Johnson thriving in the fast lane
Just before Mitchell Johnson bowled the first ball to Chris Gayle in Mumbai Indians' home match against Royal Challengers Bangalore, Craig McMillan, the former New Zealand batsman who was doing the commentary, read the Australian's mind. Having seen two slips in place, McMillan predicted Johnson would aim to "go hard, fast and short" at Gayle. Johnson did exactly that to test Gayle, who had scored the fastest century in Twenty 20s in his previous match.
A hot and cold bowler through his career, Johnson has been accurate and aggressive with the new ball so far in his first IPL season. Though he was bought by Mumbai in the 2012 auction, injury forced him to sit out last year. This season though, Johnson has troubled batsman with his pace and ability to swing the ball in both directions. In the Test series in India before the IPL, Johnson featured in only the final match in Delhi, where he went wicketless. That was the first series Johnson played having recovered from a toe injury.
His progress in India in the shorter format has been impressive as he is currently one of the top ten bowlers of the tournament with eleven wickets.
Former Australian fast bowler Andy Bichel, who is the bowling coach for Chennai Super Kings, felt Johnson's success is primarily because he is combining his pace, swing and experience. "He has become more consistent with the swing he bowls upfront. Getting the new ball and using it to his advantage is one of the things he has done very well in the tournament," Bichel told ESPNcricinfo. "He is swinging it back at a good pace as well. He is strong, fit and probably at the peak fitness of his career."
Delivering consistent lines and lengths, Bichel said, was important to restrict batsmen when the field restrictions are on. "It is still old-fashioned cricket, and that is where people get a little bit confused in the first six: If you are bowling good lines and lengths, and swinging at good pace, it makes it hard for the batsman."
Johnson now bowls with a slightly high-arm action, an improvisation which he admitted has made a marked difference in achieving a better rhythm. Bichel also said that Johnson is in a much better place in his personal life, which has added to his clarity. "He is more consistent with his action over the last ten months, and that is a big change for him. He has a good understanding of his action now. He is at the age as well where he [has] relaxed [a] bit more, his off-field life is better and that is important."
Reflected in Johnson's confidence was the message he sent to Gayle. It was Johnson saying, I am bowling short at you, take me on if you can. Gayle couldn't.
His new-ball partner, Lasith Malinga, was also teasing Gayle with changes of pace, length and speed in the next over to induce more anxious smiles from the Jamaican. Though Gayle took advantage of a fuller length from Johnson in his third over by hitting two boundaries, he was clearly unsettled. Chasing 195 for a win, Gayle was the go-to man for Royal Challengers, which has a top-heavy batting order. After the first six overs, they had not lost any wickets but had only 35 on the board. Gayle was out the next over from Harbhajan Singh, but Johnson deserved the credit for his fall.
Even in his first IPL match in Bangalore, Johnson had bowled seven deliveries to Gayle, giving away only three runs. Gayle ended up hitting a match-winning 92, but Johnson finished as the most economical bowler with the scalp of Tillakaratne Dilshan in his three overs, which cost just 15 runs.
"We planned on bowling short to him, especially on a nice, quick wicket like this one. We wanted to unsettle him and it seemed to work. We got him moving around in the crease, which he doesn't like to do. You never know if a ploy would work on a day in T20 cricket but it worked at that time," Johnson told iplt20.com after Mumbai's narrow win over Kings XI Punjab at home on Monday evening. Johnson finished with 2-29, having dismissed the dangerous South African left-hander David Miller, who nearly caused an upset.
"The excitement and enjoyment that I am getting out of it has been great. Shane Watson always talked it up, and I often chat with him about how it is like to play in the IPL," Johnson said. "Now to get the opportunity, and that too in Mumbai, which has the best of conditions for a pacer, has been brilliant."
The hard pitch at Wankhede and the even breeze have come to aid Johnson, who has taken seven of his wickets in Mumbai. "I like to use the cutters but I also use the short ball quite often. Using the short ball on wickets like this at a quicker pace is very important, and so are the change-ups."
Mumbai are currently in fourth position with six victories, and are contenders to make the playoffs. Johnson's success will be an important element of their progress, and both the team and bowler will agree that there is an important grey area - the death overs - that needs to be dealt with. Johnson has leaked 79 runs in the seven death overs he has bowled so far. As Johnson said, he has to learn a few tricks from Malinga.
"You've really got to do your homework on players. I think if you can bowl a very good yorker, it's pretty hard to hit. On our Mumbai ground, the square is quite long and so it's quite hard to hit a good short ball there. It really does come down to the conditions, grounds and players. But if you can bowl the 'Malinga' yorkers, you'll do pretty well to stick to them."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo