October 25, 2011

Facing the fastest gun in the west

A top-order batsman deconstructs the all-too-brief contest
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My trepidation and excitement for the new season were amplified when I heard Mitchell Johnson was to be available for a rare Sheffield Shield appearance, his first for Western Australia at the WACA. There can scarcely be a better way to measure how you are travelling as an opening batsman than to take on Mitch on the turf where he single-handedly destroyed South Africa and England with late-swinging missiles.

I can hear the sniggers already - 29 Test wickets at more than 38 apiece in the past 12 months are not numbers to inspire fear. One of the easiest pastimes of journalists and cricket watchers is mudslinging - spitting out stats and mouthfuls of mutterings that someone is no good. Their view may differ if they had a bat in hand and their career depended on the outcome.

The television does not do any justice to the physicality of Johnson. He looks like a cross between an ox and a leopard - or at least he did while bowling in the nets during the first day's warm-up. You could sense his calm as he walked, without arrogance but with conviction and confidence. Relaxed, shoulders back, chest out. Detractors have always said he oozed too much amiability. There is a fine line between being unaffected and being seen not to be a hard-nose. He certainly looked at ease with the world. They say you can tell a lot about a thoroughbred race horse from how it walks in the dress circle. Perhaps the same can be said of Mitch.

Those who watched him closely in Sri Lanka said he was close to being back to his best - even though the stats suggested otherwise. It seems he enjoyed being let loose, knowing that those bowling from the other end were going to play their role of shutting down the scoring and building pressure. Sometimes the whole is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.

The other thing the vantage point of the couch fails to show is raw pace. There is no doubt Mitch is quick, and it is only when you are the one who has to track the ball from his slingshot action that you gain full appreciation of the fact. Opening batsmen are used to it coming quickly, so when mid-pitch conversations suggest they are humming through, you know the bowler must be special. Batsmen are also excited by the challenge, knowing such pressure usually brings out the best of your reactions, with simple and pure thoughts.

Watching from behind the arm, as most close observers of the game prefer to do, does not convey a sense of how hard it is to pick up his first few deliveries. He rocks back after the familiar rhythmical approach, and then it seems you wait an eternity for the ball to be launched towards you. An ever-so-brief moment of panic can sweep across you as you realise he has let it go but you have not picked it up until the ball is halfway down. There is certainly some luck involved in getting through those early exchanges - if one delivery is on the money, your day can be over before it really begins. So much of the advance information gained by batsmen about the length of a delivery vanishes when the bowler possesses such an action.

Mitch, like Shaun Tait, who with his similarly low release point is an enigma of the modern game, possesses an x factor captains dream of having at their disposal. Some days even these bowlers don't know where it's going: I once saw a square-leg umpire have to duck a misguided Tait loosener. Moments later we were 4 for 1, after an inswinging yorker had forced one stodgy left-hander to use his bat as a crutch as he limped off with a shoe dripping blood. Tait has struggled to maintain his body for sustained bowling, but Mitch has been much more durable. That, too, is part of his appeal.

My plans at the WACA were simple. They had to be, against serious pace. I'd get on-side of the ball to negate the angle in, and not expect any swing away from my left-hander's stance. If it did swing, I felt I would adjust late

Successful batting can often be about rhythm - getting used to lengths and cues. It can sometimes feel as though you know the general vicinity in which the ball will land well before the bowler does. That is never the case with these cowboys. Balls can fly left, right and centre in the space of a few deliveries. Though a little unnerving at times, this also provides great scoring opportunities.

My plans at the WACA were simple. They had to be, against serious pace. I'd get on-side of the ball to negate the angle in, and not expect any swing away from my left-hander's stance. If it did swing, I felt I would adjust late. The plan was clear: get forward and look to push him down the ground, knowing square-of-the-wicket shots would come naturally as the innings progressed. I knew the best place to play was from the other end: clichéd, yes, but generally effective in resisting the new ball.

Sometimes even the best plans come unstuck. The first couple hit the bat rather than the other way around. Just to prove there is a huge gulf between the best and the rest of us, Ricky Ponting pulled his first ball from Mitch off his nose in front of square for a memorable boundary. I settled the nerves with a few well-hustled singles. Twenty balls in, I was becoming accustomed to the hurler's trajectory when a missile angled in and straightened down the line to beat the offered outside edge and cannon into the off bail. New-season dreams momentarily shattered by a ball too good and somewhat wasted on me.

Ed Cowan is a top-order batsman with Tasmania. His book 'In The Firing Line' has just been published by New South Books.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • CatchesWinMatches on October 26, 2011, 9:20 GMT

    Really interesting stuff. The key to producing velocity is the sequential chain combined with separation. Look at all the real quicks past an present and there will be a similarity in that respect. Do a frame by frame of the delivery (after back foot landing), especially at point of release, and you will see the same shapes created by pitchers in baseball. If pitchers can generate 100mph from stationary, using the correct chain / sequence (all be it with a bent elbow) is it any wonder why somebody using similar mechanics (except the bent elbow) can do it with a run up ! Fast Bowling 101 . . . "Generate MPH"

  • gt09 on October 26, 2011, 8:17 GMT

    Awesome writing Ed - definitely have another fan!! The clarity of descriptions & measured tone of articles are excellent …somewhat mirrors ur dependable batsmenship 4 Tassie too. Good 2 hear some relevant perspective from a current FC cricketer…. rather than the endless outbursts of so many 'armchair experts' :) @avmanM scorecard refers 2nd INNS - when Ed played for NSW

  • prozak on October 26, 2011, 7:58 GMT

    Very nice article. But Mitch's job is to bowl to world class test cricketers not mediocre first class cricketers. I am sure i would be baffled, scared and humiliated even if I faced Mitch. But I'm not a world class player either

  • Meety on October 26, 2011, 0:33 GMT

    @Winsome - where do you get that Ed is not a Cowan fan? Just curious. @smudgeon - LOL! Yep, I wish he'd be in sync with the weather pattern at the moment because there is likely a strong La Nina this year again! Long range weather forecast is raining wickets for MJ in Saffa-land! Might even include some runs off his own bat too!!!

  • DaveMorton on October 25, 2011, 23:57 GMT

    I was an England supporter during the Ashes, and we enjoyed our little dig at Mitch: "He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, etc, etc..."

    But I said, and wrote, then that I'd love to see the brave boys of the Barmy Army face just one over in the nets from him, and would they still be able to sing with knocking knees and squeaky bum?

    Good piece, Ed.

  • AvmanM on October 25, 2011, 21:12 GMT

    The scorecard links to the wrong game.

  • on October 25, 2011, 18:29 GMT

    Nice article Ed. I am an aspiring sports journalist myself and love to read different types and styles of writing and I think your innate sense for writing is admirable. I really enjoyed listening to you and Jarrod on the first episode of The Cricket Sadist Hour and despite being a staunch England fan, I'm really interested in the Aussie Sheffield Shield, so it was a pleasant surprise to find an articcle by a current player. Nice one mate!

    Jack

  • on October 25, 2011, 17:24 GMT

    great article Ed. It is tough facing perfume ball in club cricket can imagine the jitters that bastmen one level below test cricket would feel facing mitch when he is on song.

  • winston_veerender on October 25, 2011, 17:23 GMT

    Beautifully written... the same could quite easily describe what most club cricketers go through in their minds when they have to face the more talented ones!

  • on October 25, 2011, 16:12 GMT

    watched this game and after tea, when the cloud cover appeared, Johnson was unplayable....

  • CatchesWinMatches on October 26, 2011, 9:20 GMT

    Really interesting stuff. The key to producing velocity is the sequential chain combined with separation. Look at all the real quicks past an present and there will be a similarity in that respect. Do a frame by frame of the delivery (after back foot landing), especially at point of release, and you will see the same shapes created by pitchers in baseball. If pitchers can generate 100mph from stationary, using the correct chain / sequence (all be it with a bent elbow) is it any wonder why somebody using similar mechanics (except the bent elbow) can do it with a run up ! Fast Bowling 101 . . . "Generate MPH"

  • gt09 on October 26, 2011, 8:17 GMT

    Awesome writing Ed - definitely have another fan!! The clarity of descriptions & measured tone of articles are excellent …somewhat mirrors ur dependable batsmenship 4 Tassie too. Good 2 hear some relevant perspective from a current FC cricketer…. rather than the endless outbursts of so many 'armchair experts' :) @avmanM scorecard refers 2nd INNS - when Ed played for NSW

  • prozak on October 26, 2011, 7:58 GMT

    Very nice article. But Mitch's job is to bowl to world class test cricketers not mediocre first class cricketers. I am sure i would be baffled, scared and humiliated even if I faced Mitch. But I'm not a world class player either

  • Meety on October 26, 2011, 0:33 GMT

    @Winsome - where do you get that Ed is not a Cowan fan? Just curious. @smudgeon - LOL! Yep, I wish he'd be in sync with the weather pattern at the moment because there is likely a strong La Nina this year again! Long range weather forecast is raining wickets for MJ in Saffa-land! Might even include some runs off his own bat too!!!

  • DaveMorton on October 25, 2011, 23:57 GMT

    I was an England supporter during the Ashes, and we enjoyed our little dig at Mitch: "He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, etc, etc..."

    But I said, and wrote, then that I'd love to see the brave boys of the Barmy Army face just one over in the nets from him, and would they still be able to sing with knocking knees and squeaky bum?

    Good piece, Ed.

  • AvmanM on October 25, 2011, 21:12 GMT

    The scorecard links to the wrong game.

  • on October 25, 2011, 18:29 GMT

    Nice article Ed. I am an aspiring sports journalist myself and love to read different types and styles of writing and I think your innate sense for writing is admirable. I really enjoyed listening to you and Jarrod on the first episode of The Cricket Sadist Hour and despite being a staunch England fan, I'm really interested in the Aussie Sheffield Shield, so it was a pleasant surprise to find an articcle by a current player. Nice one mate!

    Jack

  • on October 25, 2011, 17:24 GMT

    great article Ed. It is tough facing perfume ball in club cricket can imagine the jitters that bastmen one level below test cricket would feel facing mitch when he is on song.

  • winston_veerender on October 25, 2011, 17:23 GMT

    Beautifully written... the same could quite easily describe what most club cricketers go through in their minds when they have to face the more talented ones!

  • on October 25, 2011, 16:12 GMT

    watched this game and after tea, when the cloud cover appeared, Johnson was unplayable....

  • Winsome on October 25, 2011, 13:25 GMT

    I'll comment again just to say that Ed Cowan in general is NOT a fan of Mitchell Johnson's bowling at all. So it's an interesting read.

  • on October 25, 2011, 11:53 GMT

    Great article. It is unusual and refreshing to have a current player - and a good one at that - humble and unaffected enough to write about one of his contemporaries in such a way. A genuinely interesting read..

    Loving your work, Ed, even if you are selling yourself a bit too short.

  • AJ_Tiger86 on October 25, 2011, 10:57 GMT

    LOL! Ravi Bopara is a better bowler than Mitchell Johnson. Mitchell Johnson should not be allowed anywhere near the Australian test team.

  • Winsome on October 25, 2011, 10:38 GMT

    I've always felt that a lot of Mitch's success (when it comes) is due to the problems created for the batsman by his action. His run-up must fool you somehow into thinking that he's not that quick but then his slingy arm speed makes it hard to read. Excellent article.

  • Simoc on October 25, 2011, 10:32 GMT

    Great writing Ed. Though I only got to schoolboy level Richard Hadlee was a menace. Thankfully only in the nets. My strategy was to upset the fast bowler so they'de want to knock my head off. Worked sometimes. But with genuine pace I can't see how any opener sees the first couple of balls. That is the fast bowlers chance. I reckon Mitch Johnson is a great fast bowler. I think he'll see off Brett Lees stats ok. Wish he would score more runs.

  • Liz_Hamp on October 25, 2011, 10:02 GMT

    this man is admiring mich's balls. is this a social networking site or a mitch my man club...

  • smudgeon on October 25, 2011, 10:00 GMT

    Meety, the La Nina/El Nino camparison is spot on! Let's really hope it is more of the La Nina coming up, but it better be one hell of a downpour to keep out his competition.

  • 512fm on October 25, 2011, 9:52 GMT

    nice read but its obviously going to be a little biased in favour of johnson tho isnt it?

  • lillie_express on October 25, 2011, 9:30 GMT

    I like your insights into first class cricket Ed. Its very interesting: Im a Doctor, studying Neurosurgery, but I would give it up to be a first class cricketer, and living with the frustration of my enthusiasm outstripping my talent is at times all too much of a bitter pill to swallow, but fact nonetheless. So Im left wondering "whats it like...", so to read your down-to-earth description of what it is like is brilliant mate...the perspective from the strikers end, life behind the scenes, the insight of "the best v the rest", its great. Ill get your book. Keep it up.

  • loudmouth on October 25, 2011, 8:38 GMT

    Terrific article from a fresh perspective! I too have found myself pulling my hair out watching Johnson knowing that he's destroyed Eng + SA in Tests and India's top order in ODIs in India! I think too many pundits have just assumed that Mitch would become the new Glen McGrath. OK Mitch may not go on to become one of the greats of cricket but nobody 'gave' him those 187 Test match wickets. His next two seasons will be interesting to watch to see if he slows his pace and learns to consistently swing the ball and really work batsmen out.

  • Green_and_Gold on October 25, 2011, 8:36 GMT

    Really enjoyed reading this! Nice to also see positive comments about the writer.

  • svalson on October 25, 2011, 8:09 GMT

    Nice read. Most people who think MJ isn't great aren't qualified to make such a comment. Any one who plays cricket at that level is special. As a club cricketer, I have come across some serious talents who will never be on the almighty telly. Your insight into the game as a real player is more valuable than many others who aren't. Thanks.

  • on October 25, 2011, 7:22 GMT

    What a superb read. Thanks a lot, Ed.

  • jonesy2 on October 25, 2011, 6:21 GMT

    once again ed, you write the only worth while pieces on here. brilliant stuff. keep it up. i can tell what you mean when facing a bowler like MJ, just look at how petrified the english openers were throughout the ashes and how graeme smith looks now.

  • Marcio on October 25, 2011, 5:57 GMT

    Interesting. You'd almost think Johnon was a good bowler from this article.

  • robheinen on October 25, 2011, 5:48 GMT

    Great stuff, Ed. Thanks for taking me with you in front of the stumps. It's been a while.

  • Rahul_78 on October 25, 2011, 5:43 GMT

    Ed seems to have developed a man crush on Mitch! It will be interesting to see how Mitch goes on SAFer pitches balling to Kallis and co for a change from WACA wickets..!

  • Kunal-Talgeri on October 25, 2011, 5:21 GMT

    Ed, you are a wonderful writer much like your name-sake, who writes and played as an opening batter for England -- Ed Smith. :-) Keep writing, mate! It is a pleasure to see participative-sports writing. A very real ode to Mitch and Tait.

  • on October 25, 2011, 5:17 GMT

    Well written and very understated! It was defnitely not wasted on you Ed. You are a good playa! Carry the dreams of a Baggy green mate!

  • on October 25, 2011, 5:13 GMT

    Great read, Ed! So true, sometimes we all armchair critics forget how it is to be out in the middle.

  • Ben1989 on October 25, 2011, 5:11 GMT

    nice insight once again from Mr Cowan about the a batters mental thoughts whilst facing someone like Mitch..

  • the_flying_squad on October 25, 2011, 4:50 GMT

    Another tremendous article by a very exciting cricket journalist. I do hope he sticks with it, as he seems to provide a true, fair insight that is sorely lacking in articles by those who have never really played the game at a decent level. Well done Ed and good luck for the rest of the season, both on and off the field.

  • RightArmEverything on October 25, 2011, 4:22 GMT

    Ed, another fine article. Only read a couple of your articles but I'm sure to be a regular. Nice to also get the perspective of someone still active in the game. And I totally agree with your comments about mudslinging journos and particularly spectators. We're a fickle bunch and if Johnson has a good series of Sth Africa everyone will be singing his praises.

  • Chris_Howard on October 25, 2011, 4:22 GMT

    Great piece, Ed. Regards those on the couch not being able to appreciate the raw pace, I noticed watching my kids' cricket on the weekend, that you lose an appreciation of the pace when at a distance and from behind the keeper or bowler. Which is exactly where you are when you're on the couch. As a spectator, if you want to appreciate how fast someone is bowling, you've got to get square. Shame the TV doesn't show more replays from square of the wicket. Good luck this year

  • Meety on October 25, 2011, 4:16 GMT

    Mate Ed, without wanting to blow wind up ya bum, that was an awesome description of the thought processes involved with facing a good quick. The self depreciation in the last line was very humble, (bit too humble IMO). There are signs that MJ is entering a wicket taking phase, he's a bit like El Nino & La Nina weather systems on the East Coast, when it rains it pours, when it doesn't its drought & nothing in between!

  • thewayitwass on October 25, 2011, 4:07 GMT

    sometimes it is best to keep it short and sweet- truly a brilliant article, so fantastic to get the perspective of an actual cricketer.. keep up the great work you now have a loyal reader

  • dsig3 on October 25, 2011, 3:55 GMT

    Fantastic article. Best written at Cricinfo for some time. Most people who have played cricket at any level have had moments when facing a fast bowler who is a level above. I am sure if Cowan faced Johnson as much as Ricky Ponting he would play him much better. Most people, including me, rag on Johnson from time to time. However, the guy gets paid to intimidate the best batsmen on the planet. He doesnt do it with seam or swing, he does it with pace and aggression. When a professional player such as Cowan can describe it this well, it gives us scrubs a little insight.

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  • dsig3 on October 25, 2011, 3:55 GMT

    Fantastic article. Best written at Cricinfo for some time. Most people who have played cricket at any level have had moments when facing a fast bowler who is a level above. I am sure if Cowan faced Johnson as much as Ricky Ponting he would play him much better. Most people, including me, rag on Johnson from time to time. However, the guy gets paid to intimidate the best batsmen on the planet. He doesnt do it with seam or swing, he does it with pace and aggression. When a professional player such as Cowan can describe it this well, it gives us scrubs a little insight.

  • thewayitwass on October 25, 2011, 4:07 GMT

    sometimes it is best to keep it short and sweet- truly a brilliant article, so fantastic to get the perspective of an actual cricketer.. keep up the great work you now have a loyal reader

  • Meety on October 25, 2011, 4:16 GMT

    Mate Ed, without wanting to blow wind up ya bum, that was an awesome description of the thought processes involved with facing a good quick. The self depreciation in the last line was very humble, (bit too humble IMO). There are signs that MJ is entering a wicket taking phase, he's a bit like El Nino & La Nina weather systems on the East Coast, when it rains it pours, when it doesn't its drought & nothing in between!

  • Chris_Howard on October 25, 2011, 4:22 GMT

    Great piece, Ed. Regards those on the couch not being able to appreciate the raw pace, I noticed watching my kids' cricket on the weekend, that you lose an appreciation of the pace when at a distance and from behind the keeper or bowler. Which is exactly where you are when you're on the couch. As a spectator, if you want to appreciate how fast someone is bowling, you've got to get square. Shame the TV doesn't show more replays from square of the wicket. Good luck this year

  • RightArmEverything on October 25, 2011, 4:22 GMT

    Ed, another fine article. Only read a couple of your articles but I'm sure to be a regular. Nice to also get the perspective of someone still active in the game. And I totally agree with your comments about mudslinging journos and particularly spectators. We're a fickle bunch and if Johnson has a good series of Sth Africa everyone will be singing his praises.

  • the_flying_squad on October 25, 2011, 4:50 GMT

    Another tremendous article by a very exciting cricket journalist. I do hope he sticks with it, as he seems to provide a true, fair insight that is sorely lacking in articles by those who have never really played the game at a decent level. Well done Ed and good luck for the rest of the season, both on and off the field.

  • Ben1989 on October 25, 2011, 5:11 GMT

    nice insight once again from Mr Cowan about the a batters mental thoughts whilst facing someone like Mitch..

  • on October 25, 2011, 5:13 GMT

    Great read, Ed! So true, sometimes we all armchair critics forget how it is to be out in the middle.

  • on October 25, 2011, 5:17 GMT

    Well written and very understated! It was defnitely not wasted on you Ed. You are a good playa! Carry the dreams of a Baggy green mate!

  • Kunal-Talgeri on October 25, 2011, 5:21 GMT

    Ed, you are a wonderful writer much like your name-sake, who writes and played as an opening batter for England -- Ed Smith. :-) Keep writing, mate! It is a pleasure to see participative-sports writing. A very real ode to Mitch and Tait.