December 18, 2010

Into the mystic


Swing. No word in cricket tantalises like it.

Wrist, finger, arm, chest and ball positioning might make a cricket ball swing through the air. Then again, they might not. The grass’s greenness, ball’s redness, seam’s brittleness, leather’s absorptiveness, air’s moistness and the day’s cloudiness can help a bit. Or a lot. Or zilch.

Swing is where cricket leaves physics behind and goes into the mystic. You can also block, whack, catch, throw and spin a cricket ball. But the fundamentals of these can be roughly passed on, from parent to child, whether in a minute or a month or seven years. Fifteen days was how long Mitchell Johnson spent in the practice nets of Adelaide and Perth rehearsing the one thing for which there are certain fundamentals but no guarantees. Swing.

Helping him was Troy Cooley, his bowling doctor. “Doctor”, when it comes to swing, has an unscientific meaning – as in witchdoctor. Together they worked on Johnson’s fitness. They tinkered with his running speed towards the crease, his proximity to the stumps, the height and angle of his torso and arm, his momentum before delivery and his body direction after delivery. Cameras, videos and a trampoline, apparently, were involved.

Educated guesswork was what it was. It was nothing Bob Massie hadn’t tried – except maybe for the trampoline – years before. For five midsummer days at Lord’s, 1972, Massie had the ball swinging out of the fingertips and the world at his feet. For most of the rest of his cricketing lifetime, which was whiled away in club and suburban turf ranks, in between shifts at the Commonwealth Bank, he’d occasionally experience the strange minute-long sensation of seeing a cricket ball swing again. On a good afternoon, two outswingers might fizz out of his hand – “if I’m lucky”.

Massie was a serious student of his art. It is an art, alas, where studying can get you nowhere. Not long after those five days at Lord’s, he’d confided to Richie Benaud: “The main thing I learned [is] you have to select a spot on the pitch where you want the ball to land and aim at it constantly.”

If only swing was so simple. If only it was a matter of wanting and aiming and learning.

So when Mitchell Johnson ran in at the WACA Ground yesterday, he did so with 15 days’ sweat behind him and zero expectation in front of him. Nearly two years it was since he’d made a ball hoop. His 19th ball of the morning, to the left-handed Alastair Cook, did not hoop either. But it did slide away, and it slid late. What would have been four matter-of-fact runs 15 days ago became a thick edge to gully.

Who knew? Today was to be a good day.

After that Johnson made balls swing further, faster, later. Peachy batsmen in ripe form – Trott, Pietersen – could not stop balls veering and crashing into their pads. With swing came wisdom. Soon Johnson was hurling one short at the throat, then one full and wobbling. The batsman, tentative and on the back foot after the previous delivery, would be powerless to jam down on the next one. At no stage did you sense Johnson could control at will – or at all – the degree of swing, not like the true-genius past masters, not with a tilt or a cock or a roll of his left wrist. This was no bad thing. For if the bowler ain’t controlling it, the batsman ain’t reading it. By day’s end he had six wickets.

Afterwards he reckoned he hadn’t particularly been trying to make it swing. “Seeing the ball swing like it did,” Johnson said, “it was very exciting for me.”

It sounded like a simpleton talking. Actually this was profound indeed, a kind of expression of wonder, Johnson’s way of saying that what just transpired was not something explainable. His words were a sensible precaution, as well; just because it happened today, he was warning us, don’t expect it to happen tomorrow.

A few minutes before Johnson was given the ball, an edge ballooned slowly from Andrew Strauss’s bat and between the wicketkeeper and first slip. The hands of neither man budged. Australia were trailing in the series, and a mile behind in this match, and as the ball rolled away to the boundary you could almost see the Ashes urn bumping along after it.

And then the ball swung.

And that’s the most tantalising thing about that word: its double meaning. Swing. No sooner does the ball do it than the game does it too.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country