February 16, 2014

The Mitchell Johnson effect

Whole batting line-ups have been laid to waste by the raw pace and confidence of Australia's fast-bowling leader

Mitchell Johnson: injuring bodies, minds and careers © Getty Images

So it is not just England. Phew, thinks Alastair Cook. After all, has one derailed cricket tour ever had such a fallout? The casualties are littered across the gardens of England - Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann, Matt Prior, Andy Flower and Kevin Pietersen. It is quite a list that fell foul to the Mitchell Johnson effect. And it was not just people. It was a whole team method, a strategy and philosophy that had brought England success. The casualties are endless.

For a while now the game has been beset by the 135-142kph bracket. Exhausted bowlers, shunted across continents to play various formats of a sport, unable to resist its commercial opportunities, have settled for something that gets them through the day. Then along comes Mitch and a stellar collection of English and South African batsmen are left whimpering in defeat. From never having had it so good - bats, boundaries and the DRS - esteemed batsmen are whispering in dressing-room corners about the throat ball and its corollaries. At last! With a bit of luck, Johnson will inspire others to bowl fast, really fast, for this unique and thrilling skill is an essential part of cricket's appeal.

Johnson's extraordinary match in Centurion is simply an extension of his extraordinary matches in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Twelve wickets, valuable runs and a stunning catch amounts to a one-man show. Materially, of course it is not, but so mighty is the Johnson effect that without him one cannot imagine outcomes anywhere close. Australia are smashing good teams, thus the conclusions are unavoidable.

South Africa bowled 194 overs in the match and claimed 14 wickets for 687 runs. The Australians bowled 120 overs, taking 20 wickets and conceding only 406 runs. The collateral damage is alarming. For one thing, Michael Clarke's team will arrive in Port Elizabeth a whole lot fresher.

Graeme Smith admitted confusion but denied mental scarring. However, the stress related to such a result cannot be underestimated. Bouncing back from defeat is one thing, bouncing back from humiliation is quite another. Ask England. The fear and the self-doubt that come from it are a real issue for Smith's team. Though physical injury was somehow avoided, bad blows were taken by the batsmen and aggravating niggles emerged amongst the bowlers.

In turn, the Australians are rampant. There is something of the bully in a cricket team that boasts a proper fast bowler. From Johnson's performances alone come a soaring confidence and a peacock strut. Peter Siddle laughed at Robin Peterson's rasping square cut for four, knowing that his comeuppance, one way or the other, was nigh. It was the other as it happened, not Johnson but Siddle who burst an unplayable shooter through the Peterson defences. It has been a bad couple of weeks for chaps who are sons of Peter. Alviro and Robin are in the selector's sights. Kevin is out of view, for good they say - which, even ten days on, seems ridiculous and unbelievable. And all because of the Johnson effect.

It is well documented that Dennis Lillee played the main part in the Johnson regeneration. First the approach, then the position of bowling arm at release, then the use of the right arm in the delivery and follow-through. These are the technical things. Then there are the tactical things: what are we looking for in a batsman, what can we smell? Does swing matter? Not much if you bowl at 150kph and hit good lengths and lines consistently. Where should the bouncer be aimed and what is its purpose? How to control the new ball and profit from the old one. How to change angles. These are amongst the things Lillee and Johnson will have considered and improved. When Lillee invited chief selector John Inverarity to the nets at Hale School in Perth last year he knew his man was ready. Inverarity reacted immediately that Johnson was back. What neither of them could have known was just how quickly Johnson would reward those who had kept the faith.

It is a long time since one fast bowler caused such destruction. Think of skill and intimidation perfectly combined to ruin careers. West Indies did it as a group. Michael Holding did it on his own at The Oval in 1976. Lillee and Thomson did this together but never alone, at least not to such effect. Curtly Ambrose took 7 for 1 in Perth in 1992-93 and did something equally appalling to England a year later in Trinidad. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis had their moments. Allan Donald was a sight in full flow but never had quite such figures so often.

You see where we are going here. Johnson's blitzkriegs are up there with anything ever produced. The "Demon" Spofforth started it all and the terrifying Johnson is continuing his legacy. In the last six Test matches he has taken 49 English and South African wickets at 13 each.

South Africa must find a way of fending him off and then playing some strokes of authority. At the moment, Johnson holds all the cards. He feels not a jot of pain, suffers not a moment of self-doubt. It is a heady place. Like Cook before him, Smith has the chance to lead the way against the new ball. But Ryan Harris is hardly a mug and finished the recent Ashes giving Cook as hard a time as the one handed out by Johnson. Smith must watch for that too. This is a monumental task, perhaps the most challenging of his career. He has the courage and the will but does his team? Can he resist the collapse of a method?

Rodney Hogg, who bowled fast and well for Australia in the period during and post Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket - a period of extreme fast bowling around the world - reckons that Johnson and Harris are right up there with Thomson and Lillee. Enough said. Good luck Graeme, go well.

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

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