November 11, 2014

'In Australia we moved away from teaching bowlers swing'

Former Australia fast bowler Craig McDermott talks about coaching the country's quicks, understanding spinners, and his favourite fast bowling partners

Play 14:25

Subash Jayaraman: As a fast bowling coach and also a former quick yourself, what do you look for in someone who wants to be a fast bowler?

Craig McDermott: From my point of view, I suppose arm speed and athletic ability, along with the will to want to work hard. If you don't have those three attributes, you are going to struggle to be a fast bowler.

If you look at a young Test fast bowler, one who comes through our ranks, one who is injured at the moment is James Pattinson. He has got good arm speed, good athletic ability, he loves the contest, he works hard, he has a good wrist and can swing the ball both ways, he has good change-ups for the short forms of the game as well. He ticks every box that you would want him to. As does Mitchell Starc to a certain degree. They are certainly two of our better younger bowlers coming along, and then you have Josh Hazlewood, who could have been on this tour, but tore his side in the Australia A tournament against India. They are three of the younger guys, all in the same age group, that I have been working with in the last five years. Certainly they are the guys to look after the mantle, if you want to call it that, after [Mitchell] Johnson, [Peter] Siddle and Ryan Harris disappear from the face of the earth.

SJ: But with these players, playing across various formats in various parts of the world, how do you guard against the injuries that have happened to Pattinson and others?

CM: With Pattinson, it was just a growth thing. His body struggled with the rigours of fast bowling. His action needed some rebuilding, I suppose. We rushed him back last year through T20 cricket, which I think was not a good thing for us to do. This year we are taking our time with him, testing him every two or three weeks with his counter-rotations and lateral flexion measurements. His action has come together really nice, his back foot is totally different from what it used to be. It used to land straight down the wicket, 90 degrees to the back line, and now it is parallel to the back line. Everything else lines up beautifully. He is going to come back better than before. He might even come back faster.

"Mitchell Johnson went away and got the mental side of his game worked out" © Getty Images

SJ: When you first joined the Australian team as a bowling coach there was a distinctive change in their approach to fast bowling. There were definite plans to pitch it up and let the ball swing. It was evident in how Ben Hilfenhaus performed in India, especially. How does the planning process work within a team for a particular series or a season, the type of bowlers, from a bowling coach's perspective?

CM: I don't think anything has changed from WG Grace, to be honest. I think that for me, in Australia, we got away from teaching fast bowlers how to swing a ball and the right length to bowl at this level. Our young fast bowlers, everyone who comes out of Sheffield Shield cricket, bowl too short. It is probably because they bowl a little bit shorter in domestic cricket, because they don't play against better batters. This level brings more precise hitting of the ball, particularly to both sides of the field - players play the ball later. Your variation on your length has to be very minimal. We spend a lot of time on it with the likes of James Pattinson, getting his length right, not just trying to smash the back of length and bowl a ball over the top of off stump.

Siddle's worked really hard on that [since] I first became involved with him, because he was a real bash-the-wicket kind of bowler, didn't swing the ball. He now swings the ball both ways and bowls a fantastic length, and is probably one of the most complete right-arm fast bowlers in the world. It is a pleasure to work with gifted athletes who actually want to listen and improve. That is why every time I get up and go to work, I don't think it is too stressful for me because there are 10-12 blokes who want to be better and are great athletes.

SJ: A listener, Betty from Sydney, wants to know more about your work with Hilfenhaus and what made him so successful, especially during the home series against India in 2011-12.

CM: I think during that series two things came up. His front-foot placement - he was too close to the stumps. He moved his front foot out and that allowed him to bowl over his front foot, not around his front foot. He used to bowl very round arm-ish, and in that particular series, he bowled the right line, which was through the fourth stump, which meant his seam position stood up instead of leaning over. If you have the ball leaning on its side, it will slide to middle and off. So we worked pretty hard on that. Those changes came at lunch time at the Boxing Day Test. It was good that he was on board with the things that we wanted to work on. During that series, he just got better and better. It was a great thing for him to come up with 26 wickets in the series. He bowled very well.

"Once you get to this level, it is not so much about the technical side, it is about the brain ticking over and taking up the challenges and creating problems for the batsman at the other end"

SJ: What about your work with Mitchell Johnson?

CM: I think Mitchell has done the work himself. He went away and got the mental side of his game worked out - that was the biggest thing he had to conquer. He got his action slightly high, that was through a lot of very slow drill work. He does that drill work before every nets session. He walks through a few paces and slides slowly back and back to make sure his release point is right. His seam position has to be in the best possible position for the ball to swing. He has got the out-and-out pace for short-pitched bowling and reverse from around the wicket, in which he has been exceptional.

SJ: Your background is in fast bowling. How do you coach the spinners?

CM: I have been on a bit of a learning curve on this as well. I have been working with Murali [Muttiah Muralitharan] for the past two weeks. It has been great to listen to him talk about bowling the ball and the subtleties of variation across the crease and in speed, and not so much about technique. I am not so much about technique either.

It is like with Mitchell Marsh, whom we are trying to teach to bowl at three spots on the crease, to create angles to the batsman. Once you get to this level, it is not so much about the technical side, it is about the brain ticking over and taking up the challenges and creating problems for the batsman at the other end, whether it is an offspinner bowling one wide of the crease and having a release point at different areas, so you can have different angles with different spin, scrambled seam and that kind of stuff. It is making sure that they can get through their repertoires in their own training so that they can feel comfortable delivering in the heat of the battle.

SJ: Who or what inspired you to become a fast bowler?

CM: I was a fast bowler from the age of eight or nine. I had the gift to be able to bowl quick and I really loved it and I kept on going. I was a fair athlete, as far as athletics go - 400m, 400m hurdles, triple jump, that sort of stuff - and not a bad rugby union player either. Obviously I just kicked a few goals early by getting into Queensland's Shield team at the age of 17 and playing for Australia at the age of 19. I finished early, at 30. I had other things to do. We didn't get paid a million bucks a year, so I got started my own business career.

Over the last five-six years, I've found myself back in cricket. I run my own six private academies in Australia now. We are looking to further that into education in India and Pakistan and hopefully Dubai.

SJ: Fast bowlers generally hunt in pairs. Who did you feel most comfortable bowling with?

CM: From a fast bowler's point of view, I played about 26-28 Tests with Merv Hughes, and I think we got more wickets as an opening partnership than Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson did. There's a bit of trivia for you.

I enjoyed playing with Merv. I certainly enjoyed bowling with Warnie [Shane Warne] at the other end as well. He was obviously attacking and very tight. That was a good partnership. And then Glenn McGrath, who came towards the end of my career. Those three, and at one stage Bruce Reid too for a short period of time. Injury took the best of his career away from him. Merv Hughes would certainly be the No. 1, though.

SJ: Any specific spell that comes to mind, in domestic cricket or in Tests?

CM: I think the best I bowled was in the West Indies in 1991. I was bowling fast and swung the ball. I troubled their best batsmen. I hit a few of them, which made me happy. I probably got crossed off a couple of times but I got my own back. It was probably the best I had bowled, on wickets that weren't made for fast bowling. That was certainly a tough series for us as a team, and for me personally, and I thought I bowled really well.

SJ: Who were the fast bowlers you admired?

CM: Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram. Three different sorts of bowlers, and three different heights too. They were the three guys who were at the pinnacle throughout my career. Malcolm was at the start of my career. He always had a lot of time for young fast bowlers in other teams and other countries, and he taught me a lot. He was a great guy, rest his soul. Wasim was a complete bowler, a great swing bowler who swung the ball both ways, new and old. Curtly Ambrose was just brilliant.

SJ: You reserved your best for the old enemy and did really well against them. Any favourite Ashes memories?

CM: No, not really. My favourite two Tests was when I first got back into the team, in 1990 or 1991, when I got 20 wickets in two Tests. That was a nice bit of cream on the cake for me, after being away from the team for 18 months, working my arse off to get back into the side and get fit. Also, winning that series, and the Ashes in 1993 in England and 1994-95 in Australia before I retired. That was a good series. I bowled well in 1994-95. I was the Man of the Series, took a lot of wickets and scored a couple of runs now and then.

SJ: You were sent in ahead of the established batsmen in the World Cup final in 1987. Do you believe that you could have done more with the bat?

CM: It would have been nice to get more runs. I was sitting there, trying to hit from ball one, which I did a little bit. It would have been nice to come off with a few more runs. But it certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons with the Poms. There were all sorts of signals and talk going on when I walked through the gate, and I suppose that served the purpose.

SJ: When you look back on your playing career and now as coach, how do you think it has panned out?

CM: I am pretty happy with my career - 291 wickets, that is a nice career. We didn't play a lot of Test cricket compared to what they do now. Maybe six to eight Test matches a year. I got through a fair amount. Brett Lee played 79, Dennis Lillee probably around the same, Jason Gillespie played 71 Tests, I think, but got 45 wickets less than me. So I'm pretty happy with where I finished up.

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