June 26, 2015

The return of the merciless Mitchells

Even as England are tested by Australia's twin left-arm menaces, they must wonder why they can't regularly produce genuine pacemen themselves

Rarely can an international cricketer have silenced his critics as emphatically as Mitchell Johnson did at the 2013-14 Ashes © Getty Images

What is the collective noun for Mitchells? A menacement? A misanthropy? A malevolence of Mitchells, maybe? Whichever it is, news that Mitchell doesn't make the list of top 100 most popular boy's names in the UK ought to alarm the long-term strategists at the ECB's Performance Centre at Loughborough, since the laws of both averages and magical causality, if not those of technocratic input-output, would suggest that the more Mitchells in the country, the better the chances of producing hostile quicks. Left-arm hostile quicks.

And what a pair they are, Johnson and Starc, that malevolence of Mitchells. Each is the sort of bowler of which a habitually strike-taking opening batsman would be inclined to ask his partner: "Fancy first rock today?" (If England opening bulwark Alastair Cook really is "Ned Flanders", as KP suggested, then he ought to check the stock room at the Leftorium.) If terror is defined as simply a principle of reflection - certainly the stump mic picking up the clunk-thunk-thunking decimation of the batsman's castle, the timbre of the timber, has amplified the threat of fast bowling in the batsmen's imagination - then they might even be considered terrorists.

The Mitchells represent the ghosts of Ashes recent past and near future, the personification of English torment at the hands of the sort of super-aggressive quick bowling, backed with attitude, that Darren Lehmann has pretty much institutionalised after observing the not-quite-so-one-sided series in 2013 (incidentally the English problem with Aussie Mitchells was irrefutably proven by Mitchell Marsh's 5 for 33 in the World Cup, a phantom seamer turned destroyer by nominative voodoo).

Rarely can an international cricketer have silenced his critics as emphatically as Mitchell Johnson has done. Previously, you will recall, he bowled to the left, and he bowled to the right… However, Dennis Lillee's "once in a generation bowler" discovered his moustache, then his mojo, before turning into a bad mofo and binning the Barmy Army brickbats once and for all with 37 Ashes wickets at 13.97 and a second ICC International Cricketer of the Year award.

The Mitchells represent the ghosts of Ashes recent-past and near-future, the personification of English torment at the hands of super-aggressive quick bowling backed with attitude

For all the muscular relentlessness of his run-up (which reminds of Stephen Spielberg's Duel), the sight of Johnson pounding to the wicket - elbows tucked in, wrists cocked and lower arms tight against his flanks: the puny forelimbs, immense thighs and slightly jerky gait of a CGI tyrannosaurus - is unlikely to open up the mental scars unless the pitches provide his round-arm howitzers with sufficient bounce to threaten the head and thus take away the feet.

On the other hand, his co-Mitchell - tall, angular and bowling a full length from a high action - has all the ingredients to spread trauma irrespective of the surfaces. With those elongated Balkan features, the face of a Bond villain's sidekick, Mitchell Starc clearly possesses a fast-bowlerly aura of hostility. He has both swagger and snarl. There's little fellow feeling for the batsman, an attitude epitomised by his infamous IPL stoush with Kieron Pollard. And how about his run-up: the loping, rangy approach that eats up the ground, then that extraordinary leap into his delivery stride, soaring past the umpire with limbs extended, like a large aeroplane landing on a small island, thudding down on the narrow landing strip - or perhaps, with that spindly frame, a giant stork swooping down into a lake for a fish. Mitchell Stork.

His visit here for the 2013 Ashes was marked by callowness and waywardness, and while he is yet to fully master the red ball (which in many ways enhances the threat: it could be 93 mph swingers of varying lines, against which it is impossible to establish rhythmic footwork), he is clearly improving very quickly. He was Player of the Tournament at the World Cup, of course, and at 25 years old, he could be on the cusp of his own Barmy Army-shushing dominance. A five-year term as Chief Mitchell. The Starc Era. Graeme Swann thinks he's the greater threat.

So England are going to be flat out trying to handle these two, not to mention the formidable Ryan Harris and fast-improving McGrath-McDermott hybrid Josh Hazelwood. Heck, Australia are even leaving home two young tearaways in Pat Cummins and James Pattinson, both of whom won Man of the Match on debut, at least one of whom would, you feel, make England's XI were his passport different.

Can Starc carry his limited-overs success into the Test arena alongside Mitchell senior? © Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

All of which inevitably makes you lament the current disparity in fast bowling resources. They have lots, where are ours? It certainly feels a little unfair on Mark Wood for him to have to shoulder the heavy burden of a nation's fantasies of retaliatory firepower (in that regard, it's hoped his imaginary horse is more sturdy Boxer than Shergar). Where are the English Mitchell the Mercilesses? Are there any cultural reasons as to why England can't regularly produce genuine pacemen? Is it simply meteorological, the warm clasp of the southern sun kneading young muscles into the lissome shape needed for all-out scudding bombardment? Or is it, you know, "The System" - Loughborough, our Englishness, all that?

Advances in biomechanical knowledge have doubtless helped alleviate the stresses on young bowlers' bodies, but that is not yet a discipline that fully understands the complex interplay of forces unleashed in whanging down a cricket ball quickly. Even so, the impression of how such bodies are treated by The System is all too often one of - perhaps justifiable - early intervention dressed up as injury prevention, a sort of cricketing version of health-and-safety nannyism. Perhaps it simply needs to be accepted that there are unavoidable risks with consistently trying to bowl a cricket ball at upwards of 90mph, in much the same way as danger inevitably goes with the territory of the bomb disposal expert, the firefighter, and the foreign correspondent.

Youngsters need to invest in and commit to the singular thrill of all that, before the coaches de-Mitchell them too far down the path of strength-and-conditioned, safety-first, 86mph orthodoxy.

Scott Oliver tweets here