November 25, 2013

What fast bowling does

It gives aggro to your fielders, jitters to the opposition, and thrills to the fans

Good fast bowling can wilt even the hardiest batsmen © Getty Images

Only last Thursday, England were the pundits' unbackable favourites for the Ashes - don't let any of them tell you otherwise. Stick to the facts, said the glitterati of the game: England have the better cricketers. Wise heads predicted 3-1, or something like it, while the headstrong went for 5-0. Predictions are a mug's game. Last winter, England were going to be hammered in India. Wrong.

Form, fitness, karma in the two camps and recent history told us that there could only be one winner down under. Moreover, a suspicion lingered that the English batsmen were better suited to Australian pitches and that all those giants bursting out of tight England shirts would be the mother of handfuls on the hard bouncy pitches of the Great Southern Land. Oh, and England held the psychological cards. Well, all that was wrong too.

In one of the most startling turnarounds the game has ever seen, Australia beat England to a pulp at Fortress Gabba. Johnson became Thomson and the ghosts of 1974-75 haunted England from the moment Jonathan Trott began to fend prior to lunch on the second morning. In the days of the Chappells, Marsh and Lillee, Jeff Thomson took England by a mighty surprise. Legend has it that he bowled balls at 160kph as a matter of course. English county cricketers are said to have hidden behind armchairs when the BBC played newsreels from Australia and balls bowled by Thommo ricocheted off bare heads to cover point. Mitchell Johnson may not be Jeffrey Thomson but there was something brutal and utterly compelling about his assault on Alastair Cook's team.

This is not an age of crackerjack fast bowling. Indeed, Dale Steyn is the one true exponent and even he only slips himself when mood and circumstance take him. The game has been missing the sense of danger upon which much of its folklore is developed. From Harold Larwood and Bodyline to John Snow hitting Terry Jenner at the Sydney Cricket Ground; from the "Demon" Fred Spofforth through to Lillee and Thomson; from Merv Hughes and Brett Lee, Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff, the Ashes has frequently reminded us that physical courage is an essential part of a cricketer's make-up.

Cook has it in abundance and proved as much yesterday with a brave attempt to salvage English pride. When he fell immediately after the weather delay, and to an offspinner, his despair was apparent. He had, of course, stood as the non-striker and watched both Trott and Kevin Pietersen caught at deep backward square-leg in attempts to counter-punch. What would he have made of these dismissals? Clearly, he cannot expect everyone to simply defend, an approach that requires a specific state of mind. Probably he forgave Pietersen, who was looking to play his own adventurous game. Perhaps he bristled at Trott, who appeared to panic.

We shall never forget Mitchell Johnson's seriously fast bowling and the manner in which a highly competent, well-enough prepared and previously serene England team was humbled in 54 minutes while making just 9 runs

This is what fast bowling does best. It makes the opponent panic. Whether it be in the dressing room, whispering, or in the middle, wilting, batsmen are moved to an altered and confused state by the truly fast men. Quite literally, fast bowling keeps you awake at night and makes you sweat in the morning. Fred Trueman used to spend much of the hour before play in the opposing dressing room, frightening the life out of the freshers. The old 'uns were not immune either. Witness the Essex spinners Ray East and David Acfield, who used to wait in the car park for the likes of Andy Roberts, Sylvester Clarke and Joel Garner and then offer to carry their bags for them.

The next best thing about fast bowling is the effect it has on those teams that possess it. Otherwise mute fielders suddenly find an aggressive voice; short-leg fielders become hyenas, whooping on their man from a position so close that the batsmen can smell the carnivorous hunger; wicketkeepers remind everyone of the immediate possibilities of a cricket ball propelled at something close to 150kph and ensure the batsmen are in earshot. The Australian captain even went so far as to tell James Anderson to "get ready for f***ing broken arm", a splendidly unedifying comment from a charming enough man. Many a muscle has been flexed by cricketers with fast bowlers at their side.

The crowds live at the grounds love the gladiatorial nature of these passages of play, and television further enhances the frenzy with its tight shots, slow-motion replays, various angles and hyped-up commentators who have stories of their own to tell. It is a dimension of the game that needs protecting, while its less attractive offshoots need policing.

There is so much international cricket that, for much of the time, the players find a way to cope at around 80% of their output. This is not obvious to the spectator in any area other than fast bowling. Equally, the pitches are increasingly uniform and made to last, not to entertain. An argument says the Gabba is the best pitch in the world, for it allows the players to express all aspects of their game. Certainly Australia played a thrilling brand of cricket from the time Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson began their effervescent partnership on the first afternoon. (Forever, Cook will wonder how different this story may have been had England finished off the Australian innings right there.)

We shall remember that effort with the same clarity with which we will recall David Warner and Michael Clarke dashing to hundreds on the third day. And we shall never forget Mitchell Johnson's seriously fast bowling and the manner in which a highly competent, well-enough prepared and previously serene England team were humbled by him. Humbled in less than an hour. Humbled in 54 minutes, to be precise, while making just 9 runs. In this period, Australia took six wickets - Ryan Harris the first, Nathan Lyon a couple, and Johnson the other two, before dismissing England for 136. There is no coming back from that. Sometimes it takes five full days to win a Test match. Other times it takes under an hour. Thanks to Johnson, the Ashes has exploded into our consciousness and it is no longer England who hold the psychological cards.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK