Craig McDermott © Getty Images
Craig McDermott © Getty Images

Craig McDermott, born April 14, 1965, was one of the most successful of Australian fast bowlers whose career was forever plagued by injuries. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the career of the man who ended his playing days as the second highest wicket-taker for Australia after Dennis Lillee.

Craig McDermott used to smear his face white with chapstick, run in and hurl down quick deliveries — several years before Allan Donald had transformed the act into the realms of legend.

He bowled at a lively pace, without being quite as fast as the South African. He formed the undeniable link between the great Australian fast bowling line between Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath, without being quite as successful, acclaimed or popular. He had an athletic build, classical action, superb out-swingers and fiery red hair, but did not quite come off as the intimidating fast bowler. He could be lethal, indeed was often so against England, but the glory of bowling Australia to an Ashes series triumph was held back to the last stage of his career, and by then post of the pin-up boy of Australian cricket had already been usurped by Shane Warne.

Yet, McDermott was perhaps the most significant fast bowler of the Australian team during their difficult period of transformation. When not sidelined by recurrent injuries, he was the spearhead of the attack from the time when Dennis Lillee called it a day till the moment Glenn McGrath had established himself as a genuine great.

And he did have his one supreme moment of splendour when Allan Border flashed his thousand-carat smile after lifting the Reliance World Cup of 1987. On the lifeless sub-continent wickets, McDermott ended as the highest wicket-taker of the tournament, with 18 scalps at 18.94 each. Indeed, he was Border’s potent weapon, utilised in three small spells — at the beginning, in the middle and at the end. Almost always it paid off, and the five for 44 against Pakistan in that nail-biting semi-final at Lahore was perhaps the most crucial spell of his career.

The coming of Billy

McDermott burst into the scene as a 19-year old at MCG, bowling first change after the seasoned duo of Rodney Hogg and Geoff Lawson. There was a brief period of magic as he bowled Richie Richardson and Jeff Dujon and got Larry Gomes caught within the space of one run to have the mighty West Indies struggling at 154 for 5. But, after that, he received a lesson on the travails of Test cricket. Viv Richards, having spent 10 innings without a half-century, now hit 3 sixes and 22 fours to plunder 208. The young fast bowler did not add to his wickets column in the first innings. However, as the match ended in a tense draw, he did get three more in the second essay, including Richards second ball.

Those days, he was a picture of youth and vitality — a teenager with flowing run-up and flaming red hair. And this led to the nickname Billy — after Billy the Kid.

The Ashes series that followed in England saw McDermott at his very best. After England had taken the lead at Leeds, the teenager rocked the home team’s first innings at Lord’s with 6 wickets. Captain Border scored 196 and Australia drew level.

In the fourth Test at Manchester, England piled up 482 for 9, but McDermott accounted for 8 of the wickets for 144. Australia lost The Ashes to David Gower’s men, but McDermott captured 30 wickets in the series.

Craig McDermott ended his Test career with 291 wickets from 71 Tests and 203 wickets from 138 ODIs © Getty Images
Craig McDermott ended his Test career with 291 wickets from 71 Tests and 203 wickets from 138 ODIs © Getty Images

Stops, starts, ambition and injury

This brilliant early promise was however not really carried forward in the seasons that followed. Back in Australia, he lost his rhythm against New Zealand and India. Gone were the confident run up and excellent outswing. He looked remarkably pedestrian, and so off-colour that even his hair seemed to have been sponged of the fiery hue.

He did play that vital role in the World Cup campaign in 1987, but back in Australia for the Ashes, he broke down with one of the several injuries that would dog his career, and played just one Test. He would continue to be dealt crippling blows to his body, which would curtail his career and often cut his deserving frame out of the most memorable of Australian achievements.

In 1998, Australian off-spinner Tim May wrote Mayhem!: The true(ish) story of the Australian cricket team on tour. Names, dates and venues were camouflaged to protect the innocent and guilty, but someone stood out from the pages as eminently recognisable. ‘Alistair Barterman’ was as a thinly-veiled image of Craig McDermott, who was portrayed in the book as a ‘pathologically meticulous’ fast bowler with a long history of injuries. In the book, he was ultimately withdrawn from the team when a scorpion bite caused his head to swell to twice its usual size.

May’s caricature of McDermott was not really flattering, but uncannily accurate. McDermott was both meticulous and ambitious. He was incorrigibly tidy, with a mania for packing neatly, putting clothes impeccably into drawers and hanging shirts up on their hangers in the hotel rooms. He was driven by the zeal to succeed, and even within the celebrated Australian cause for the team he was his own man.

Respected for his skills and dedication, he seldom enjoyed the fellow-feeling among his teammates as the other fast men like Damien Fleming and Merv Hughes. Hughes was his closest friend in the team. But while McDermott remained a good friend of the moustachioed fast man, Hughes himself was close to everyone.

McDermott did not mind. He was possessed by the goals he had set for himself, and managed to engineer a personal sponsorship deal with Bartercard before too many other players had gone that far. One can make out that the ‘Alistair Barterman’ alias is more than revealing. And of course he had his injury problems — many, many of them.

Hits and misses

McDermott got back to his top gear in January 1991, once more against the Englishmen. Brought back for the fourth Test at Adelaide, he scored his Test highest of 42 not out, and followed it up with five for 97 on an unhelpful surface.

It was in the next Test at Perth that McDermott produced his best ever performance with the ball.  He was expensive in the first two sessions, with three for 80 from 18 overs. However, after tea, he came back to capture 5 for 17 off 34 balls, ending with 8 for 97. Australia won by 9 wickets, and McDermott had established his place in the side yet again.

Through the early nineties he remained a regular in the team, picking up 24 wickets when West Indies visited, following it up with 31 against the hapless Indians with a 10-for at Adelaide. He seemed to have conquered his injuries and bowled with spirit and occasional venom in the West Indies when Australia toured in 1992-93. However, the Ashes tour that followed was a personal tragedy amidst Australian triumph.

A wicketless sojourn at Manchester was followed by a twisted bowel at Lord’s which needed to be operated immediately. He was rushed to the hospital during the match and was ruled out of the series. Australia won emphatically, with Shane Warne and Merv Hughes emerging as the bowling heroes. After his fantastic showing with the ball over the last few series, McDermott was not there to share the loftiest of honours.

He was back in the next series against New Zealand. When South Africa visited in 1993-94, he played a leading role in the final Test, breaking the thumb of Fanie de Villiers and picking up 4 second-innings wickets as Australia squared the series. But, once again injuries caught up with him. A broken ankle ensured that he did not make it to West Indies in 1994-95. Australia finally ended the Caribbean reign at the top by winning the series 2-1. McDermott missed out another landmark achievement during his playing days.

His final moment of triumph came, as usual, against England in 1995-96. His 6 for 53 in the first innings at Brisbane set the tone for the series, and Shane Warne soon capitalised on it, skittling out eight Englishmen in the second innings. More five-wicket hauls followed in Sydney and Melbourne, before a spectacular burst of 6 for 38 in the second innings of Perth routed England for 123 and gave Australia the Ashes at 3-1. It was a superb feat, especially since he had strained his back before the start of the first England innings. McDermott finished with 32 wickets in his final Ashes campaign.

He bowled decently enough against Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the following season at home. But, by then a number of younger fast bowlers were already breathing down his neck and injury ridden body of McDermott was feeling the strain of a decade of fast bowling.

He bowed out with 291 wickets in 71 Tests at 28.63 apiece. In ODIs, his tally was 203 wickets at 24.71 from 138 matches. In his early days, he was tried out as the pinch-hitter with moderate success (including, famously, in the 1987 World Cup final).

At the time of his retirement, his haul of wickets was second in the all-time Australian list after Dennis Lillee, and he still stands at number five.

Post-retirement problems

The subsequent years of McDermott have been riddled with controversy.

He went into real estate after retirement, a business venture with Maxen Developments Property being his primary focus. McDermott proceeded to live, by all accounts, a life of luxury and riches. It was reported that he drove a black Porsche Carrera and lived in a luxury 1092 cubic metre Gold Coast waterfront home.

In 2006, he was harassed with sex-tape extortion and blackmail by a former employee. With the help of the police, he did recover from the criminal designs on his money, but then his own company went bust.

McDermott and Maxen allegedly owed more than $40,000,000 and charges were made against the former fast bowler for using company funds for personal use.

In June 2008, McDermott filed for bankruptcy. The Australian tabloid television paraded him as a financial disaster on Channel Nine. In the report he was shown evading questions and running into an underground car-park in his 4WD.

However, he did emerge to become the bowling coach for the Australian cricket team in 2011.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)