October 25, 2011

Facing the fastest gun in the west

A top-order batsman deconstructs the all-too-brief contest

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.

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