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Feature

Andrew McDonald, the quiet achiever

Even more than his record of success, Andrew McDonald's style of coaching stands out

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
14-Apr-2022
Andrew McDonald and Pat Cummins worked well together in Pakistan

Andrew McDonald and Pat Cummins worked well together in Pakistan  •  Getty Images

It's hard to miss Andrew McDonald. The shock of red hair stands out in the crowd atop his 6-foot 4-inch frame.
But as a cricketer he was unassuming. A role player, whose unerringly accurate military mediums and technically correct middle-order batting helped Australia win three of the four Tests he played, and Victoria four Big Bash titles (prior to the BBL), a Sheffield Shield and a 50-over domestic title. He also won a T20 Blast with Leicestershire and a Sri Lankan Premier League title.
His playing career spanned generations. He played with Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting but also played alongside Pat Cummins and Aaron Finch. He played in the IPL with AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli and Chris Gayle, and in the BBL alongside Shane Watson, Jacques Kallis, Eoin Morgan and Andre Russell.
In coaching, he has been a quiet achiever. He completed his Cricket Australia level three coaching accreditation before he made his Test debut. He started his head coaching career at Leicestershire, aged 34, well before his playing career ended with Sydney Thunder in 2016.
Leicestershire had not won a county championship game in division two in two years prior to his arrival. They won twice in 2015 and four times in the 2016 championship to climb off the bottom.
Success was easier to find at Victoria and the Melbourne Renegades. He won two Sheffield Shields with Victoria and completed a unique Australia domestic treble in 2018-19. He did have the benefit of taking over a domestic juggernaut in Victoria that he had played in - under his mentor Greg Shipperd - and had been continued on by David Saker. But the 2018-19 title featured some younger blood and a different philosophy to some of the hard-nosed Victorian teams of the past. His greatest achievement might have been taking a ragtag Renegades franchise that had been a basket case, and in some respects still is, to an astonishing BBL title through the use of data and analytics, tactical nous, gut feel and more than a little bit of luck.
Only current Western Australia and Perth Scorchers coach Adam Voges has managed a domestic treble as a coach in Australia in the BBL era, having won all three titles this season.
It was that success that saw McDonald pursued by Justin Langer in 2019 to join the Australia coaching setup as a senior assistant in charge of the bowling group.
But more so than the success itself, his style of coaching is what stood out. Players from Victoria and the Renegades had been raving about the environment behind closed doors. McDonald's even-keeled calm demeanor and mellifluous voice had the power to de-stress a team or an individual under pressure, something he outlined to ESPNCricinfo in an interview as Leicestershire coach in 2016.
"As a player, the one thing I learned is, if you stay as level as you can through the ups and the downs, it holds you in better stead," McDonald said. "As a young player, I probably didn't get the balance right."
To arrive at such a philosophy so early in his coaching career was a credit to his mentor Shipperd, an Australian coaching doyen and current Sydney Sixers coach.
McDonald explained to ESPNCricinfo's Stump Mic podcast in February 2019, after claiming the BBL title, a tip Shipperd had given him to help shape his coaching style.
"One of the exercises my mentor got me to do when I first embarked on the coaching journey was to write down what you liked from coaches and what you didn't," McDonald said. "Really just write a profile on each coach that you had throughout your career. By the end of it, you have a lot of coaches.
"You try to take those good parts. You try and understand what he was trying to achieve there. Was it a bad part or was it just bad because I wasn't picked at the time or I wasn't in the team?
"You definitely are shaped by your environment and you get shaped every day. You've got a different challenge on your hands with every playing group. I had different challenges at Leicester that's probably shaped what I am here today at Victoria. I think until you actually get into coaching, you have no idea what coaches do. That's the one thing I've learned."
Bespoke management of players is another feature of his coaching style. With Victoria and Australia, he has shied away from group meetings and groupthink, instead preferring to work one on one with individuals depending on their specific needs.
"I really encourage our players to be themselves and not try to be other people," McDonald said back in 2019. "The ability of a coach is to draw that out of the individual. The way they move, their mechanics, everyone has got different DNA in terms of their athletic ability. So everyone is going to do it differently.
"We've seen that with bowling actions. We've seen that with batters. Really as a coach at our level, we're not in that development space. We get the finished product to some degree. Yes, we've got some younger players coming through but essentially the way that they move is probably who they are.
"I remember being an 18-year-old batter and I didn't look too much different when I was 28 to when I was 18. I think what had improved was my decision-making and the ability to read the game in the situations. So we really encourage our players to be themselves and be accountable for the way that they want to play. We'll help them along the way. Look, if it's fatal then obviously you've got to step in. You're not going to watch someone fail in front of your eyes continually. But with the great players, it's almost they've got a sense of, I'll do it my way and be accountable to that."
That's what has led him to become Australia's 8th full-time coach. His challenge won't be internal. The players absolutely love him and note that he never seems to get flustered. He will work diligently in the background. He will be the calm influence they want. He will coach them in a modern way and with modern game plans.
McDonald's challenge will be external. Perception and reality are two different things, but in Australian cricket, they can often become one in the public sphere.
The perception right now is that McDonald is the players' appointment. Langer was and still is a much-loved figure publicly whose playing and coaching record looks nearly immaculate on paper. The circumstances around his exit as head coach still make no sense to some of the team's supporters looking in from the outside.
The reality of the T20 World Cup and home Ashes win under Langer didn't marry with the innuendo about his coaching style. The only thing on the record is that he was intense and moody, something both he and Cummins have acknowledged in the aftermath of his departure.
The perception is that this transition has been orchestrated and McDonald's appointment does not sit comfortably with a portion of Australian ex-players and supporters.
The reality is McDonald's coaching credentials are the equal of any and the performance of the Test team in Pakistan suggests he is the right fit for this Australia team right now. No Australian coach has ever had as much T20 experience as both a player and a coach. He is the only man to have coached teams in England, the IPL and Australia prior to gaining Australia's top job. McDonald's IPL experience with Rajasthan Royals in 2020 was far from smooth. They finished last on the table, albeit just one win and net run rate out of the playoffs, and he was replaced in 2021. But he remained a wanted man right up until his appointment to the Australia role, having to resign as Birmingham Phoenix coach in the Hundred and turn down offers to work again in the IPL as an assistant this year.
However, as it was with Rajasthan and as it is now, the perception is results are the only currency in coaching. The reality might be, as McDonald put it, "until you actually get into coaching, you have no idea what coaches do."
But the fans won't care if the players are happy and comfortable in a calm and bespoke coaching environment. The fans will want and expect results better than those seen under Langer to justify what has taken place.
Australia will need to win and win often. And they will need to do so with humility and class, as they showed in Pakistan.
They will need to be quiet achievers, in the mold of their new coach.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo