Australia news July 12, 2011

McDermott tells Johnson to get a grip

Having waded through the many technical tweaks and tips offered by Troy Cooley over five years, Mitchell Johnson's first advice from his new bowling coach Craig McDermott must have seemed fiendishly simple: a new grip.

Cooley and Johnson had been close to inseparable on Australian tours since the summer of 2006-07. But McDermott's suggestion, that a more pronounced split of Johnson's fingers across the ball might contribute to better seam position and greater control, indicates that a fresh pair of eyes could be useful for a bowler who at 29 has never quite managed to assume the spearhead's mantle.

The greatest difference between Cooley and McDermott is the international experience they each have to call on. Cooley's modest Sheffield Shield career with Tasmania bears little comparison with McDermott's 291 Test wickets and countless spells under the most intense of cricket's spotlights.

"It's good to have Craig on board with his Test experience," Johnson said in Brisbane. "I had a good relationship with Troy Cooley and worked really well with him, but having Craig there with his Test and international experience is going to be a big boost for us.

"I haven't worked on too many technical [aspects] with him; just my fingers, split fingers and things like that. Nothing too out there, but just little things here and there, which has been good. But having him on tour in situations where we might come off the field and he might see something that we're not seeing, it'll be good to have that experience."

Johnson's mention of split fingers brought its own memory - many can recall McDermott's split-finger slower ball, which comically confounded Aravinda de Silva and Hashan Tillakaratne during a World Series ODI in Melbourne in 1996. But when pressed to expand, Johnson related the fact that his stock grip had perhaps encouraged him to spray the ball in the past, and that his new mentor had suggested the adjustment.

"I bowl with my fingers close together and I don't have as much control with the ball," he said. "So this just helps me stand the seam up a little bit; or hopefully that's the plan - to stand that seam up a little bit and give me that balance with the ball.

"I'm not going to be fiddling around with my wrist or anything like that at this [point. I'm going on 30 now and I don't think fiddling around too much like that is going to help me."

Subtle advice on technique and tactics, plus a large helping of empathy, is a formula that has worked well for numerous bowling coaches across the globe. Former Indian bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad describes himself as more of a tactical advisor than a technical seer, while David Saker's emphasis with England's attack in Australia was as much about knowing the conditions as the bowling action.

Johnson agreed that McDermott would be useful as he seeks to draw a line under the Ashes gremlins in his action that first surfaced in 2009 and returned again last summer, either side of a freakishly incisive spell on the second day of the third Test in Perth. Either side of the lunch break Johnson had appeared unplayable, but by the end of the summer England and their attendant Barmy Army had enjoyed very much the better of the duel.

"That's just the pressure of the game sometimes," Johnson said. "I struggled over in England in an Ashes series [in 2009] and probably let it get to me. Towards the end of that series I started to feel okay, but I guess it's just the build-up and the pressure of an Ashes series.

"I haven't found it in any other series, I haven't struggled that much with the pressures, but it is a big thing, the Ashes. I haven't thought too much about it but I would like to get better at it.

"I think for me I put too much pressure on myself, because I try to bowl the perfect ball all the time and then I put too much pressure on myself. And in a big series like that you just can't do that.

"You look at their [England's] squad, they'd been playing well for a long time, they've got a very good opening pair at the moment, a bit like a Justin Langer/Matthew Hayden sort of relationship. They're working really well as an opening pair. So there's a few things that come into it but I think I definitely try to bowl that perfect ball too much."

Johnson's mental approach is now to close the gap between his best and his worst, so he may deliver sturdy spells even if the planets have not aligned as they did at the WACA ground last December.

"Today was a perfect example, I didn't feel at my best today but still worked through it and bowled good enough I think," Johnson said. "I had a chat to Craig about it after and he said I looked pretty good. Having him and his experience as well is going to help me in the rest of my career.

"Definitely it's something I'm going to keep working on. You have your bad days but you've still got to go out there and perform, I've just got to find that balance."

That right balance, and the right grip.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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