The second coming of Alister McDermott
Returning Queensland quick reflects on his search for meaning outside cricket, and how he found his way back
Some time during the more than four years he has spent away from playing top-level cricket – he doesn't remember exactly when – Alister McDermott made a phone call. At 23, McDermott had been axed by Queensland Cricket and, for all he knew, left to join the vast and variable rank of sporting has-beens, many of whom eternally pine for the past without ever fully coming to grips with the present or – even more frighteningly – the future. A brief period in a real job had only added to a feeling that had been steadily working its way towards the front of his mind, and one he could no longer escape: without cricket, he felt lost. So on this otherwise nondescript day, he scrolled through his contacts until his eyes landed on Queensland Cricket's welfare officer. He dialled, made the obligatory small talk, then stated his problem.
"I don't know what I want to do."
As he walks along a back street that leads towards Allan Border Field in the industrial part of Brisbane, McDermott is thinking about poetry. The weather in Brisbane has cooled in recent days, and he shivers in the shade. He looks up at the cloudless blue sky as he considers all that has unfolded in his life in both the past fortnight and the five years previous. Since he found out he was once again set to be a contracted Queensland cricketer, his mental checklist has lengthened quickly and substantially. Next week's 3000-word essay will now have to be written in between fitness sessions as he plays catch-up in order to pass the Bulls' pre-season tests. He has quit his job as a facilities officer at Torrens University, while informing the young cricketers he coaches privately that his regular schedule might have to be revisited. Likewise, his position as head coach at Wynnum-Manly is another item in his life that will need to be managed. Next semester, as part of the education degree he is studying at Griffith University, he has to find time for Shakespeare.
"It's crazy," he says of his return to professional cricket. "I definitely didn't see it coming."
It is approaching five years since McDermott last played a first-class match, in November 2014. Then, the Bulls had introduced a debutant named Marnus Labuschagne a week earlier, and James Hopes and Chris Hartley were the veterans of a side undergoing generational change.
His time since has been spent in a different world. Today, as he sits in the Matthew Hayden Stand overlooking Allan Border Field – famous names he once knew simply as his dad's teammates – he reflects on his life as a professional cricketer; the beginning, the middle, and what he came to accept was almost certainly the end.
"I have always thought, only two years before I was dropped, I was on an Aussie A tour, I went on an Aussie tour for the one-dayers and T20s.
"Stuff can turn around pretty darn quick – for good or for bad."
This was a young man who had fast bowling in his blood; his action (and his appearance) bore uncanny resemblances to his father, Craig, who took 494 international wickets to establish himself as a legend of Australian cricket. When Alister debuted at 18 and quickly settled at first-class level, there was a sense of excitement that he might even be a match for the old man.
So where did it all go wrong?
"I have had that question asked a lot," he says. "A lot of people were like, 'Well you've got a decent record – so what happened?'"
McDermott remembers taking the new ball in the Prime Minister's XI match of January 2013. Brad Haddin and Ricky Ponting were playing, and West Indies right-hander Johnson Charles was on strike.
"I bowled the first two balls down leg for wides, and I just thought, far out – I don't think I've ever done that before," he says. "It got in my head and I just bowled cross-seam for the rest of the game."
It was a tell-tale sign that things weren't quite right. Over time, there were others. The issues were technically related to his action, but in hindsight, McDermott can trace them back to attitude as well; as he found himself falling out of love with the game that had consumed his life, he began failing to tick some of the boxes that had enabled his vertiginous rise. The upshot – and the killer blow – was the disappearance of his chief weapon.
"Forever and a day I'd been able to bowl outswing, and then just at the flick of a switch I started bowling inswing – I couldn't bowl an outswinger," he remembers. "Other days I wouldn't be swinging the ball at all.
"That was down to technique and some changes in my action, (which came) just by not focusing, doing the little remedial exercises to make sure I was honing my basics."
Twelve months earlier at the Gabba, he had been making the ball – and subsequently people – talk. With Western Australia chasing 68 for victory in a Sheffield Shield match, he ripped out their top seven for just 24 runs in a stunning exhibition of swing bowling. The Warriors snuck home by one wicket, but McDermott carried his form through the back-end of the summer, following that career-best haul with second-innings figures of 4-35 against South Australia to bowl Queensland into the final. They won the decider a week later, with the young paceman delivering a decisive spell of 3-3, which included the wicket of a well-set Ponting.
At that point in his fledgling first-class career, McDermott had a bowling average under 21 and a strike-rate under 45. But he had played only eight matches, and taken just 36 wickets. National selectors deemed it enough to send him on an Australia A tour to the UK, where he played one match, opening the bowling with Mitchell Starc and out-performing the left-arm quick by a tally of six wickets to three. Exactly four months later, Starc was making his Test debut, while for McDermott, a gradual unravelling was beginning.
"Out of what felt like nowhere I'd got picked for that Aussie tour to Dubai (in 2012)," he says. "I didn't play any games, but deep down I just didn't feel like I was ready."
McDermott played 10 Shield games across the next two summers, taking another 32 wickets at 29.68. On the surface, all was calm; it appeared he was consolidating on the bright start to his career, with the slight tapering off in his numbers merely a result of batsmen around the country becoming accustomed to his skill-set. In limited-overs cricket, he took five wickets in two finals spread across eight days in January 2013, to add a one-day domestic title with Queensland and a Big Bash medal with Brisbane Heat to his resume. Inside 10 months, and before turning 22, he had won Australian cricket's domestic treble.
All, however, was not what it seemed. The one-day final remains the most recent 50-over match he played for Queensland, while he fell out of favour at the Heat as his economy rate blew out to more than 10 an over. More worryingly, he began grappling with a problem he had never considered.
"I just wasn't enjoying the commitment – the training or the playing," McDermott says. "I've always loved hanging around with the boys, my teammates, but I wasn't enjoying the game itself."
By the beginning of the 2014-15 summer, McDermott was without a Big Bash contract, while in the Shield, he took 1-80 in the only match he played that season. A stress fracture in his back in the opening weeks of the new year emphatically sealed an end he had seen coming.
"I pretty much knew as soon as I got that stress fracture (that I would lose my contract)," he says. “I just had a sense that it was coming, purely on the back of not performing for an extended period of time."
He looks across the recently re-laid outfield of Allan Border Field. On the adjoining oval, a group of Australia A fast bowlers are diligently going through their paces in preparation for the upcoming tour of the UK. They are maybe two hundred metres from where he sits, but in a cricket sense, the distance between him and them – men who were once his peers – is vast.
"The hardest time for me was the two years after that Aussie tour," he reflects. "Nothing really clicked or went that well for me, and then it's just 'Off you pop', in a way.
"It turned around pretty quickly. But that's sport – that happens."
Because he had been something of a child prodigy, McDermott's entry into the real world was a particularly rude awakening. A couple of seasons on the books at Sydney Thunder – where he didn't play a game – softened the blow somewhat but as the perks and pay cheques from a professional sporting life dried up, he was forced to ask himself some difficult questions.
"I was like, Alright, well what am I going to do now?" he says. "It wasn't the easiest thing to deal with. Back then, I was one hundred per cent cricket and that was it. I didn't have much outside the game to take my mind off what was happening, so I would over-analyse, over-think it."
He began a property degree and then landed a job in the industry, which prompted him to quit his studies so he could immerse himself fully in his nascent career. He continued cricket with Wynnum-Manly, finding a shred of the love he had lost in the company of teammates, while for 12 months or so, as he learned the ways of the real estate profession, he thought he might have found a new calling. In time, however, that feeling began to fade. It was replaced by more uncertainty.
"When I got out of the real estate agency, that was a big relief," he reflects. "For me, it just didn't feel right. I'd always just played cricket, then I got into something I thought I would like but I didn't, so I had no clue what to do.
"There were a lot of times where I'd come home, talk to (his partner) Erin, and tell her I wasn't enjoying it. She was amazing. I got a lot of support from her."
McDermott was also dealing with the public fallout created by his exit from professional cricket. As the son of Craig McDermott, there had always been comparisons drawn by media and fans alike. Some speculated they had been a millstone he no longer wanted to be saddled with. He is succinct when discussing his father but insists his shadow was only ever a perceived burden – something manufactured by others and never felt by him.
"I've never felt any pressure from the surname," he says. "I know people attach expectations to it, but that's their thoughts, their opinions."
As he struggled to plot his next move in life, he also toyed with the idea of relinquishing that which had defined his past.
"It did get to the point where I would ask myself if I was happy with what I've achieved, and was it time to step away," he says. "I'll be honest – there were those thoughts.
"But deep down, what it came back to was that I was only 25, or 26 … and everyone says you're a long time retired, so I would keep playing."
Then he made a phone call and, piece by piece, things began to crystallise.
McDermott swallowed his pride and got in touch with Queensland Cricket's welfare officer Emma Kenward, a thoughtful and experienced sounding board for many athletes. It was a cry for help from a young man lost. They discussed his interests and the options he could explore from those, which they then winnowed down. After McDermott had revealed his enthusiasm for coaching, the possibility of teaching emerged. They visited the sports college at Griffith University and after some careful consideration, he enrolled in a Bachelor of (Secondary) Education course in Health and Physical Education, and English.
"At that moment in time I was assistant coach at Wynnum, and I was doing some private coaching as well," he says. "So I thought, why not give teaching a crack?"
McDermott had thrown himself into helping out however he could at Wynnum-Manly, the Brisbane Premier Cricket club he had joined since moving north from the Gold Coast in 2010. However, he had taken to coaching with particular vigour. Last summer he was put on a two-year contract as the club's head coach, where he implemented a training program that has been well received.
"He did a wonderful job," says Wynnum-Manly President Graham Mapri. "We were so impressed with what he did last year."
McDermott's return to the state squad left him – and Wynnum – with a dilemma; the club didn't want to lose his services, but they understood his desire to play professionally.
“To his credit, he actually came to us with a solution," Mapri says. "He is going to take on a director of coaching role, which basically means he'll stand over the top of everything and facilitate it without being as hands on as he was last year.
"We're really keen to continue what he started last year. He has a big passion for coaching, and we don't want to lose that."
Together with his knack for coaching, there was something else about McDermott that Mapri didn't want to lose. The full-time availability of a mid-twenties cricketer with his level of professional experience was a rare thing, and that, combined with McDermott's mature and thoughtful manner, made him an ideal role model.
"Grade cricket clubs in Queensland act as almost a centre of excellence for their region," Mapri says. "We encapsulate six or seven junior clubs and a couple of warehouse and sub-districts clubs that feed into us.
"Having Alister at the club means that these guys can see there's a real pathway for them through to state and national representation.
"They're going, 'Well here's a guy who's been there, he's at our training every week, he's teaching us what he knows … If I work hard, I can get there as well'."
McDermott knows the relationship goes both ways. He considers his toughest times in cricket, when the love that had kept him coming back had deserted him. It was his mates at Wynnum-Manly who offered succour.
"I love being around Wynnum, so I kept playing," he says. "Just hanging around the guys, that's what kept me going."
It was through the club that he was also able to continue harbouring his dream of returning to the Bulls – something which, while flickering for a year or two, was never fully extinguished. After a disappointing 2017-18 season, McDermott contacted veteran bowling coach Vic Williams, whom he’d first worked with more than a decade earlier.
"I just felt like there was something wrong (with his bowling action), so I asked him to have a look," he remembers.
"We had one session and he noticed a couple of things that had changed.
"I firmly believe a lot of the stuff we worked on helped my action, swing, consistency, and maybe (added) a bit more pace."
Last summer, McDermott played four Futures League matches for Queensland, and the signs were there that he was rediscovering something of his young self. Against Western Australia, his second-innings haul of 5-46 helped bowl Queensland to victory, while he took nine wickets against Victoria in another standout performance. Just as importantly, his body withstood the rigours of 128 overs across seven innings.
McDermott knows the first-class record he compiled in his early twenties (71 wickets in 20 matches, at an average of 24.77 and a strike-rate of 52.2) stands tall against most bowlers in the country. Now he can add experience to his armoury.
"I definitely know more about my body and how my technique should be working, I have a lot more comfort in knowing what my ability is, and what my role is," he says.
"Back then I was probably trying to be everything that everyone wanted, in a way; 'You've got to try to be really fast', or 'You've got to grow' – and I can't really help growing.
"My role (for Queensland) would be to tie up an end – be boring in a sense – which is probably what my role was before as well, but I just know it now a lot more in depth.
"I feel more comfortable with it, too, instead of seeing blokes bowling 145-150kph and bumping blokes out and wanting to have a go at trying to do that."
Last year, McDermott took his partner Erin on a horse ride along Tewantin Beach, just north of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. They rode for a kilometre along the sand and then stopped for a picnic, where Alister popped the question. Erin, who had been his emotional anchor through five years of ups and downs, said yes.
She said YES!!! Can’t wipe the smile off our faces 💍 A post shared by Alister McDermott (@alistercmcdermott) on
"We're planning a wedding at the moment," he says, before pausing to factor that news into his wider life perspective. "I'm working on my education degree, doing my coaching … I always wanted to get back (to playing for Queensland), but after a while, it wasn't my sole priority.
"It became more about enjoying cricket, and from there it was whatever happens, happens."
He knows he is not going to walk into the first XI of a Queensland squad not short on fast-bowling talent. Instead, he’s focused on hard work, taking lessons from assistant coach Andy Bichel – whom he viewed as a role model growing up – and lapping up the camaraderie of a close-knit Bulls group.
In April, he was head coach as Wynnum-Manly took a group of young cricketers from around the country on a tour to India. They played matches, attended an Indian Premier League game, and took in sights like the Taj Mahal. It all gave him a feeling he is on the right path with his pursuit of an education degree. He thinks back to his time working in property, and weighs it against where he is at now, and where he sees himself heading.
Last day of our tour and topping it off with going to watch @rajasthanroyals V @mumbaiindians A post shared by Alister McDermott (@alistercmcdermott) on
"It was a job where … it might sound bad, but I wasn't proud," he says. "I say now that I'm a cricket coach, or I want to be a teacher – that's really exciting for me, and I'm really proud that I want to do that."
Around the back of the Hayden Stand, he bumps into Queensland coach Wade Seccombe. They stop to chat briefly before continuing on their separate ways. It’s enough to get the sense McDermott is back in the fold. News of his Queensland contract was made public a few days earlier, though he’s had a couple more weeks than that to digest it. In some ways, he’s had four years, and he has needed every day.
Now, finally, he is truly ready for his second coming. And whatever happens afterward.