Why Mitchell Johnson fails the hipster test
Over the past few weeks, the cricketing world has been agog at the achievements of Mitchell Johnson in the Ashes. There has already been talk that his performance in two matches merits him being rated the world's best bowler.
In digesting and reacting to this news, I realised that I was a fast-bowling hipster.
At its heart, the whole point of hipsters is not about being counter-culture, but rather laying claim to authenticity. You can't be a hipster if you jumped on a bandwagon or showed up without appreciating what you were there for. A hipster is authentic because an authentic experience means being there before it was cool and marketed. Consequently, while the rest of the world treats fast bowling as a seasonal fad, for Pakistanis it is more like l'bowling rapide pour l'bowling rapide.
As soon as I decided that I belonged to this ridiculous category, I realised I would need some codes to define what kinds of things fast-bowling hipsters, at least the ones from the Pakistani school of thought, would look for. The first person I turned to for inspiration was Osman Samiuddin, the high priest of the Pakistani fast-bowling cult. I remembered how he once related Shoaib Akhtar's reaction to Irfan Pathan: "Kaun Irfan? Saala spinner! Dekho ek cheez, paceispaceyaar. Can't beat it. [Irfan who? Damned spinner! Look here, paceispaceyaar. Can't beat it."]
Osman insists that in its true spirit, "paceispaceyaar" is one word, and so it is no surprise that pace - and an abundance of it - is the first sacrament of the fast-bowling hipster. Undoubtedly pace is at the heart of Johnson's prowess, and he manages to maintain his 90-plus speeds while bowling short. This means that he brings in the desire for mortal self-preservation into play in the batsman's psyche. This is a bowling tool so powerful that cricket has changed its laws to mitigate it.
Yet pace by itself means nothing - just take a look at Mohammad Sami, Fidel Edwards and a few others. A true fast bowler needs to develop all his skills with pace only as the foundation upon which they rest. Shoaib's point above is not about what Irfan can do with the ball, but rather that unless he is doing it at pace, he can't really be called fast. After all, paceispaceyaar.
The second major facet of this proposed manifesto is the bowling action and its aesthetic effect. I must qualify here that the aim is not to extol the virtues of textbook actions, since hipsters are not puritans. What the hipster looks for is a sense of uniqueness to the action. The sight of a bowler in full flight must be an intensely evocative experience, replete with a sort of hypnotic seduction and the ability to display vastly different facets of the action when watched at various speeds.
Take a look at the actions of Pakistan's great pantheon. Waqar Younis felt like a plastic footruler, bent outwards to its extremes before lithely snapping back. Wasim felt more like a snake that coiled up suddenly and narrowed its gaze before lashing out with a swift, fatal stab. The most majestic was Imran, who seemed to float like a bird of prey for several delicious moments, almost willing time to slow down before accelerating instantaneously.
Mitchell, though, is a slinger, from a breed of pacers who sometimes lack a sense of rhythm as well as lacchak (sway) that other actions provide. My favourite slinger was Shaiby, but a lot of his appeal had to do with his hyper-flexing elbows and the spectacle of his run-up. But the slinger ideal for hipsters would probably be Jeff Thomson, whose run-up was a bit bustly, but whose delivery stride and action were an absolute wonder to watch. Mitchell's run-up, in contrast, is quite stodgy, and he uses his bowling arm almost like an appendage that he hurls with rather than as an extension of a greater process.
This idea of synergy between the various facets is imperative, because it suggests both coherence and honesty. Many people have talked about Mitchell's new-found attitude and aggression, but it's not something I buy at all. Mitchell's wickets came while he was sporting a charity moustache during a particularly desperate and shrill search for redemption amongst the Australian media. In order to create a simple narrative, Mitchell was suddenly made out to be a bloodthirsty brute.
To me, this new perception of him is the latest example of cricket's habit of enforcing macho ideals on fast bowlers. For a long time, those in charge of cricket's narrative have tried to stereotype fast bowlers as a violent, angry, primitive lot. The appropriation of the shy Harold Larwood is the oldest example I can think of, but this has been repeated over time, and is patently unfair.
Mitchell himself has often been a victim of this desire to project alpha-male fantasies on pacers. For example, Michael Atherton once described listening to Johnson explaining his tattoos as similar to "listening to a warrior talk us through his flower arrangements before battle".
Despite my fondness for Atherton's writing, this opinion rankled, because I felt players like Johnson were needlessly criticised based on their personal choices. Who said that the leader of the attack needed to be some sort of medieval warrior? However, it now seems that Johnson has stopped trying to get people to understand that he is a soft-spoken, easy-smiling Australian who bowls fast, and is instead trying to look and act like a surfer masquerading as Merv Hughes.
Such charades are an affront to the hipster, since the persona of fast bowlers must be an organic part of their psyche. It is true that this translates into many pumped-up macho figures, but those are not the only kinds of demons a fast bowler has to deal with. In either case, for hipster appreciation eligibility, a fast bowler should never conform to what society deems desirable, but rather must force society to accept him on his own terms.
The third sacrament for the hipster is a cricket brain. This might well be the most important factor of them all, because it is the one thing that cannot be compensated for. For example, Glenn McGrath might have had a lot of vertical velocity and funny one-liners, but when he bowled, he looked like a grimacing elderly man trying very hard not to snap one of the metal pins in his replacement hip. Yet he remains one of the quintessential hipster choices, simply because of the suspense novels he wrote with his spells. Few other bowlers had his ability to not only predict what the batsman would do but also force him to willingly fall into the traps he had laid for him.
Mitchell Johnson's involvement with the psyche is so far limited to creating panic and fear. Now, that is not to be scoffed at, but as a Pakistani I have plenty of experience of watching panicked collapses, and like with Mitchell's wickets, these often come off poor deliveries. Take a look at his pitch maps from the two Tests and you see few deliveries pitched up, which means that there was little attempt at lulling players into false strokes or bamboozling them with movement.
Mitchell could claim that he didn't have to do anything more to pick off the English, and while he would be correct, the hipster cares not for such excuses. The hipster needs variety, needs elaborate plans, needs to see batsmen fail despite having tried their absolute best.
These three sacraments, or pillars, of the hipster faith can be represented as a set of stumps, and that brings us to the final point.
The Pakistani school of thought regarding fast bowling is inextricably linked to wickets, or more precisely, to flying, walking, cartwheeling wickets. Think of Waqar reversing the ball so rapidly and so late that you felt there had been a tear in space-time. Think of Wasim bowling round the wicket and taking the ball away to knock back off stump. It is the ultimate humiliation for the batsman, and a singular achievement for the bowler, who didn't need fielders to complete the job for him. In contrast, a catch at fine leg doesn't give the same sense of drama or spectacle.
Moreover, being able to bowl short is a luxury few teams afford their bowlers. For the hipster, then, being able to bowl short and fast isn't so impressive if all you have known growing up are fast and bouncy wickets. Bowling fast and full in a country and climate where there is no rational reason for doing so is what the hipster looks for, and that is why the Pakistani fast bowler has such a sense of romanticism attached to him.
So please don't offer me gentle souls dolled up in hairy costumes and tell me they are the real deal. Please don't insult cricket's answer to Keanu Reeves by pretending he's Sylvester Stallone. And please, please, please make sure to consult hipsters when jumping on your next bandwagon, so we can immediately tell you how wrong you are.
Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here