the national ODI team to swing through 13 batsmen in the space of two matches against Queensland at the WACA ground.

Peter Siddle started the Sri Lanka tour bowling too short and fell behind Copeland by doing so. By the time the third Test came around he had reconfigured, and he has now taken 16 wickets since, at low cost, in a variety of fixtures for his country and state. Mitchell Johnson, swinging the ball in the manner of his pomp, has claimed 20 victims in five matches since he finished up in Sri Lanka.

For a former swing bowler and fellow coach like Damien Fleming, the sight of curling deliveries and driving batsmen has been a tonic. "Each specialist coach is going to want to put their stamp on things, and Billy wants them to bowl fuller and to bowl a little more at training as well," Fleming said. "Someone like Peter Siddle can really benefit from that. Pete's pace is very good, his bouncer's good, his heart's good, but there's been a feeling that he hasn't done a lot with the new ball. He's trying a wider grip to get a stable seam position. It doesn't swing for a long while in Australia, with the Kookaburra, so I don't think you want to be bowling too far outside off stump. You should be attacking off stump on a full length, forcing the batsman to drive and trying to get those nicks behind.

"It's the culture within the team as well. If you've got a swing bowler, you've got to say to him 'Even if you leak runs early, we really want you to get the ball up so they drive it', so if he gets driven a couple of times in the first over, it's not panic stations. If they're good enough to play a couple of cover drives, then you give the batsman a tick.

"A lot of us [former bowlers] in hindsight would say we should've bowled fuller. We were hitting the splice of the bat okay, but conditions were dictating that we should get it up and swing the ball a bit more - that's the beauty of a specialist coach, to be able to say, in a game, 'Boys, we need to be bowling it fuller' and not wait for the review after the match."

In the days before the Cape Town Test, Australia's bowling was questioned by the South Africa A coach, Vincent Barnes. He queried its quality and its fitness, suggesting the hosts' batsmen would not have much trouble at all. "We should go one-nil up in Cape Town," he said. While it remains true that Clarke lacks a bowling attack with the record of some of its predecessors, confidence is growing. This has been greatly aided by McDermott's reversion to a simple philosophy, one that has worked for bowlers since Test cricket began: tempt a batsman to drive and reap the rewards. After a few years of shying away, the battle has been rejoined.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo