GO INTO any bushwacking Australian town and the chances are you'll come across a Craig McDermott and a Merv Hughes on the local oval: a fiery rust-haired farmhand charging in from one end, a bristly 18-stone truckie from the other.
The traditional formula of hot weather and manual labour breeds countless fast bowlers in the outback, and McDermott and Hughes, a sharper cutting edge than anything England are likely to produce this summer, are products of the brawny suburban leagues. Provided he stays in peak condition, McDermott, as probably the best bowler on either side, holds the key to the outcome of the series.
The catchword is resistance. McDermott had a double hernia operation only 10 weeks ago, Hughes had keyhole surgery in his right knee on 31 March and by his own admission is still two stone overweight. 'The trouble is, Merv has a massive appetite and just can't ignore food,' his friend and colleague Dean Jones said. Hughes is a big-hearted performer but relies more on strength and stamina than special expertise. If he fails to regain his customary hostility Australia's attack could be horribly over-exposed and reliant on McDermott.
The Queensland fast bowler is used to such burdens. Since his triumphant return to the Australian team for the last two Tests against England in 1991-92, he has been rightly regarded as the country's spearhead and is now nudging 200 Test wickets. He has two principal assets. Firstly, a superb physique which he keeps in mint condition with the help of his second wife - a fitness expert - and Trevor Hendy, a champion triathlete. Secondly, a remarkable delivery stride which enables him to plant his front foot almost in front of the stumps, left shoulder pointing towards fine leg in the mould of an off-spinner. The result, apart from severe groin stress, is a late outswinger on a tight line allied to appreciable pace. Fred Trueman would definitely approve.
McDermott first broke into international cricket as a 19-year-old tearaway. He had speed and aggression, but not much else. His wickets were expensive and they nicknamed him 'Gorilla Teeth' for his abrasive snarls at opponents. Off the field he was brattish and unpopular. In the 1985 Ashes series he was Australia's leading bowler with 30 wickets but he was mistrusted by some of the other players because of a tendency to tantrums - it is usually the redheads who flip most severely. Form and fitness disappeared back home as he became insular and self-satisfied.
Being left out of the Australian team in the late 80s was a hard, telling lesson, and he returned much more mature. His state coach Jeff Thomson has had most to do with this, focusing McDermott's motivation, instilling ambition. Dennis Lillee helped with his action. Despite earning around pounds 60,000 including a shrewd contract with the suppliers of zinc sunblock, which he wears even in a monsoon, he is now much more down to earth, enjoys a harmonious relationship with Allan Border (despite indications to the contrary) and a symbiotic one with Hughes.
While McDermott probes off stump-inducing errors, Hughes is full of spite and variation - bouncer, yorker, expletive, slow leg break.
His greatest quality, though, is persistence. 'There's no more wholehearted or loyal cricketer in the game,' Jones observed - the two are very much contemporaries, having made their debut for Victoria on the same day. He has an extraordinarily good strike rate too - a wicket every 57 balls (Lillee's was 52, Thomson's 53.) Hughes works a batsman over technically, and mentally, having the gumption to know exactly when to growl and chide, but also when to back off. He makes invaluable runs, has a superb pair of hands and the charisma to be nominated Chief Cementer of team spirit. Jones put it this way. 'He's the Aussie glue.'
He hardly looks the part. The hefty frame, the walrus moustache - originally cultivated because other fashionable Australians like Lillee and John Newcombe sported one - identify him as the type that would be a bouncer at a nightclub rather than someone who could propel one . The silly pitter-patter run-up doesn't hint at venom and danger, either. The word is around that he is a shade too corpulent to be a threat in this series, but don't write him off just yet. There is nothing like an Ashes conflict to put fire in the belly of an Australian fast bowler.
Hughes has been overweight before. He was left out of last year's tour to Sri Lanka after a rigorous training camp in Darwin, and when eventually recalled for the home West Indies series he was fined Adollars 400 for dissent towards the umpires. Typically Hughes conceded his guilt, got on with the job in hand and finished the summer as his team's leading wicket-taker, including the prized scalp of Richie Richardson five times. Australia lost the rubber, but only just.
On this tour he is on a strict diet, pounds outfields after play and lends an important hand in initiating the rookie bowlers in the English experience. He and McDermott have taken it in turns to room with the inexperienced left-armer Brendon Julien, their most likely seam-bowling ally this summer, enthusiastically passing on their knowledge.
Imposing physical aggressors, athletic fieldsmen, belligerent batsmen, Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes, British by surname, are everything you would expect of Australian quick bowlers.
Each English wicket they take this summer (probably plenty) will be accompanied by a familiar ritual - a massive hairy embrace for the successful bowler. 'Merv's mo is great,' Dean Jones admitted, 'but it feels horrible in your ear.'
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