March 24, 2009

Full speed ahead

Mitchell Johnson has moved from newbie to pace-bowling spearhead cum hard-hitting No. 8 double quick, and the best part is, he's not nearly done developing yet

Mitchell Johnson's buccaneering innings at Newlands enhanced his reputation as an immensely talented cricketer likely to provide outstanding service to his team and rich entertainment to followers of the game over the next five or so years. His blistering batting outburst and impressive array of strokes may have merely delayed inevitable defeat, but they also revealed an exceptional eye and uncommon timing. With his free swing of the bat, willingness to take the ball on the rise and ability to direct it to all parts of the arena, Johnson is reminiscent of Adam Gilchrist. On this evidence he is a better batsman than Wasim Akram or Richard Hadlee, and a match for Kapil Dev. Already he averages 30 or so in Test cricket, a figure that escaped attention till he started belting the bowlers around in the first match of this series.

Admittedly this is high praise, yet Johnson's batting in South Africa has caused all and sundry to reassess his abilities. Certainly it is no longer feasible for the Australians to send him out at seventh wicket down. Not that he is the finished product. Over the years Johnson has not taken his batting all that seriously, and accordingly bits and pieces of maturity have been left behind. For instance, he is inclined towards daft dismissals early in his innings, ignoring straight deliveries and so forth, and then departing with a rueful smile that tells of the unplanned life. Once set, though, he gets on top of the bowling with such alacrity and conviction that presently defensive frailties pale into insignificance.

At Newlands, and before, at the Wanderers, Johnson was unsparing against pace and spin, scored runs off both feet and on both sides of the wicket. He plays with the free swing of the bat that indicates an uncluttered mind and that batting remains his second string. Although his swing is generous it is not lusty, for passion plays no part in his cricket. To the contrary he is an open sort of man, almost goofy at times, and bats along these lines. He hits the ball hard without apparent effort, clears fieldsmen without appearing to strain. Perhaps that is his secret. With bat and ball Johnson relies on ease and fluency, as opposed to muscle. Not that he lacks strength. By all accounts colleagues are reluctant to tackle him in the forthright games sporting teams play now and then by way of letting off steam. Suffice it to say that his game depends more on flow than explosion.

Johnson played all manner of shots in his first Test hundred, including extra-cover-drives taken on the rise, stylish strokes past mid-on, pulls that peppered the stands behind midwicket, and even nudges that forced distant fieldsmen to scurry in to prevent a second run. When Paul Harris pushed eight fieldsmen back to the ropes, Johnson responded by clearing all of them. Rumpelstiltskin could not have caught his lofted straight-drive. Poised on 95 and with wickets starting to tumble, Johnson found himself facing Dale Steyn with all South Africa patrolling the exterior. Again, he did not hold back. Steyn sent down a bumper and the Queenslander hooked it over the boundary. Not a bad way to reach a Test hundred. It had been his 86th ball.

Admittedly the innings had been played in a lost cause, against a weary attack and on a pitch as flat as a table top. But that had not been true in Johannesburg, where Johnson reached an unbeaten 96 only to run out of partners. In any case it hardly explained the breathtaking shots played by the lanky left-hander or the spirit that lay behind them. Hereafter Johnson's batting will be considered by every opponent. His innings set him apart as a cricketer whose boundaries remain unknown, whose abilities have not been fully explored; a player without meanness, a late developer still learning the skills of the game, a work in progress.

Amidst all these reflections it is worth remembering that Johnson is first and foremost a fast bowler. For that matter, he is ranked among the top two pace bowlers in the world. At this juncture he is the only Australian confident of securing a position in a world XI, and that as a bowler alone. Besides his runs, he took 16 wickets in the recently completed series, was Australia's best bowler on the subcontinent, and between times held the attack together in the antipodes. His only bad spells came after a rest. During the southern summer he was given a week's holiday and took another week to rediscover his rhythm. Australia enjoyed a break between Tests in Africa and on his return Johnson was about as accurate as a government statistic.

Otherwise he has been reliable, willing and fit. Certainly he has been blessed with remarkable stamina and athleticism. To watch him field off his own bowling tells the story. He has run batsmen out from short leg by dashing, collecting, swivelling and throwing stumps down, all in a flash and without breaking stride. His body seems to be made of rubber. Sachin Tendulkar was removed this way in Adelaide in 2008, and others have made the mistake of underestimating Johnson's speed of thought and foot.

Over the last month or so, he has made another, even more critical, improvement in his cricket, a change that had a big influence on the series. Throughout the Indian tour and again at home, in countless Test and one-day matches, he relied on movement away from the bat, achieved by cutting his fingers across the ball. Apart from that he depended on pace, bounce and perseverance. At times he seemed to take wickets luckily as batsman after batsman tried to drive through the covers and sliced to gully or edged to slip. Observers were surprised batsmen lacked the sense and patience to ignore deliveries heading away from the sticks. Hereabouts he seemed to be a one-trick pony.

With his free swing of the bat, willingness to take the ball on the rise and ability to direct it to all parts of the arena, Johnson is reminiscent of Adam Gilchrist. On this evidence he is a better batsman than Wasim Akram or Richard Hadlee, and a match for Kapil Dev

Certainly the South African returned to base convinced that Johnson could only send the ball away from right-handers. Then he bowled his opening over at the Wanderers. Immediately it was obvious that his action had changed. Previously his arm had been lower and his action slingy. Now he reached for the skies and his wrist was straight. Nonplussed, Graeme Smith groped and edged to the keeper. Hashim Amla arrived and found the ball swinging back into him. In the few weeks between series Johnson had learned to bowl an inswinger. In that moment Australia's chances of subduing South African aspiration and English presumption surged. Now batsmen had to play at wider deliveries. Now it was feasible for even the most discreet to edge catches behind the wicket. In Durban, Amla fell plumb leg-before-wicket to the inswinger, a delivery that continued to trouble batsmen.

Fortunately for batsmen, Johnson is not yet in complete control of his action. At present he tends to bowl spells of swingers with the new ball and cutters with the old ball. If the ball refuses to swing even from the packet, then he will revert to his old style. Otherwise he will attack the stumps, seeking leg-befores and catches at short leg, means of dismissal almost irrelevant a few months ago. Not that he concentrates only on movement. At Kingsmead he suddenly unleashed a fiery spell that contained numerous deliveries lifting sharply off a previously docile pitch. Smith ended up with a broken finger and Jacques Kallis' chin was badly bruised. In a few overs Johnson inconvenienced and hurt two of the best and bravest batsmen in the world. Not that he is a brutal bowler, a Lillee with his scowl or a Thommo with his thunderbolts. There is no menace in Johnson, merely danger in his bowling. Apart from anything else, Johnson does not like to stand out. His highest aim is to play his part.

It is all a far cry from the hesitant cricketer first heard about a decade ago. In hindsight the early acclaim and dramatic promotion may not have helped him. By nature shy, Johnson was plucked from obscurity as an 18-year-old after Dennis Lillee saw him send down a few deliveries in the nets. Lillee rang Rod Marsh and told him to put the unknown left-armer in his squad for the forthcoming Under-19 World Cup. It says something for Marsh's faith and Australia's flexibility that the instruction was obeyed.

But Johnson lacked the depth of knowledge and thick skin needed to absorb this exposure. Probably he was uncomfortable with the fame and expectation, did not feel ready. Accordingly he did not grab the opportunity so much as find ways of avoiding the limelight. Injuries and sporadic appearances followed. Australians remained excited about the bolter emerging in the northern backwaters, but as the injuries mounted and the excesses grew, so frustration set in. Now and then Johnson played for his state and often left his mark, but he seemed reluctant to embrace his gift. Instead he yearned to remain with his mates and to lead the unknown life.

Eventually he found himself driving a plumber's van around Townsville and playing club cricket. He seemed happy enough. Luckily his employer and friend was having none of it. One day the pals watched the Australians play on TV and the older man turned to his driver and said "Well, Mitch, what do you want to do? Drive a van or join these blokes?" It was the right question at the right time. By now Johnson was ready to go into the flames. Of course the same point had been put to him before, a thousand times by a thousand friends. Always he had baulked at it. Johnson needed to sort himself out. Maybe he needed to drive a van around a bush town for a few years. Maybe it was not a waste. Maybe it saved his career, allowed him to settle, to grow up, to establish his life and priorities so that he came to cricket willingly, was not ambushed by a game and a talent that he had not chosen.

At any rate it has not taken Johnson long to make up the lost ground. In a few months he has learnt how to bat and send down an inswinger. He has also learnt a more important lesson, about taking responsibility and dealing with pressure. It has been the making of him and all the evidence suggests that it might also be the making of this reformed Australian team.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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