December 1, 2013

England need a plan for Johnson

They must respond to the Australian bowling threat adequately or the series will slip away from them fast

Can England put him off his length? © Getty Images

Genuine fast bowling can change a game or a series quicker than any other skill in cricket. However, I didn't envisage the enormous psychological swing that Mitchell Johnson's express deliveries wrought at the Gabba.

England are in trouble in the Ashes series and their chances of retaining the urn will depend on their response to the threat in Adelaide. Australia are the more adaptable squad, while England tend towards being one-dimensional; Adelaide will provide more clues.

England's first priority is to dent Johnson's sky-high confidence. If they allow him to continue in his rampant Brisbane form then the confrontation at the WACA in the third Test can only go one way - Australia's.

Johnson is more accurate when he pitches short. Therefore England has to find a way to change his length. When he pitches full and tries to swing the ball, he often sprays his deliveries. That means someone in the England top order has to judiciously challenge his short-pitched deliveries.

While the fall and departure of Jonathan Trott is sad to behold, it may have delivered England the ideal opportunity. Ian Bell is a born No. 3 and now is the time to promote him. He, along with the captain, Alastair Cook, is best equipped to tackle Johnson. Both handle the short-pitched delivery well and also hook and pull securely when the opportunity arises. This is the perfect combination to slow Johnson's progress, and the time is right in Adelaide, where the pitch is more placid than either the Gabba or the WACA.

England's other priority concerns what to do with their attack. It was adequate at the Gabba without having the edge to it that Johnson provided Australia. The onslaught that was supposedly going to be visited on Michael Clarke to test his aptitude for the short-pitched delivery was more like an attack with a handbag than a hand grenade.

Along with his audacious strokeplay, David Warner did his part in dampening English enthusiasm for intimidation by ferociously hooking the very first ball he received from Stuart Broad. England have to decide whether they maintain their policy of trying to make Australia's runs hard-earned or whether they want to make life uncomfortable for them. If they decide on the latter it'll require the promotion of a faster bowler and a drastic change in philosophy from the captain - a more aggressive pursuit of wickets.

That's a couple of major changes to make mid-series. England could easily be damned if they do and damned if they don't, but there's one certainty: if they allow the status quo to prevail then they're in big trouble.

So while much of the focus has been on the verbal side of the contest since the Gabba Test, it's not words that will swing the balance for England but deeds.

Australia on the other hand are suddenly well placed to regain the urn. One-nil up is a good spot, with Adelaide, a potential draw venue, being followed by a trip to Perth, where a fast, bouncy pitch favours the home side. England are indeed fortunate the second Test isn't at the WACA, because in their current state that could easily have meant two down after two.

Australia are far from home and hosed, as the batting is still vulnerable. The bowling, however, which always appeared to be the best chance of providing victory, now has greater depth with Nathan Lyon's improved form and a real edge to the attack with Johnson's resurgence.

So often, once a genuine fast bowler stamps his authority on a series, the mental damage inflicted can carry over even on the most benign of surfaces. That's why it's imperative for England to at least quell the uprising in Adelaide even if they don't win the match.

Genuine fast bowling has changed Ashes series quickly in the past, as we've seen with the likes of Harold Larwood, Frank "Typhoon" Tyson and Jeff Thomson. And judging by the way he bowled at the Gabba, Johnson could add his name to that illustrious list if England don't show plenty of imagination in Adelaide.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist