September 12, 2012

'T20 is about liking bowling under pressure'

The former Australia bowling coach looks at his time with the side, adapting between formats, and injury management

Craig McDermott enjoyed a fruitful year as Australia's bowling coach, getting results with a simple philosophy based around high fitness and pitching the ball up to the bat, with the occasional bouncer. He departed for personal reasons at the end of the West Indies tour, but is now back on the touring schedule as Ireland's bowling consultant at the World Twenty20.

Looking back at your year with the Australian side, do you think you achieved what you set out to do?
I do think I achieved what I set out to. I was new to some of the guys, hadn't done a lot of work with some of them, but obviously I had a lot to do with James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc. I'd known Ryan Harris, had a little bit to do with Peter Siddle. I set out trying to put down my philosophy on what I wanted to achieve and going about some changes with some of the bowlers from a technical point of view, and also what I expected from a training point of view and what we wanted to achieve as a bowling unit.

How did your plan for the bowling attack develop?
My thinking about the whole thing started during the Ashes the previous summer, where I just thought we weren't bowling well. I thought of the basic philosophies that I took through my career - trying to get it to swing and pitch the thing up. We'd lost the art of trying to swing the ball in Australia and I wanted to get that back. And not just reverse swing, but learning how to swing a ball that's 50 overs old normally rather than just trying to throw the ball into the deck and trying to get it to reverse after 15 or 20 overs. I also wanted to instil in them that we've got to be the fittest guys on the paddock.

That philosophy came through in nobody better than Peter Siddle last year. With a few changes in his grip, his action, his fitness… the proof's in the pudding, with the amount of wickets he got, and he was probably our most prolific swinger of the ball last year.

Siddle was a particular success for you, where you dramatically improved the effectiveness of a bowler who had been considered a known quantity.
Peter really embraced the ideas and the things we spoke about and worked hard at that. When he arrived in Sri Lanka, he really put a lot of work in, along with Patto, who didn't play on that tour. And when Sidds came back to play in the SSC Test match, he didn't bowl brilliantly but he was on his way, and he improved through South Africa, and once he got into full swing in Australia, he bowled very well.

Last year we had a pretty good attack all round, with Ben Hilfenhaus coming back into the fray. We changed a couple of little things with his delivery stride in the Melbourne Test match, and the line he had to bowl to swing the ball, so he had a magnificent summer as well. Patto was going along like a train, and then he got that foot injury in Sydney, and then you've got blokes like Harris and Starc, who chipped in along the way. Starcy's continued his development, bowling well in the UAE.

"Every time you talk to someone, it's not about what they're doing wrong, you've got to actually tell them sometimes that they're doing everything correctly"

Did you force a bit of a shift in thinking by encouraging the bowlers and the captain not to be afraid of the odd driven boundary in terms of the bowlers' lengths and the field settings?
Michael Clarke was very easy to work with from that point of view. He was well and truly on the same page as far as "Let's set the field. We want to have these guys going after us", trying to hit through the covers and creating chances in our slips cordon, gully, backward point, and also obviously not taking away the opportunities of decking the ball back for clean-bowled, like Rahul Dravid. He was clean-bowled five times in the series, which was outstanding. The length we bowled, the line or the channel, that we bowled to that Indian batting line-up was exemplary.

We learned how to be patient and not take a backward step, mixing that good-length bowling with some good short-pitched deliveries as well, to get the batsman thinking, "I can't come forward because I might get one at 145kph up at my beak."

Mitchell Starc is the one making waves at the moment, swinging the ball in the UAE. How do you see his progress?
Mitchell's come along quite well. He had a double side-injury two summers ago, which has impeded his development, and he was probably 12 months behind James Pattinson from that point of view. He bowled pretty well last year for a young guy coming into a Test side against such a good batting side as India were in Perth. He bowled some spells in other games that were very good. In the West Indies he had a no-ball problem in Dominica, and just learning to overcome those in a playing atmosphere is something he's learning to cope with. From what I've seen on TV in the UAE, he's been bowling very well - he's certainly got the ability to be a 150kph bowler and to swing the ball in. So if you can get up around the mid-140s and swing the ball back into a right-hander, you're going to be a handful, particularly when you're coming from about 27 feet tall!

One of the recurring sights of your time with the team was seeing you crouched at long-on to observe, and then offering advice around the boundary.
It was an important thing I did with our bowlers, no matter who they were, and they never said "Don't come around the boundary" or anything like that. Sometimes I'll pick something up, whether it be visually or on a replay, on where something can be improved, or just to give the assurance that everything is going all right. Every time you talk to someone, it's not about what they're doing wrong, you've got to actually tell them sometimes that they're doing everything correctly. At some stages you need to give them a pat on the back. It's just the way I like to coach.

There appeared to be sadness on both sides when you finished up after the West Indies tour for personal reasons. Do you see yourself returning to work with Cricket Australia in the future?
I said when I stepped down that I had some things I wanted to deal with personally. While I was doing that, I worked at the CoE and worked with the Australian Institute of Sport intake this year, and also with the Under-19s leading in to the World Cup. Then I had a couple of weeks off and the opportunity came up to work with Ireland here.

I'm keeping my options open. If something becomes available with CA, that's fine, I look forward to that. I loved working with the team, and the players I worked with, both from a bowling and batting point of view, were fantastic. I wanted some flexibility at the time and that's just the way I decided to go.

I just want to be a better coach. I want to experience other staff - even with the Irish team, different guys to work with from a strength and conditioning point of view, a physio point of view, Phil Simmons as a head coach. Everybody here thinks differently about how to mould a team, how to keep a team on the park, all those things are part of an ongoing learning process as a coach.

One of the best things I've done as a coach over the last four or five years is coaching at junior level, away from the elite game. Coaching young kids, whether they be 12, 13, 14, 15, has actually helped my coaching at a higher level more than anyone will ever know.

That seems to be a good age at which to make changes to a bowler's action, rather than trying to change what they're doing in a major technical sense once they've reached the top level.
That is the case with the likes of Pattinson, Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Peter George, Ben Cutting, Alister McDermott, Kane Richardson. The influence you can have over kids at 13, 14, 15 is massive - that's the time to be changing and working with their actions, rather than waiting until they're at an elite programme level. We need to influence that at a lower level, so we need to spend some time and effort in coach education at a younger level, to make sure the philosophies that we're teaching or trying to get our players to implement at first-class level or first-grade level are taught to them when they're 13 or 14.

While the Test team excelled under your watch, the limited-overs sides were inconsistent. Do those formats require a shift in approach?
For one-day cricket I don't think the philosophy changes a hell of a lot. Execution is one of those things, but we had a lot of changes in our one-day team last year. We didn't have a lot of time with the way our triangular series was set up. We were playing Friday and Sunday and going home for two days and coming back. We didn't get a lot of time to work players, put some extra work in. If I had my time over again with that structure in the tri-series, we wouldn't have gone home for the period of time we did.

In the West Indies particularly, Ben Hilfenhaus didn't play a lot of one-day cricket, so I spent a lot of time with him on his yorker bowling, trying to get his confidence back with being able to execute that delivery, and to work harder on his slower ball. When he went away to the IPL, I said to him, "If you don't get to play a lot there, you've got to continue the work we've done on your execution of these balls if you want to develop into a T20 or a one-day bowler, particularly bowling at the death." He had a terrific IPL and now he's back in the T20 side for Australia. I take my hat off to him for getting back there.

Twenty20 is the format you're going to be concerned with for the next few weeks. What do you think is the key to bowling well under the pressure of aggressive batsmen?
It's about being able to be comfortable under pressure to be able to execute your best ball at the time. It's a basic thing you have to do - you've got to like bowling under pressure, I believe. You've just got to practise the balls you deliver best, to make sure you can execute when you are under the pump and you've got a guy who's going well down the other end. It's being able to relax at the top of your mark and then execute that.

How do you look at Australia's programmes around pace bowling now, in terms of minimising injuries in particular?
I think they're on the right track. Certainly the Australian bowlers do bowl a lot. A lot of ex-players said our bowlers didn't bowl a lot, but they actually do bowl a hell of a lot at training. Some of the sessions we had last summer, when our bowlers bowl, they bowl with high intensity. Alex Kountouris did a great job of keeping guys on the park who weren't injured seriously, along with Stuart Karppinen.

"One of the best things I've done as a coach over the last four or five years is coaching at junior level, away from the elite game. Coaching young kids, whether they be 12, 13, 14, 15, has actually helped my coaching at a higher level more than anyone will ever know"

They're monitoring it pretty well. I think they're doing a pretty good job. There's a lot of cricket and a lot of travel. Injuries will happen but they're less prevalent these days per thousand overs in Test matches than they were ten years ago. It's the amount of cricket they're playing, the high intensity they're playing at, that creates these problems.

What of the increase in individual planning for bowlers to play certain matches and miss others?
That's all fine to plan like that but natural attrition takes care of that planning. So you can say you're going to play a bloke in Tests one and three and he'll get injured and won't play three. Or he'll play one and two and want a rest for the third. There were all sorts of things put in place last year about certain players being rested and so forth but natural attrition took care of that. Blokes get injured. If you look at the injuries that happened last summer through Test cricket, one-day cricket, T20 cricket, we had blokes injured throughout the whole summer.

Australia's in the UAE and embarking on a massive amount of cricket through to the end of the second Ashes in Australia, and I would've thought it's more like 10-12 bowlers they're going to need to get through that period and manage them well, which they will.

Pattinson, Cummins, Brett Lee, Shane Watson, all came home out of a one-day series in England, not for any reason other than they got injured playing cricket. All the best planning in the world goes out the window if someone gets injured. You can say, "I'm going to rest a player here" but he might have to play because another bloke they weren't going to rest gets injured.

Is the increasingly hectic nature of the schedule the biggest change from when you played?
It is a bit more high-intensity from an international perspective. We didn't play as much international cricket; we played a lot more tour games, which you don't click into as hard as a Test match or a one-day game. My first Ashes series [in 1985], I think we played six Tests, three one-dayers and about 16 county games. You're not as intense in those [side] games, and there's a lot more travelling. Tours were a little bit more elongated then, so you had more rest. Looking at our Australian summer last year, we played four Tests against India, two back to back, a bit of a rest, then two more back to back. That didn't happen in my day either. It's different programming now, and I don't think it's fair to compare eras. I know a lot of ex-players like to do that, and I would have been one of those ex-players had I not been involved in Australian cricket for the last four years on a hands-on basis.

Your son Alister has recently been elevated to the Australian limited-overs squad. That must be a source of pride both as his father and because he's done it by bowling more or less in the manner you've advocated?
He's done very well. He's trained very hard, he's fit, he looks after himself and he moves the ball. He's picked up some pace in the last 12-18 months. Alister's 21 now, so certainly from 18 through to 24, your body's getting stronger and getting harder. He's gained a bit of pace and it's good to see that his hard work is paying off. He's got a run in some squads now, through that war of attrition I've been talking about. He's got a younger brother, Ben, who was in the Under-18s talent squad at the CoE last year as a batter and keeper, so I'm pretty happy with where both my sons sit at the moment.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo