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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rick on March 26, 2009, 3:22 GMT

    Mitchell Johnson is foremost a premiere fast bowler, and secondly a more balanced and technically correct batsman than his bowling team-mates. Despite the relatively lofty batting average for a number 8, Mitchell Johnson should continue to bat at 8. Australia's specialist batsmen should be scoring runs (I'm looking at you Clarke and Hussey). Having Johnson at 8 is a bonus, a luxury that opposition teams surely look upon with envy. Johnson at 8 could even be intimidating for opposition sides, so leave him there. The worst Australia could do is bat him up the order, and certainly he should not ever be considered as a nightwatchman, itself a questionable tactic unless Jason Gillespie is in the team ... Let sanity prevail and keep Johnson at 8. And may he break many more heads and hands with the ball.

  • Alistair on March 25, 2009, 11:43 GMT

    Obviously a lot of folks saying that Johnson isn't as good a bat as Wasim Akram, Richard Hadlee, and Kapil Dev haven't cast their eyes over the stats. Johnson is much better statistically than Kapil in bowling and batting averages and strike rate. Kapil took a lot of wickets, but let's see how Johnson stacks up at the end of his career. Already though he clearly has more shots and confidence as a batsman than all three of the afore mentioned. He's unlikely to match Akram and Hadlee on bowling averages but as a batsmen - if he can find consistency - he will far outshine all three. Looking at Botham's stats - you could imagine Johnson finishing up with similar career stats if his body holds up.

  • Palaniappan on March 25, 2009, 9:50 GMT

    Jhonson is a remarkable player. His slinging action when accurate can dismiss the game's greats without question. He has been a very effective bowler since arrived at the international scene. His talented batting is a welcome addition for the Australian team as its top order is really inconsistent. Without doubt he will churn quite a lot of runs when needed by his team. But i suspect if he has been that effective in the ODI's. For the past two years we have seen the Australian team getting all out. If so, i can't remember an innings in the ODI's when he has made an impact with his batting. But needless to say if he has been an impact all rounder in the tests he will be an all rounder in all formats of the game.

  • Ritesh on March 25, 2009, 6:22 GMT

    To Shangomega - I guess you either didn't read or comprehend what I had written in my comment before spewing vitriol against me. So, at the cost of repeating myself, I enjoy watching Johnson bowl and I think he's one of the best bowlers in the world right now. The delivery that swings into the right hander is a great addition to his arsenal and we'll see him destroying some batting lineups in the months to come. All I am saying is that the media / team management should not put too much pressure on him by calling him an allrounder and comparing him to Kapil Dev or for that matter even Botham or Imran. Now, Kapil,Botham and Imran were way better batsmen than Johnson, weren't they? So, Johnson's batting needs to be treated as a bonus and he should continue to focus on his bowling. A suggestion that I'd like to give you is do not try to generalize / use stereotypes when you make comments (e.g. chirping Indian bandwagon). It is in poor taste. Thanks. Ritesh

  • Himel on March 25, 2009, 5:57 GMT

    I would say that it's yet too early to rate Johnson as a true all-rounder, and comparing him with Kapil and the likes is a total stupidity. Come on guys, he's an exciting cricketer, good bowler and has suddenly discovered his batting ability! If he can turn himself into a match-winning all-rounder it'll be great! But why overrate him now? Australia have already suffered the lose of Watson, who couldn't handle the pressure well, of serving the team as an all-rounder. It's very natural that a pace-bowling all-rounder has to work very hard, and thus often struggle with injuries and to retain his form. Lance Klusener, for example had to give up just before becoming a true great!! Kallis on the other hand is a miracle. I just wonder how can a top-order batsman become so effective with seam bowling!! Spinning all-rounders usually find it less hard, but still there are very few in modern days (ex: Jayasuriya).

  • Hamish on March 25, 2009, 3:42 GMT

    In response to ChakDeIndia_007 bowling Johnson current averages 28.01, Kapil Dev averaged 29.64. Admittedly with only 94 wickets it's still early in Johnson's career but the bowling average is pretty good.

  • Hamish on March 25, 2009, 2:48 GMT

    nafzak, interesting rating on Imran. I'd say that the names in contention for best allrounder are (not in order) Faulkner Sobers Miller Rhodes Kallis Imran

    how they're rated largely depends on how important you rate the batting and bowling contributions. Miller and Imran are the best bowlers amongst them, Sobers and Kallis the best batsmen amongst them.

  • andrews on March 25, 2009, 2:28 GMT

    Peter Roebuck's assessment of Johnson has been myopic from the start-he's finally woken up. On radio during the Nagpur Test, his comment was 'Johnson has done nothing' after a spell of 10 overs, none for 19. He'd beaten Sehwag's edge on 8 occasions in that ten over spell, yet Roebuck and Jim Maxwell went back to questioning his Test place. Then there seemed to be genuine mirth when they checked the series leading wicket-takers and found Johnson on top. Truly ignorant stuff. And Peter, his batting has not snuck up on us-he was averaging 99 early in his Test career, and he'd only batted against India. Prad, how about watching the game.

  • adam on March 25, 2009, 2:26 GMT

    At pradeepanonline, did you even watch the series? If you had, you'd know that he can move the ball. Which was also stated in this article.I'm beginning to wonder if you've even read the article. Because it also states in there that Johnson went through several injuries before making his debut, so there goes your other argument. And how can being fit and strong NOT help him in the long run? If anything, being as fit as he is will likely help him return from injury a lot better, and help him manage the massive workload he's had to undertake recently. You sound like some pessimist looking for any reason to keep Johnson out of the limelight, and stop him from receiving any recognition. Next time you try, make sure your arguments make sense.

  • kieran on March 25, 2009, 2:12 GMT

    pradeepanonline, don't worry, there's no need to apologise, because you obviously haven't seen him play much. He started off swinging the ball. Back in 2006 at the DLF Cup he got Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Pathan and Yuvraj Singh with seam, swing and pace. Then his arm dropped and the swing disappeared. And now it's back. Anyway, 94 wickets, 21 matches, avg. 28, I don't think he's too worried about how he gets his wickets. His runs are just a bonus, but I can't remember seeing a number 8 or 9 with a better technique, or as good an eye, or as strong a hitter, he'll make more 50's and 100's for sure

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