Sri Lanka v Australia Tests - Men
Ron anon: Inside the mind of Australia's head coach
He entered the job with little fanfare, and Andrew McDonald is more than happy keeping it that way. Get to know the man who is quietly pulling the strings on a new era for the national men's side
Louis Cameron is a Melbourne-based journalist. A former Victorian Bushrangers fast bowler, Louis joined the cricket.com.au team with assistance from the Australian Cricketers' Association's Internship Program in 2016.
It's a drizzly Monday morning in suburban Geelong and Andrew McDonald is sitting at a wooden table right at the back of his favourite cafe. Wearing a Boston Red Sox cap over his red hair, few would recognise the Australian men's cricket coach tapping away on his small laptop in this cosy retreat from the icy wind whistling in off Corio Bay. Even if they did, they probably wouldn't bother him. It's part of the appeal of living down here, less than hour from Melbourne but without the big-city vibe. In reality, McDonald would probably be this anonymous in any part of the country. "I like it that way," he laughs. When he was coach of Victoria he caught the V-line train into town to avoid the traffic over the West Gate Bridge. Other times you might see him on the golf course at Torquay Sands or Thirteenth Beach, or catching a wave at Point Impossible down on Victoria's famed Great Ocean Road. Or just spending time with his wife Keeley, a Geelong native, and their three kids Milly, Olly and Remy.
But the region, one of the fastest growing in the country, population-wise, is no longer a well-kept secret, and neither is McDonald.
The eyes of Justin Langer, McDonald's predecessor, widen every time he tells the story of Ian Bishop hitting him with a bouncer on Test debut. For as much as the pair differ in their approach to coaching, McDonald's capacity to spin a yarn is not dissimilar. Nor were McDonald's entrances into top-flight cricket any less brutal.
In 2002, a 21-year-old McDonald's morning coffee was still warm when his landline rang at the St Kilda Road superannuation and investments firm where he worked between Victorian training and games through the early part of his state cricket career. An injury on the morning of a Sheffield Shield game to Ian Harvey meant he was required across town. McDonald had to first ask permission from his boss to play (it was granted), then rush home to pick up his kit and get to the MCG.
The following day, on an up-and-down surface that would prevent either side from passing 200, Michael Kasprowicz got a length ball to rear up and split open McDonald's helmet. He retired hurt and needed assistance getting off the ground. Within two hours, two wickets had fallen and a dazed McDonald was batting again.
"(Coach) David Hookes just said, 'Out you go'," McDonald says. "He walked me up the race and I was straight back out there."
Greg Shipperd, then an assistant to the recently appointed Hookes, was watching from the back of the coaches' box. In a low-scoring game that Victoria would go on to win by four wickets, the 33 runs McDonald put on with the lower order proved vital.
"There was a quiet fight in him," Shipperd says. "I'm always interested in the reaction. He was in behind the ball straightaway after (he returned to the crease). There was a quiet smile from me after that, knowing that we've got a pretty tough character."
It took some time for McDonald to find his feet as a batter at first-class level, averaging just 18 and passing 50 only once over the first 17 games of his career. His medium pace bowling proved more reliable. But then the runs came, and quickly. All but two of his 11 first-class hundreds were scored in a four-year stretch between 2006 and 2010, during which he averaged 50 in the Sheffield Shield with the bat, as well as 28 with the ball, in a purple patch that vaulted him into the Test side in 2009 when his competitors for an allrounder berth, Shane Watson and Andrew Symonds, were injured.
With time and a middle-order role he had grown into, McDonald's approach to batting became increasingly belligerent at domestic level. An astonishing 163 off only 116 deliveries in which he went from 50 to 150 in only 49 balls at the WACA in 2010 left a lasting impression.
"He was playing red-ball cricket like a combination of one-day and T20 cricket," says Shipperd. "He was just all over the domestic bowlers at the time. He peeled off a number of mind-blowing hundreds."
Runners-up in 2007-08, Victoria won back-to-back Sheffield Shield titles the following two summers. Shipperd, who took over from Hookes after his tragic death in 2004 as coach of what turned out to be a dynastic domestic side, pushed McDonald's case at national level. At the end of their respective careers, McDonald's first-class record stacked up favourably to Watson's and Symonds'.
"I remember sending the selectors a synopsis of all the batters that were going around in the various formats," says Shipperd. "The one player that appeared in all three formats of the game – and his red-ball stats were better than any of the others being spoken about – was Andrew McDonald."
Inns: 376 | Runs: 14,477 | Bat ave: 42.20 | HS: 254* 100s: 40 | 50s: 65 Wkts: 242 | Bowl ave: 36.00 | 5w: 2
Inns: 241 | Runs: 7,915 | Bat ave: 42.57 | HS: 203* 100s: 20 | 50s: 54 Wkts: 210 | Bowl ave: 29.97 | 5w: 7
Inns: 155 | Runs: 4,825 | Bat ave: 39.54 | HS: 176*| 100s: 11 | 50s: 25 Wkts: 201 | Bowl ave: 28.73 | 5w: 5
The grittiness Shipperd had first admired about McDonald had not been lost. He needed it when he was once again the punching bag in his Test debut in 2009. Morne Morkel struck him on the arm-guard first ball before the towering South African hit him again, this time on the shoulder, with the ricochet dislodging the ill-fitting helmet that had been hurriedly arranged for him after his late call-up.
"I had to turn around to Hashim Amla at bat pad to find my helmet," says McDonald. "It was 20 metres away."
He was in behind the next one.
As he sips on his café latte – large, served in a white mug – McDonald offers his outlook on coaching in a straightforward manner. There's a warmth to his words, delivered quickly in a deep bass voice, and it's easy to see why Australian players had wanted him in the job.
It's also not the first time he's swiftly won over a group of cricketers.
McDonald takes the top job in Australian cricket having coached at state and international level, the BBL, the IPL and the Hundred. Yet the most formative experience of his post-playing career came in far less glamorous surrounds than any of those competitions.
After departing Leicestershire having played 43 games across 2010 and 2011, McDonald kept in contact with the club's chair, Paul Haywood. He had no formal coaching experience and still had a year to run on a playing contract with South Australia when Haywood asked him "out of the blue" whether he would be interested in coaching the county. McDonald had become increasingly curious about a coaching career and, amid a series of injuries that were making his playing appearances less and less regular, he bit the bullet after speaking to former Foxes teammate Josh Cobb.
The size of the task was substantial. With only a six-month contract on offer, McDonald retired a season early and moved his family to the other side of the world. Leicestershire, among the smallest of the 18 counties, had not won a first-class match in two years and had just lost four of their leading players – their captain Cobb among them – to rival teams. McDonald wasted little time in finalising the recruitment of his recent Redbacks teammate Mark Cosgrove, installing the British-passport holding former Australia ODI batter as captain.
"When we came in there were blokes reading books and watching movies on their phones while the game was on," says Cosgrove. "It was like, 'What's happening here?'"
More than concerning themselves with playing potential or previous performance, Cosgrove remembers the new leadership duo zeroing in on those with the drive to take the club forward. Both men had to learn on their feet. Cosgrove had little prior captaincy experience, while he and McDonald had to come to terms with the significant differences between county cricket and state cricket back in Australia.
The first was a relative lack of resources.
"It is very much a lonely role as a head coach of one of those county teams," says Cosgrove. "Not having a batting coach, bowling coach, fielding coach, spin bowling coach – like you do in Australia where you have four coaches around a (state) squad all the time.
"You just don't have that structure where you can say to one of your coaches, 'Mate can you go work one-on-one with someone?' It's nearly like a club set up as a smaller county."
McDonald thew himself head-on into the task. Two months into his first season, Leicestershire ended a 992-day streak without a County Championship victory. A second win followed that season and although they remained rooted to the bottom of the table (and finished last in their group in the one-day competition, third-to-last in the T20 Blast) the lessons on the job were coming as fast as the runs he once scored.
"The range of duties you have to perform with an under-resourced staff was good for me," says McDonald. "It really stretched me.
"Would it have been sustainable over a long period of time? Potentially not, but with where I was at, I was curious as to what leadership and coaching were. I was prepared to invest pretty much everything into it. It was a steep learning curve."
The other major difference from Australian cricket was the negotiations with, and movement of, players during the season, with business typically conducted at the end of the season in Australia. McDonald targeted four players from rival counties – Neil Dexter, Paul Horton, Mark Pettini and Richard Jones. As Cosgrove saw it, they would have been happy if one of them signed. In the end, all four made the move.
"When you haven't won a game in nearly three years, it's hard to sell a senior player on coming," says Cosgrove. "Most of those guys would have taken a decent pay cut to come to Leicestershire – maybe an extra year at the back-end might have helped that – but they believed in what 'Ron' (McDonald) was doing."
In McDonald's second year at the helm, Leicestershire were on the brink of promotion to the top first-class division, which they hadn't played in for more than a decade. It was more than just shrewd recruitment of some senior heads; by the time he departed to take the Victoria and Melbourne Renegades jobs during the final months of that 2016 season, McDonald had instituted a cultural shift.
"It was (no longer) a 'Turn up, get beat, go home, turn up and get beat again' (attitude), it was, 'How are we going to win this game?'" says Cosgrove.
"You could hear the young kids talking about, 'How can we win (games)?' The mentality and the attitude just changed. He sold the idea of the hard work that you needed to do to get where you wanted to be.
"Everyone bought it, everyone backed him. He made everyone in that squad feel important.
"And when he left things went pear-shaped pretty quickly."
If the beginnings of McDonald's first-class and Test careers were characterised by rude awakenings, both ended rather anti-climactically by comparison. He played his final Test for Australia three months after his first and while his efforts in the early days of the state-based Big Bash saw him earn brief stints in the Indian Premier League, his domestic career petered out following a series of injuries.
So when McDonald stepped into the Mantra on Southbank in Brisbane for his first formal meeting after being appointed the senior assistant coach of the Australian team, it had been a decade since he had played for them. He was in for a shock.
"My first impression was 'Wow, this has grown'," McDonald says. "There was a lot of people in that first meeting. That was probably the first thing that struck me, was that there's a lot of moving parts around this."
The volume of people, McDonald acknowledges, was inflated given the number of CA high-performance staff based in Brisbane. Yet his time at Leicestershire, and then to a lesser extent Victoria, had taught him how to do more with less.
In the past if you wanted to know how many support staff accompany Australia's national teams at any given time, you could simply turn up to the ground for the start of their warm-up. The gathering in a circle of the entire playing and non-playing groups at the outset of a day's play has long been a tradition of Australian teams. Under Darren Lehmann, someone would be tasked with telling a joke to lighten the mood, a trend that continued under Langer. From afar, the routine is a cricket team's equivalent of a morning office briefing.
But a cricket team is not a normal workplace. And for McDonald, when pressed on what might change under his leadership of the Aussie men's team, his first consideration is how he can simplify the everyday encounters and stressors of a group that spends months on end travelling, training, playing and socialising with one another.
"If there's a cap presentation or whatever, then there's a purpose to meet, so then you meet," he says.
"But you need to have a purpose. You don't need to meet for the sake of meeting. The more you meet for the sake of meeting, you just drain people.
"The other thing is people who come into that meeting who don't have a purpose for being there can actually be better used somewhere else. They could actually be doing their job rather than getting dragged away from it."
The shift away from the public, pre-play or pre-training gatherings started during last summer's Ashes series when Langer took a more hands-off approach in his final days in the job. When McDonald took over as interim coach in Pakistan earlier this year, pre-play meetings were held in a meeting room at the team hotel. Ahead of a day when the team knew they would be bowling, a "strategy group" encompassing captain McDonald, captain Pat Cummins, his deputy Steve Smith, analyst Dene Hills along with other assistant coaches would gather to agree on tactics before communicating plans to the wider playing squad.
On batting days, that group generally did not meet at all, explains McDonald. He sees bowling and fielding as an act performed together; having the entire team aware of strategy is important. Batting on the other hand is a more solitary activity.
"'Diva' (batting coach Michael di Venuto), myself and the other coaches have already had those individual conversations, and then that really comes together in a partnership in the middle," says McDonald.
"You're preparing an individual to go about their work. Other people don't necessarily need to be in on those conversations. We've got some things we want to achieve as a batting group, but they're outcomes of individual processes. They're not outcomes of collective processes."
Despite growing up on the Murray river, in the regional centre of Albury-Wodonga deep in the Australian bush, McDonald keeps coming back to the ocean. As a child, he remembers driving to the Gold Coast with his family where he and his brother Brenton would try to stand up on boogie boards in the surf. He now has a growing collection of surfboards, the latest addition a longboard he brought back from Barbados on Australia's tour of the Caribbean last year.
McDonald is a private person, yet players are drawn to him. He will soon have some more company down the coast. Australia men's white-ball captain Aaron Finch, who grew up in nearby Colac, has bought a house within walking distance of his coach. The pair have known each other for the best part of two decades and it is not uncommon to see them sharing a beer at Kardinia Park when Geelong are playing a home game in the AFL. Cosgrove too recalls trading ideas over a quiet pint in Leicester.
"What stands out is his ability to – for a lack of a better word – cuddle players," says Victoria captain Peter Handscomb, who played under McDonald during the state's Sheffield Shield titles in 2016-17 and 2018-19.
It is not necessarily the type of player-coach dynamic that has been typical in Australian cricket. In fact, his closeness to players was one of the criticisms levelled at him before he took over when ex-players and media pundits launched broadsides at senior players and McDonald, the presumptive favourite to succeed Langer.
It would not be true to suggest that McDonald has necessarily shied away from tough calls on players, some of whom he played with. One of his first acts when he took over at Victoria was to drop Glenn Maxwell from the Sheffield Shield team. Two seasons later, he batted Finch at three when he was the incumbent Test opener.
"We've always had some really good discussions, (and shared) often very heated opinions on the game at times," says Finch, who captained the Renegades to their only BBL title in 2018 during McDonald's short time as coach of the club. "But I think it's healthy to get that out, challenge each other, challenge the coaching group, challenge the playing group in different ways."
Shipperd, one of the game's most respected coaching voices, does not see McDonald's closeness to players as being a problem.
"Part of getting on with people is about honesty and the relationships you develop," he says. "He's been through cricket where you start a career, you finish a career, he's seen teammates be in that space, he's seen how coaches operate with players in that space.
"He'll know how to manage that."
McDonald is wary of perceptions. It may surprise some that he has never sat down to view The Test documentary commissioned by Cricket Australia in the years after the sandpaper scandal and bought by Amazon, earning acclaim for its insights into the inner sanctum of the men's team in the months before he joined its coaching staff.
"I'll probably watch it in time," he says, conceding he is a fan of several other sports documentaries. "I don't know whether I'm fearful that potentially things are misrepresented in an industry that you know a lot about."
He is neither desperate to correct records nor push a fresh narrative. But he also has no plans to shut the doors to the public on the team he now leads.
"I'm going to be inclusive and I think we owe it to the cricketing public, the fans and people who love the game to be as inclusive as we can," he says.
"Am I comfortable talking about myself at times? No. Do I need to share what's happening within the changerooms? Yeah, there's things that people need to know and things that people don't need to know. But we'll be as inclusive as we can be."
Where Langer was a storyteller who had to win over a public that had become disillusioned with the team, McDonald is a nut-and-bolts operator who is rarely dislodged from his composed demeanour when in the hot seat. Kicking bins and impassioned addresses just aren't his thing.
There is not necessarily a right or wrong way to go about coaching in cricket. For Shipperd, he sees coaches as having to be leaders, learners and performers in equal measure.
"Some of us coaches, we perform within our team environment, and players see us perform in that space," he says. "Some coaches have the ability to do that internally and externally.
"At this stage of Andrew's development, he prefers to expend most of his energy within the playing environment, (rather) than on the big stage.
"For me – and maybe him – it's more about your players and their image, and the public getting to know the players more."
And McDonald will be there, sitting contentedly in the background, just maybe not quite as anonymous as before.
Qantas Tour of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Test squad (provisional): Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Pathum Nissanka, Oshada Fernando, Angelo Mathews, Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Kamindu Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella, Dinesh Chandimal, Ramesh Mendis, Chamika Karunaratne, Kasun Rajitha, Vishwa Fernando, Asitha Fernando, Dilshan Madushanka, Praveen Jayawickrama, Lasith Embuldeniya, Jeffrey Vandersay. Standby players: Dunith Wellalage, Lakshitha Rasanjana.
Australia Test squad: Pat Cummins (c), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner. Standby players: Jon Holland, Matthew Kuhnemann, Todd Murphy
June 29 - July 3: First Test, Galle, 2.30pm AEST
July 8-12: Second Test, Galle, 2.30pm AEST
Sri Lanka v Australia Test matches will be screened live on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports