January 11, 2014

The difference the threat of injury makes

Mitchell Johnson has brought the forgotten art of bowling to intimidate back into focus

Various theories are now doing the rounds as to why England have lost the Ashes so badly. And typically, the cricketing intelligentsia have thrown up some impressive suggestions that seemingly connect the dots in English cricket. But very often we will ignore the simple things that lead to an occurrence in a simple game of bat and ball.

I believe there was a just one straightforward reason that England lost 5-0 in the Ashes, and that reason was Mitchell Johnson. Not so much because he bowled quick but because of where he bowled those quick deliveries. Johnson bowled a total of 464 short balls in this series, most aimed at the ribs of the batsmen, which means of the total of 1132 balls he bowled, 41% were meant to intimidate the batsman physically. That, by modern standards, is an exceptionally high percentage, when bowling in the "right areas" and in the "channel outside the off stump" is the norm.

Johnson made the English batsmen fear for their lives, and once the survival instinct took over, they became easy pickings to balls pitched up. Not just for Johnson but for Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, who may have been pleasantly surprised to see how effective their full and good-length balls had suddenly become. They need to thank Johnson for that.

Glenn McGrath, a truly great fast bowler of our generation, started a new trend in cricket sometime in the mid-'90s. He bowled a narrow channel outside the off stump and rarely did anything else. By bowling in the right areas and in the channel, he picked up 563 wickets at an average of 21.64. There was no reason to dispute his tactics and a whole generation followed suit. Bowling in the right areas and staying patient became classic clichés for seam bowlers, and there was not a single interview of a young seam bowler I heard in this time that did not have the phrases "right areas" and "being patient" in it.

Mitchell Johnson in this series, I thought, went back in time. Skipping the whole McGrath generation, to the time in the '80s when the great West Indian fast bowlers spread fear among batsmen in world cricket. Batsmen in the '80s were wary of those West Indians because they could seriously hurt you with at least two balls in an over - two balls that were aimed at your ribs, before that slightly fuller ball would come and do its work. Putting fear of physical hurt into the batsman's head was a wicket-taking tactic for them; in fact, it was their chief weapon. But the generation after McGrath seems almost to have forgotten about this weapon.

Johnson, by his deeds in this Ashes, may just have sent a strong reminder to all the fast bowlers around the world of this very potent wicket-taking tactic. For Test cricket's sake, I hope young fast bowlers take a cue. With their bodies well protected now, the chances of batsmen getting seriously hurt are slim. But as we have seen in the Ashes, it just makes for a more severe test of a batman's ability in a format that is called Test cricket for a reason.

Someone like Morne Morkel, especially, can take a leaf out of Johnson's book. Morkel has the perfect gifts to emulate Johnson, frightening batsmen with pace and bounce, but he generally tends to bowl like a "good boy" and uses the bouncer only as a variation, not in a genuine attempt to put fear into batsmen's minds. A batsman quickly senses when a bouncer from a fast bowler is just a token variation and when it is more than that.

When Johnson was bowling his bouncers you could see he was intent on attacking the body, forcing batsmen to take protective action. This makes all the difference. When a batsman is consumed by thoughts of protecting his body, protecting the stumps is not a preoccupation anymore.

I don't agree with the view that Australia have the three best fast bowlers in the world. What they have is one bowler who has rediscovered the tactic of physical intimidation, thereby making the job of Harris and Siddle that much easier. Instead of Johnson, think for a moment of another seam bowler in his place this series, one bowling in the right areas and in the channel outside the off stump. England would have looked a far better batting line-up than they did. Batsmen like Carberry and Cook for example, would have got their front foot further down the pitch with greater confidence. Enough to make Harris and Siddle have to work that much harder for their wickets.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

Comments