February 19, 2014

The joy of Johnson

How one fast bowler gatecrashed several batting tea parties

"Get out of my way before I devour you alive" © Getty Images

Cricket could be described as a collection of people standing around in a field performing elaborate athletic rituals while they wait for something to happen.

This is not a criticism. The standing-around aspect of cricket raises it above most other sports. Football, for example, also consists of people in a field waiting for something to happen, but in football, the people spend all their time running hither and thither in a breathless and frequently undignified pursuit of events. An hour or so of watching people haring about recklessly can drive you to distraction, as anyone who has shared a house with more than one young child can confirm.

Rugby too involves a certain amount of standing, with marginally less running than football, but features considerably more heaving, grunting, punching and bleeding, none of which is conducive to a pleasing viewing experience. The only other sport that comes close to cricket is baseball, but the positive impression created by the lack of meaningful action is spoilt by the players' unhygienic expectorative tendencies.

Newcomers to cricket often complain about the dullness, but if they stick with it, then eventually, like novices meditating under a peepul tree, they get it. In cricket, as in life, nothing happens for long periods of time. Then something happens. Then it stops happening, normality is resumed and we spend the rest of the game remembering the thing that happened, like travellers trudging across the Sahara recalling their last oasis.

Sometimes the thing that happens is an illegal or dubious thing: an aluminium bat, a mouthful of leather, a pocketful of dirt, a finger-wagging stand-up row between two portly gentlemen wearing white, a sheepish underarm, a fat man with a moustache chasing a dog. These things are part of cricket history whilst the games in which they occurred have disappeared into the black hole of memory where most sport ends up.

Occasionally, the players can provide the thrills. But only certain kinds of players are able to do this. Mitchell Johnson is one of them.

I'm not a cricket journalist, so I know nothing about fast-bowling technique, but to the uninitiated, the pleasure of watching Mitchell Johnson bowl is a straightforward one. It may be that what Johnson does these days is incredibly complicated. But it doesn't look complicated. To the outsider it appears that as soon as he ditched all the paraphernalia of the everyday swing bowler, all that humdrum yawnsome stuff about wrist position and seam-angle anxiety, his bowling became gloriously simple.

For 14 years, 21st century batsmanship has been a genteel tea party in which overrated nudgers and blockers have strolled around on soporific pitches, politely taking it in turns to accumulate enormous piles of devalued runs.

Into that cosy set-up, Mitchell Johnson has burst like a caveman, smashed all the cups, emptied the tea pot over the vicar's head, stuffed all the fairy cakes into his mouth and swung from the ornamental light fittings making Tarzan noises.

By reducing his bowling to the basics: a short fast one and a full fast one, he appears to have fulfilled the promise of that idea that we all secretly nurture: that if only we could just cut away all the trivia, the worry, the nuance, the subtlety and the detritus of everyday life, we could live a simpler, happier, altogether more thrilling life. Mitchell Johnson isn't just an entertaining fast bowler, he's a prophet. Sort of.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here