McDonnell was an attacking batsman and his averages are among the very best of his era. His top Test score of 147 was made in a partnership of 199 with Alick Bannerman at the SCG when the other 9 batsman in the team contributed 29 to the team score.
In 1886/7, McDonnell became the first Test captain ever to win the toss and elect to field. He had mixed results. England were dismissed for just 45, but nonetheless managed to win the match.