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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

Daniel Brettig

November 8, 2011

Comments: 35 | Text size: A | A

Craig McDermott and Brett Lee chat during a training session, Cape Town, October 12, 2011
Craig McDermott: full is fabulous © Getty Images

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.

Ryan Harris follows through, Queensland v Tasmania, Sheffield Shield, day two, October 26 2011
Ryan Harris reaped the benefits of a fuller length against Tasmania, against whom he took nine wickets before the South Africa tour © Getty Images

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

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Posted by Meety on (November 10, 2011, 5:41 GMT)

@zenboomerang - Christian already has played for Oz, spose you mean ODIs or Tests. I'd blood him in my ODI side. He has a bit to do with his batting before I'd have hm in my test side, could be a good replacement for Wato?

Posted by RandyOZ on (November 9, 2011, 22:16 GMT)

@zenboomerang, brilliant call on Dan Christian, he is an absolute gun I can't believe he hasn't been in the squad before. So glad all our talent is home grown. Would suck to be English!

Posted by   on (November 9, 2011, 14:56 GMT)

@yavaid....a word of advice....think before you post, quite frankly you come across as an ill-mannered, ill-informed individual.....It's incredible the amount of England bashing that goes on in these boards and I'm personally staggered that the moderating team allow it!.....Anyhow, the selectors of ANY national team will pick the best 11 players available to them, regardless of place of birth..... end of argument!!! You infer that the ECB abuse the qualification system?...what absolute rubbish, what about all these so called Kolpak players who signed contracts with English county teams, the gist being that it turn for English County qualification and the large salary that goes with it, they renounce their intention to play international cricket for their nation, as soon as the counties backs are turned, said kolpak players goes back on his word and plays for his national team...Now thats what I call abusing the qualification system!!

Posted by hhillbumper on (November 9, 2011, 13:36 GMT)

I am glad to be corrected and was more responding to the constant Jibes of South Africa a.Indeed the Uk is very multicultural and am very proud of this. I do think it is a shame that there are not more native australians and historically the treatment of aboriginal players has been somewhat shameful.

Posted by zenboomerang on (November 9, 2011, 7:34 GMT)

@Vic Nicholas... well said... I knew many of these & was in the stage of replying to an ignorant poster when your post came up... Dan Christian will probably play for Aust at some stage & has aboriginal heritage as well... Great cricketer & great Aussie... Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world & with the least social conflict... Says it all really...

Posted by unregisteredalien on (November 9, 2011, 5:39 GMT)

@Vic Nicholas, are all of those true and verifiable? If so, very interesting and quite a few surprises!

Posted by waughjunior on (November 9, 2011, 4:18 GMT)

The only problem we have is that our best swing bowler in the side is also our opening bat.

Posted by   on (November 9, 2011, 3:55 GMT)

@hhillbumper: Clearly, you have no clue. the Australian team IS multicultural. The difference is, our boys are home grown, not imported after they have played for SA U19's. Try this: Simon Katich (Croatian origin), Phil Hughes (Italian mother), Shane Warne (German mother), Lennie Pascoe (Macedonian parentage), Ricky Ponting (Chinese origin), Jason Gillespie (Chinese, Aboriginal and Greek origin), Carl Rackemann (German), Andy Bichel (German), Michael Kasprowicz (German), Scott Muller (German), Stuart Clark (Anglo Indian), Michael Bevan (Sri Lankan Burgher origin), Jason Krejza (Polish and Czech parentage), Dirk Nannes (Dutch parentage) Usman Khawaja (Pakistan born)...judging by Mitchell Johnsons olive complexion, I would think that he almost certainly has non Anglo Celtic origins as well. To suggest that any Australian sporting team is not multi cultural is simply ignorant of the fact that Australia is a nation of immigrants.

Posted by   on (November 9, 2011, 3:15 GMT)

A pace bowler should generally be aiming, whether you call the delivery full or back of a length, to pitch the ball so it will hit the top of off stump. This means pitching on a length where the batsman is not sure whether to play forward or back. If the batsman plays back, he risks being bowled or lbw. If he plays forward, and the ball swings or seams, he risks being caught. This is not rocket science.

Posted by HatsforBats on (November 9, 2011, 2:54 GMT)

@ hhillbumper; there's a big difference between having a multicultural side and a multinational team. If the Australian test team isn't that strong at the moment, at least we still depend on Australian players produced in the Australian first class system. If you're ok with poaching players from Ireland & South Africa to fill the gaps in your national team, good luck to you.

Posted by RandyOZ on (November 9, 2011, 2:34 GMT)

@whippersnapper, well said. England are shaking in their boots. Our plethora of young stars is gonna whitewash the next Ashes series. With the amount of young talent McDermott better not stuff up otheriwse he'll be remember in the same vein as hilditch. No amount of South Africans will save England from another Ashes pumping as they have been exposed to for the past 120 years. The wheels are already starting to fall off in England, I mean just look at their recent effort in india - zero bench strength!

Posted by hhillbumper on (November 8, 2011, 22:43 GMT)

For all the aussies on here saying that your pace attack is great.Dream on. Mitchell Johnson is the greatest left arm net bowler ever. As for Jonesey 2 mate you are living in a dream world.All of those inning defeats last year were just bad luck I suppose. As for the jibes about having a multi cultural team Maybe you should try it.

Posted by whippersnapper on (November 8, 2011, 22:28 GMT)

Bitter Clive_Dunn? You'd better believe it. Australians hate to lose. More so than anyone else. They'll be back on top sooner than people seem to think. And when they're back on top they'll stay there.

Posted by Juiceoftheapple on (November 8, 2011, 20:56 GMT)

Fascinating and mouth watering series between SA and Aus. SA look strong, and the possibility of an Aus team now well drilled. But TWO tests, utter utter disgrace. The cricket boards of AUS and SA need to stop pandering to the whimsical T20 merry go round.

Posted by   on (November 8, 2011, 20:05 GMT)

Siddle is the main culprit. I still don't get how he can't figure it out. He killed it in the first Ashes test by pitching it up and then reverts to his back of the length stuff afterwards and gets no wickets. And it still a see it to believe it regarding him as I noticed in the SA A game he again was pitching it short and no surprise where the ball went.

Posted by Clive_Dunn on (November 8, 2011, 19:43 GMT)

Ah it's good to see that the Aussies are still bitter, does it still hurt ?

Harris is the best of the bunch but will never have a long career, that knee is chronic and in all honesty he probably shouldn't be playing test cricket. MJ will give you one good test every 2 years, and Siddle is a pie chucker of the highest order. Better pace attack than England ?

Posted by spence1324 on (November 8, 2011, 17:45 GMT)

@Yavaid,transition is just an excuse used by teams that get beaten a lot (Australia,sri lanka etc) the basic's of the game have not change in 120+ years which is to put a team out (your best one) and try and win,if you lose that is because the other team is better!, plus if england have been useless for 30+years(your quote) then way have we one the last 3 out of 4 ashes series? trust me when I say that we are not trembling at the knees when we play you again,who are you going bowl us out with Steven smith ah ah!

Posted by AnyoneButVettel on (November 8, 2011, 17:12 GMT)

Bring Hilfy back. @Jonesy2: Can't agree with you mate.

Posted by couchpundit on (November 8, 2011, 14:05 GMT)

@Arron Dore and (les knowledgable) English Fans - Empty vessels make more noise...just wait and see when you clash with Aussies again. You won ashes this time because of Transition (poor one at that) in Aussie Test Team.

Let me remind you that you were pumelled for 20-30 years on the trot.

So Lets wait and see about the greatness of English Pacers ..oh and the South Africna Batsmen who are won few matches for England . LOL if not for South African and other Non-english players..you know what this english team would be.

till you have true English Talent Just shut it.

LOL @ so called English

Posted by   on (November 8, 2011, 12:16 GMT)

@jonesy2....'harris and johnson are better than every english bowler'....hmm....interesting point, and almost correct.....harris & johnson are better than every english bowler................apart from Anderson, Broad, Tremlett, Bresnan, Finn, Onions et al....lol

Posted by LesGrossman on (November 8, 2011, 11:53 GMT)

wow jonesy2, how do you get it so wrong all the time?

Posted by analyseabhishek on (November 8, 2011, 11:06 GMT)

What worked for Mcgraw need not work for everyone else. He had the special talent of bowling exceptionally accurate and extracting bounce plus his height. On the other hand, Stuart Broad, of the same vertical limit, was very effective against India at home when he bowled fuller.

Posted by srjepson on (November 8, 2011, 10:53 GMT)

"...all the coding that's done on the games these days are done on those lengths.". A machine can't tell if you are bowling a good length, only that you are bowling a consistent one. Different pitches, different lengths. Different pace, different lengths. Australia didn't adapt to home conditions in the Ashes, where, Gabba apart, the wet summer gave more 'English' conditions.

CapeTown tends to spin, Wanderers to swing. Let's see how Australia's bowlers adapt.

Posted by   on (November 8, 2011, 10:06 GMT)

They won here last time doing it, so its not new. SA is the only place left where Aus can swing it a they don't need to generate it as it comes naturally in these conditions.

I know he the Hilf is not in the team now but he would be a lethal bowler if he drew in the batsmen from a bit wider on the crease instead of swinging it out straight from the hand, which has to be perfect as the batsmen can shoulder arms at anything on or outside off. The only time he looked dangerous during the Ashes was when he was forced to go wide as there was a hole at the crease where he normally bowls from. Even then the penny didn't drop. How he did not try anything new after going wicketless for so many balls for long periods of the summer defies belief and is a massive indictment on our coaching staf

Posted by   on (November 8, 2011, 9:12 GMT)

The only fly in the ointment of course is what if the ball doesn't swing? The bowlers have problems. Secondly, most bowlers trying to swing the ball who are not used to it, tend to 'put' the ball there rather than bowl it. This serves up half volleys that get creamed. It isn't a driving length, but a defensive length - and that is not quite as full as people think.

The best way to bowl swing is to still hit the lengths hard and draw the batter forward when he doesn't want to.

Posted by blackjesuz on (November 8, 2011, 8:15 GMT)

Jonesy did you not watch the ashes? i am an australian fan through and through but in world are any of the Aussie bowlers better than any england bowler, Australia took this long to work out you have to bowl fuller? what kind of ridiculous nonsense is that for an international team? All england bowlers bowled fuller, swung and it and had more accuracy, there is immense potential in their current and future crop, but its troubling that they need a coach to work out you need to bowl fuller..

Posted by   on (November 8, 2011, 8:01 GMT)

@ Jonesy2 "harris and johnson are better than every english bowler" Are they? Do you live in some parallel universe were Australia won the most recent ashes by out bowling the England quicks? I really do wonder if you actually watch cricket.

Posted by zenboomerang on (November 8, 2011, 6:50 GMT)

Billy was a great bowler at a time when we really needed someone & coming in at Test level at 19 shows what youth can bring to a team... About time CA got a decent bowling coach who will work the bowlers more & improve line & length... The SA batters don't know anything about playing Ryan Harris in Test conditions with his reverse swing with the old ball & who will love the conditions... Same goes for Watson, Copeland, Cummins, Lyon... Hope either Copeland or Cummins get the nod before Siddle... Siddle has his days as does Johnson & we don't need both having a bad Test together... That happened too regularly during the Ashes series... Need consistency from the pace group...

Posted by jonesy2 on (November 8, 2011, 5:42 GMT)

just wondering, on paper who has a better fast bowling attack than australia? not england, harris and johnson are better than every english bowler. i wouldnt say south africa because apart from steyn harris and johnson are better than the rest, so overall i would say australia. the only thing is australia's bowling personal have been mixed up too much in the recent past but i think that those problems are over with guys like cummins, pattinson adding onto copeland and siddle. australia have to most depth that is for sure.

Posted by HatsforBats on (November 8, 2011, 4:57 GMT)

Again this just begs the question; what has the coaching group been doing over the last few years? (Questions could also be asked of the value of Langer as batting coach). For as long as Aus have been slipping all we've heard is "the boys are trying really hard", "the boys are bowling really fast" or "they're bowling really well in the nets". It also reinforces the opinion that England's 2005 bowling success came down to individual talent and some Murray's Mints, rather than the All-Knowing Swing Sage Cooley. Barnes' comments can be taken with a grain of salt: all the Aus quicks have good stamina and there is virtually nothing between the attacks. Morkel is like Johnson, awesome or awful, but I would prefer Copeland/Siddle to any 3rd seamer SA pick. Harris has been a revelation so far (better avg and slightly higher SR than Steyn) and even with his injuries, it's only a 2-test series. The spinners are an unknown and much will depend on the conditions.

Posted by Nihontone on (November 8, 2011, 4:52 GMT)

Sounds like common sense to me. At the heart of it, cricket is a pretty simple game that has become far more complicated than it needs to be.

Posted by Meety on (November 8, 2011, 4:50 GMT)

Very promising stuff, interesting link with Mitch Marsh & his National stint. Harris at the Gabba was interesting too - I wonder if he bowled back of a length would he have exploited the perfect conditions for pace bowling? Not sure if Copeland should be bowling it up too much, but he is due for some wickets soon, I get the feeling though he will miss out on the 1st Test for Siddle. Our bowling stocks really are looking good.

Posted by thetopofoff on (November 8, 2011, 4:44 GMT)

"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."

Geez do we really need specialist coaches to tell the bowlers this? How about 'thinking on your feet' as a bowler...I thought if you made it to test level, you'd have grown up learning to bowl and know something as simple as identifying when to pitch it up - which is, and here's a clue - ALWAYS!

Posted by Mossop1313 on (November 8, 2011, 3:45 GMT)

Gosh . . . . pitch the ball up, get it to move, get the batsmen drivng and bring the slips into play - who'da thunk it!!!

Posted by Ben1989 on (November 8, 2011, 3:36 GMT)

very good article, interesting comments from Vincent Barnes, I don't see SA bowling attack having someone like Copeland, whom can bowl a 10 over spell with no issue's & he questions our guys fitness...... MJ's fitness has always been good regardless of anything else & Harris doesn't need to bowl long spells, as he'll be picking up cheap Saffa wickets everytime he come's on to bowl, funnily he also questions the quality after being skittled below 200 without our front line bowler, lets wait for the test tomorrow & see then ay...

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Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.

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