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 have now been closed for this article

  • Chris on January 15, 2014, 11:15 GMT

    @RednWhiteArmy - the problem is that, while they are skillful bowlers and great in English conditions, the English bowlers aren't consistently quick enough generally, or good enough in fast bouncy conditions, to do what Johnson did. Broad maybe, briefly, but the rest were cannon fodder most of the time they bowled short, especially against such attacking batsmen. Sanjay's article left out a critical point, that there are very few bowlers, if any, in the world today that could do what Johnson did, because of his extreme pace, his left arm angle, and his low point of delivery and skiddy action. Very good article, but I also disagree with Sanjay about Harris - he was the best bowler in England last series and awesome in this series, and the pressure he, Siddle and Watson helped build enabled Johnson to do what he did with such success. I do agree though that the 5-0 result had much more to do with how good Australia's bowling was than how bad England's batting is - cause & effect.

  • Dummy4 on January 14, 2014, 10:06 GMT

    Sanjay makes some great points here. In recent years, there have been very few out and out fast (as opposed to fast medium) bowlers. When you add in padding, this means batsmen haven't been in fear of being hurt (unlike, say, facing Marshall, Garner and Holding). I don't want to see batsmen hurt, but they should have to take the possibility into consideration. It disturbs their concentration, and brings uncertainty into their footwork. McGrath was an exceptional bowler, using a method that worked brilliantly for him (Walsh and Ambrose used it towards the end of their careers too), but it doesn't work (or need to work) for everyone. For example, in the SA attack, Philander uses the "McGrath method", Steyn generally bowls full swingers, and Morne should be used as an intimidating bowler to help the other two get wickets.

  • Rajaram on January 14, 2014, 8:01 GMT

    Silly of Sanjay Manjrekar to think that Australia does not have the best fast bowling attack in the world. He wants us to think that Mitchell Johnson ONLY intimidated - he forgets that he got the highest number of wickets, and he got the Man of the Series Award NOT for Intimidation, but for taking the maximum number of wickeets.

  • Dominque on January 13, 2014, 17:31 GMT

    Exceptional fast bowlers throwing hostile stuff makes the game negative. It is just defend and wait and wait for a lose ball to play cricket shot. Game changed, dont know if there can be good cricketing shots !~

  • o on January 13, 2014, 14:59 GMT

    Good article. I believe Test cricket needs more bowlers like Johnson to survive as nothing beats the adrenaline and excitement of watching a fast bowler with the ability to seriously injure batsman. Test cricket had become rather mild of late I hadn't seen so much excitement in a long time for all people to watch the game and that was almost entirey down to Mitch.

  • Sean on January 13, 2014, 6:07 GMT

    England should have bowled so many beamers at Johnson

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2014, 5:59 GMT

    I thought English intention to stay on the wicket was missing, probably they were trying to counter attack.

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2014, 4:44 GMT

    I agree with what Sanjay says in parts. The biggest threat of Mitchell Johnson was to the tail and you could see how Broad, Swann while he was there, Anderson and Bresnan just folded up . In fact that was one of the key differences between the sides. I remember Rob Key the English batsman on the Ashes show reiterating that Mitchell Johnson is the no 1 pace bowler in the world ahead of Steyn just now. Whether he will continue to be as lethat is a moot point. Australia might still lose to south africa because of their weak batting but I think the australian pace atttack works better as a group. I saw the south africans struggle against India in the first game as it is very dependent on Steyn and he was neutralised in the first game. Interesting series in the offing . Ramanujam Sridhar

  • anthony on January 13, 2014, 2:27 GMT

    Pretty simplistic thinking by manjrekar if he thinks only mitchell Johnson's short pitched bowling created the 5-0.nonsense. middle and Harris were world class,as they had been in England.Johnson couldn't have done what he did without them.overall Mitch was 33 per cent of the reason for 5-0,the rest was Rogers and Smith arriving as quality test batsmen,haddin and Watson regaining form, and Warner and Clarke were magnificent

  • Android on January 13, 2014, 2:14 GMT

    don't agree here. modern batters don't chicken out like this. This loss is attributed to overhyped out of form England batters. let's see mj against sa. he just needs 4 good hook shots to go back to original mj