February 19, 2014

The psychological dominance of Mitchell Johnson

The hold he has is not just on batsmen, it is on the collective imagination of everyone watching him bow

Each Johnson spell has become an event that captures the imagination of everyone watching it © Getty Images

How do you stop Mitchell Johnson?

Beginning a post with that question naturally implies there is now going to be some kind of an answer. Well, there won't be one here, beyond the obvious, and that is that time will stop him, as time stops them all. He bowls with the ghosts of Larwood and Thommo and Holding and all of the other terrors behind him. (My own personal nightmare? Sylvester Clarke, the brooding Grendel of The Oval, who would come and knock on the hotel room doors of opposing batsmen to let them know exactly what he was about to do.) Johnson has, in a few short months, entered the realm of men who have exerted a strange psychological dominance with the overwhelming pace of their bowling.

The compelling aspects of the Johnson story lie there, because the hold he has is not just on batsmen, it is on the collective imagination of everyone watching him bowl. As Russell Jackson observed in the Guardian newspaper this week, each Johnson spell has become event television. The thrilling news the Centurion Test brought with it was that the Ashes was no one-off: if Johnson could do his thing away from home against Test cricket's best team, then it can happen anywhere to anyone. After a single game, there are echoes of what he did to England, which was to induce a kind of deep-rooted demoralisation that extended beyond the field and into the psyche (he was not playing alone, of course, but he was a spearhead). It was as if he had pulled out a pin that held the team and organisation together, and the unit just sprang apart - injury, illness, retirement, disharmony all had their way.

As the Cricket Australia Twitter account reported a little too gleefully - Ryan McLaren will miss the second Test with Johnson-induced concussion. There is also a run of luck that feels familiar: Dale Steyn stricken with food poisoning, Morne Morkel falling on his shoulder, and other phenomena not directly connected to Mitch but part of a general entropic slide. Just as England had players central to their strategy reaching the end of the road, so South Africa are absorbing the loss of Jacques Kallis: it's hard to think of a single player more difficult to replace. The captains of both teams happen to be left-hand openers, and Mitch is regularly decapitating both.

At the heart of all of this, as many have observed, is Johnson's pure and thrilling speed, channelled now into short and violent spells in which he bowls either full or short. This is the game reduced to its chilling basics. And yet there is mystery here too, and while unravelling it offers no answer to stopping Johnson, it may explain a little further what is causing such devastation.

The speed gun says that Johnson is bowling at speeds of up to 150kph, areas that other bowlers have touched. Because of the way in which speed guns work, deliveries of the sort that skulled Hashim Amla and Ryan McLaren registered more slowly due to where they pitched. (I'm sure that was great consolation to both players as the ball thudded into their heads.)

However, as the great Bob Woolmer revealed in his book The Art And Science Of Cricket, the nature of speed is not absolute because it is relative in the eyes of the batsman facing it. His research showed that the very best players - those who are euphemistically referred to as "seeing the ball early" - are actually reacting to a series of visual clues offered by the bowler in the moments before release.

Players who have faced Johnson speak of the sensation of the ball appearing "late" in his action, as his arm swings from behind his body. This is perhaps a combination of a couple of factors: the "clues" that Johnson offers in his run-up and delivery stride might be slightly less obvious than in other bowlers, and that his already ferocious pace is magnified by the extra micro-seconds that a batsman takes to pick the line and length of the ball (all the more impressive given that Johnson essentially only offers two lengths, and little variation on his themes).

Thus, with Mitch, the flexible nature of speed perception is working in his favour. Only the truly blessed - AB de Villiers, Kevin Pietersen et al - can play him with a little more certainty.

Pietersen was moved to tweet last week about the huge difference between 140kph and 150, just as his near-namesake Alviro was dismissed with a waft to the keeper. He said that you can "instinctively" play the wrong shot in those circumstances. What he was driving at was that Johnson offers no time for anything other than instinct, no margin to correct that first thought.

This is theory, of course. What can't be conveyed as easily is the psychological pressure that speed exerts. Players are wobbling to the crease with their minds consumed by thoughts of what he can do, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. South Africa are on a slide that will take tremendous resolution, as well as skill, to stop. In Smith they have one of Test cricket's most redoubtable men, and in de Villiers and Amla two of the most sublimely talented. It is absolutely fascinating to watch, and Mitch has done the game a great service in his phoenix-from-the-flames revival. This is cricket at its sharpest physical and psychological point.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Clifford on February 22, 2014, 21:01 GMT

    I think Hello13 may possibly be right. I just don't see MJ as a thinking bowler. I don't think speed is everything as much as control is? Too many control bowlers have proven that a probing line and length is much more effective. Think MJ is a labile personality and doubts will creep in, reducing his effectiveness. He also needs success to motivate him which if a small injury or unhelpful pitch occurred, would send him a cropper. I think today, that J. Anderson and Steyn are better bowlers. Much more suited to adaptation and rigours! I think his current success is due to poor strokes and patience. If, he's good, what do you class people like Wasim, Waquar and Marshall etc? Stellar, staggering, stupendous, brilliant?

  • Mohammed on February 21, 2014, 7:32 GMT

    Watching Mitchell bowl has made Test Cricket exciting from ball número uno - one does not have to wait until the last two innings of the match where the deterioration in the pitch makes the game interesting. And already AB and Algar are showing how to play MJ - one does a stutter step to cover the off stump and the other lets the ball hit him with his hands down - which is anti-instinctual, since the hands always fly up when a missile is coming towards you. The joys of cricket are immeasurable, and the battles of MJ with the world's best and most courageous batsmen makes riveting viewing!

  • Samuel on February 21, 2014, 6:31 GMT

    I just wonder for much longer the rest of the team are going to be happy playing second fiddle. It looks to me like Pup, Warner, Haddin and maybe even Ryan Harris are starting to feel a little peeved at being treated like the water carriers.

  • Rajdeep on February 20, 2014, 21:53 GMT

    Oh please, this guy has had one good series! Dale steyn is a far better bowler, and has been doing it much more consistently. Same with James Anderson. Steyn has also done it on flat wickets, Mitchell hasn't.

  • Dummy4 on February 20, 2014, 17:37 GMT

    check this article in cricinfo from 3 years ago - is the mustachioed mitchell johnson, the johnson mitchell they were speaking about ??


    Johnson Mitchell is an exciting prospect: a dashing young fast bowler known for his immaculate dental hygiene and uncanny ability to land at least three balls an over on the cut strip. The young lad apparently celebrated his call-up by getting a tattoo of a pitch drawn on his left forearm, featuring helpful arrows indicating where to bowl. One or two journalists have suggested that Johnson Mitchell bears an uncanny resemblance to Aussie reject and all-round no-hoper Mitchell Johnson "Mitchell Johnson is a failed pie-chucker who simply cannot be relied upon in a crucial Ashes battle; he is a luxury we can't afford. Johnson Mitchell, on the other hand, is a deadly fast bowler who will cause the English batsmen sleepless nights, particularly since we had that radar device fitted to his cranium

  • ShankarNarayanan on February 20, 2014, 7:24 GMT

    Nice Article. Yeah, a fast bowler can bring you to the edge of your seats. With ref to Sylvester Clarke, who played under Alwyn Kalicharan against India in a 5 test series, he was a tear away and accompanied by Holder and Philip(WI Depleted due to Packer series), Against ST Clarke&co, Sunny Gavaskar had scores of 205, 73, 120, 0,4, 115, 182 n.o ,1 totalling roughly around 700 plus in a 5 match series. Yeah..Sunny could play the real fast guys well.

  • Andrew on February 20, 2014, 6:59 GMT

    Great article. I do believe that where the ball is carried thru the delivery stride jas a big effect on how easy a bowler is to read. Thommo was perfect in that he was so side on. the ball is hidden behind his back. Other players like Courtney Walsh were difficult to face because there was a flurry of arms in the delivery style.

  • Ashok on February 20, 2014, 6:51 GMT

    I guess the best way to tackle MJ is to take quick singles and get down to the other end. At least, he can't hit the non-striker!

  • Clive on February 20, 2014, 6:16 GMT

    "the sensation of the ball appearing "late" in his action" - this is far more insightful and interesting than the usual "he's quick".

  • rob on February 20, 2014, 5:53 GMT

    I think people are way under-estimating the job our other bowlers have been doing. I've seen stuff like 'one man band' and 'Harris is useless' and 'Siddle is a club cricketer'. I think that's wrong. They're bowling as a tight little band of brothers and they're doing it intelligently, to a plan and as a single unit. .. That's why they're successful. Don't get me wrong, Mitch is bowling like an amped up Greek God, but the others aren't doing too bad either for mere mortals. .. there's just nowhere to run for the batters. They all bowl well and runs are hard to come by. By the time they get their 2nd dose of MJ most of them have had enough. Despair sets in.

    @ disco_bob: I've got a feeling MJ is more interested in assassination than assimilation :)

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