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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • tom on November 29, 2013, 9:24 GMT

    Unfortunately, Australians cannot handle fast bowling and hence complain and winge when on the receiving end eg Larwood and John Snow.

  • M on November 27, 2013, 4:41 GMT

    @m_ilind ; I'm not sure you can say they only rediscovered Mitch during the recent ODI series in India, after all he went there on the back of excellent form from the ODI series in England.

    But that said, I have been saying for the last 12 months that MJ was finding better consistency since his return to the domestic scene. I think the selectors noticed but had the nagging sensation of his last performances during Ashes... at some point his consistency (and the misfortune of injured Aus bowlers) had to be looked at seriously.

    In the lead up to this Test I was saying that you can stop asking which MJ is going to turn up... the answer is neither the good nor the bad, but the NEW MJ with his more repetitive motion... I think he will bowl well in Adelaide on a batsman's wicket but both WACA and MCG will give him good reward for those that bend their backs.

  • Raj on November 27, 2013, 3:21 GMT

    brisCricFan and Shaggy076, the trajectory and the heavier ball implies that it is the pitch. The back of the length balls are ricocheting off the pitch, climbing higher rather unexpectedly and hitting the keeper gloves harder or anything before that. MJ knows what that length is and was able to exploit it better than Broad. Harris is bowling fuller and has a different gameplan. Though totally agree with both of you - Mcgrath had some zip that would hurt at 135kmph so does MJ.

  • Milind on November 26, 2013, 21:33 GMT

    Aussie selectors rediscovered Mitchell Johnson during the one day series in India. He might have been overlooked otherwise, as his bowling form has been patchy otherwise. He bowled well in the IPL also for the MI, but that seems to go unnoticed as the IPL is seen more as a domestic competition by the foreign boards and players. Ian Chappell was critical of the scheduling of the one day series in India before the Ashes, wonder what he thinks about it now? All said, Mitch has been the main difference between the two sides.

  • Peter on November 26, 2013, 20:35 GMT

    Pace bowling coupled with a baying crowd completes the picture. The atmosphere at the Gabba was unbelievable, the crowd was humming, yelling, really stirring the emotions. If the bowlers couldn't get a high out of that, not sure what could. I think I am getting an idea how tough it is for us to win State of Origin matches up there especially when the crowd is buzzing. The plus for England is that no other ground attracts this sort of atmosphere although the MCG & SCG do have their moments. Adelaide, with Hobart, I found are the most conservative. Perth is the only ground I haven't gone to a test (although been to a Shield match once), so I can't comment on them.

  • Android on November 26, 2013, 19:05 GMT

    just think that too much is being made out of one test...remember mark is not the one who will back off from this challenge ...remember his 149 against SA last year where he pummeled an attack boasting of a steaming steyn morkel kallis and philander? cook has shown time and again that he can make the opposition cry with his remorseless accumulation of runs once he gets in.... don't count out Ian bell either...he s coming off a magnificent home leg of the ashes ....above all we know how consistent Mitchell Johnson is ! don't be surprised if he gets thrashed around in Adelaide and that will be the end of fiery Mitch for this series... In my view Ryan Harris is the only bankable seamer in the Aus line up and if he breaks down somewhere then it l be a thunderbolt for Clarke ! so there s every possibility that eng can look back after the series and laugh at the first test and at the comments you guys are making after it... beware ;)

  • Dummy4 on November 26, 2013, 17:51 GMT

    we need to wait till the last ball bowled in 3rd test to predict the outcome of this series. One win over a overseas team who did not get chance to acclaimatize in australia due to rains. I mean Mitchel johnson was bowling for aussies for last 6 years , he was always a good bowler with bad line. In last two months MJ bowled with line and length and with great speed. What if MJ gets injured. What if he starts to bowl old line outside the off stumps and out side the leg stump.

    I think we all need to wait and see how MJ bowls and how england batsmen play him and other aussie bowlers. I don't think eng will let this ashes go that easily.

  • Kim on November 26, 2013, 14:59 GMT

    What is worrying is we are bowling at club level and Australia at 90+mph. The wicket won't matter much in Adelaide if they bowl that fast at us again. This will be a long tour for us, a very long tour. I revise my 5-0 England to win pre series score and now know that Australia will win it 5-0. Phew, it feels good to come clean with that.

  • Pad on November 26, 2013, 11:13 GMT

    Its been a while since we last spoke about some serious fast bowling, except for Styn's occasional wonders. In 80s and 90s, these kind of performances were everyday occurances with Windies, Pakistanis, and Aussies having a batallion of MJs and Stynes. Those were the days... and sad to say that T20 has killed good cricket. Modern day batsmen are failing to handle one guy; Imagine they were up against 90s Pakistanis or 80s West Indies!!

  • Mashuq on November 26, 2013, 10:18 GMT

    Agree @The_other_side on (November 25, 2013, 17:52) that it is nowhere near 1974 attack yet. But in England in 2015 they may be betyter than they were in England 40 years before! Then they had Lillee Thomson Walker Gilmour. They may well have Cummins Pattinson Bird Starc and Johnson. If these guys are all fit and firing watch out!