Australia in South Africa 2013-14 February 17, 2014

Johnson the avenging angel

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Michael Holding believes Mitchell Johnson's reign of pace bowling terror is providing an overdue reckoning for batsmen grown impure of technique and slow of reaction by years of bullying bowlers of nothing like the same speed. He has also counselled administrators, coaches and spectators to cherish Johnson while he lasts, and work harder to nurture future examples of the express fast bowler.

No spectator at Centurion during the first Test was better placed to assess Johnson's impact than Holding, given his own famed ability to generate the highest pace from a run-up and bowling action far more graceful yet equally powerful. From the commentary box, Holding felt the same heady mix of exhilaration and apprehension he himself caused over the course of 60 Tests, and pointed out this dimension of the game had been missing in recent years with the retirement of Brett Lee and the gradual erosion of Dale Steyn's pace.

"What Mitchell Johnson did in this Test match and in the Ashes is add a new dimension to what you've seen over the past five or six years in Test cricket," Holding told ESPNcricinfo. "We haven't seen too many people bowl with that sort of aggression and that sort of pace, and I think it's finding out some batsmen who have been quite comfortable over the past five or six years with the medium pacers they've had around.

"Dale Steyn has been quick ... but Johnson has exhibited a great deal more pace and a lot more aggression. Pace is the game changer. A lot of bowlers are brilliant, Glenn McGrath was a fantastic bowler, but he didn't have the effect this man is having. With that much pace it's all about 'this man can hurt me as well as get me out', and that changes the entire dynamic of the game."

Holding and Johnson can both be lauded for producing performances of the highest order on dead pitches - the West Indian's 14 for 149 at The Oval in 1976 and the Australian's 7 for 40 on Adelaide Oval's drop-in strip to turn the Ashes irrevocably the way of the hosts earlier this summer. But Centurion had more the ring of Old Trafford from the same series in 1976, when an untrustworthy pitch made for an altogether more macabre spectacle.

Johnson had been given pause when asked whether he derived more satisfaction from a ball striking the stumps or a batsman, and Holding hoped there was no desire in any fast bowler to cause physical damage. What he felt more important was the threat of inflicting pain serving to change a batsman's approach, something Johnson has done frequently in recent months in part due to his much improved control.

"I wouldn't want to be thinking a fast bowler gets any pleasure out of the thought of hitting anyone," Holding said. "You get pleasure out of the thought that you know they're afraid of you and you have that extra element to your game. If you have that skill of getting the ball in the right area, what you're hoping is the batsman will fend it off or do something to get out. Even if he doesn't get out it passes closely and he thinks in his mind 'oh that was close, that could have been dangerous'.

"At various times through the 1970s and 1980s when we had the fast bowling attack we had, we had that effect on the opposition. You go out as a fast bowler and you see the body language of the opposition players. They know exactly what's happening. Proper fast bowling adds a different dimension to you as a person if you are bowling fast and you see people hopping around. It stays in the mind, and it affects the person who is hopping around as well.

"Johnson's got control now he didn't have before. Obviously in the time he's spent away from the game, Dennis Lillee has worked with him, that has done a lot of good, because pace alone isn't going to do it, you've got to have the control to put the ball where you want to. If you bang the ball into the pitch and it's flying all over the place that doesn't really matter, it has to be well directed."

To reach the level Johnson has done at the age of 32 is in some ways a contravention of conventional wisdom about fast men, namely that by the early 30s their speed has begun to depreciate. Holding said this could be partly explained by the amount of time Johnson has taken to mature his method, but suggested that not even an athlete as powerful as the left-armer could maintain such heights indefinitely.

"Mitch had come back after being out of international cricket for a while," he said. "If for instance Dennis Lillee had got him early and sorted him out and he was doing this early in his career, he wouldn't be doing it to South Africa now. He would not be able to bowl as fast as he's bowling now for an extended period of time. Impossible. You're not going to stay at that pace for 10-12 years.

"A prime example is Brett Lee ... he retired early to make sure he could continue to play Twenty20 and earn big bucks. You cannot fault him for that, but that's the nature of the game we are playing now. The amount of cricket being played means guys are going to do that, and even guys who want to stay with Test match cricket, they are going to make sure their careers are going to be stretched out a bit more by not bowling as fast."

As for the emergence of other bowlers to rival Johnson's speed and the pre-eminence Australia are building around it, Holding said that while none could be manufactured, they could certainly be better identified and taught, citing the poignant example of England's misfiring Steve Finn, a bowler capable of 150kph at his best.

"You can't make them," Holding said. "If it was simple as that you'd just send young bowlers into the gym and tell them to bowl fast. When countries do find someone with that ability to bowl fast they need to know how to deal with it, and that is why England have destroyed Steve Finn.

"They need to know how to deal with people who have the natural ability to bowl fast - not everyone can. You can't just say everyone is going to search ... I've heard that for donkey's years, and people tried to copy us. When you get someone like that you've got to cherish it, nurture it properly from youth and make sure you take full advantage of it."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Greatest_Game on February 20, 2014, 7:57 GMT

    @ Faraz Hussain . Accusing Kallisof retiring so that he did not have to face Johnson is one of the most stupid things I have ever read. Just as Bradman could face Thompson when he was 65, Kallis would have faced Johnson just like he did the last of the great Windies, like he did the quickest Pakistanis, like he did tait or Lee.

    Kallis scored a ton after Sreesanth broke his rib in the fist innings. He came back in the 2nd innings and scored ANOTHER ton. That man was a rock, and scared of no bowler. You should rethink your insults.

  • danmcb on February 20, 2014, 7:13 GMT

    Noone knows better than Mikey. Even as an England fan, love the guy. And he is bang on, can't argue with what Mitch is doing right now. And, indeed, a tragedy about Finn. England got woken up out of Camp Mediocre, now they need to really start backing their players with genuine raw talent. Even if they are not always easiest to work with.

  • Meety on February 20, 2014, 5:52 GMT

    @Faraz Hussain - re: Bradman facing MJ. Dunno if you know, but long after Bradman retired (over 25yrs), as Chairmen of Selectors, Bradman went into the nets & faced a young Jeff Thomson circa 1975! From memory, I think he had one pad on & would of been about 65+ years old. Reports vary between whether Thommo was at full pace or not, but all agreed that Bradman played him fairly comfortably!

  • dummy4fb on February 19, 2014, 9:18 GMT

    As a Pakistani, all we think about bowlers who can bowl fast, and After seeing Mitchell Johnson's terrorising performance in the last 6 tests, to me he is the greatest fast bowler I have ever watched, the greatest thing happened to cricket after all this IPL and batting friendly cricket, I can sense even watching on TV, that Batsmen are terrified of getting hurt, and I think Johnson is the reason that Kallis didn't want to get hurt at the end of his career and retired before the series, though he was one the greatest, but Even Bradman had struggled against Johnson in current form

  • Happy_hamster on February 19, 2014, 3:51 GMT

    Markdal on (February 18, 2014, 11:14 GMT) I reckon you are right about Mr. Lillee, I for one thought it was ridiculous when he was ranked No.4 a few years back having only seen a few Ashes games, when on his day he is clearly No.1. My hope , and it is a mere hope, is Finn sorts his head/action out because he could be a similar destructive force and cricket needs genuine fast bowlers and I would prefer it if some of them played for England.

  • Robster1 on February 19, 2014, 1:04 GMT

    A complete pleasure to at last see some serious fast bowling after years of repetitive batsman dominated games. Even though I'm not an Aussie, keep going Johnson. It's fascinating to see who can really handle pace (de Villiers) and the many in England and SA who cannot. So revealing about a batsman's true mind.

  • Vikum72 on February 18, 2014, 23:37 GMT

    Holding is always quick to praise players from Australia and England.

  • camcove on February 18, 2014, 11:52 GMT

    @Simoc and those who have since replied - Thommo hurt his shoulder in a collision with Alan Turner in the field against Pakistan. When his speed was measured a year or two before that (and to the naked eye he seemed to be faster against Pakistan than he had ever been before), it was by dividing distance by time. The speed was 100mph, or 160kph. That was the average speed over the whole length of the pitch, not the out of the hand radar that we see now. Guesstimate as to out of the hand? 170kph plus. I think Michael Holding summed it up on SA TV in this last Test, when discussing with Shaun Pollock and others. There could not conceivably ever have been anyone else as quick as Thommo was before the injury. Interestingly, the panel was asked to name the 4 quicks they would have in their side from bowlers they had seen. (Holding was omitted for modesty reasons). They all had Lillee and Thommo in their 4.

  • Markdal on February 18, 2014, 11:14 GMT

    Mikey's got it right. Johnson has done little bowling in his career, compared to a lot of others. I remember umpiring a Queensland City-Country fixture back in 2002, and Johnson played - as a batsman, because he was injured even back then! I think it's amazing what he's doing, given that bowlers who were supposed to faster than he in the same timeframe (Akhtar, Lee, Tait etc) didn't have the same intimidation factor about them, at least on a consistent basis. Dennis Lillee may have copped some flak for his "once in a generation bowler" quote about Johnson (and I'm one of the knockers), but I reckon Dennis is sitting back with a wry smile on his face now.

  • ygkd on February 18, 2014, 10:48 GMT

    The idea proposed by Steve48 merits more thought. Will batsmen have to revert to lighter bats and better footwork in the face of a pantheon of Mitch-like bowling? I doubt it. Mitch is one bowler and as an individual he hasn't always got it right himself. He's hardly someone easily copied and Australian batsmen are particularly prone, in general, to the modern front-foot heavy-bat stiffer-armed style that Steve48 talks about. Therefore, I'd say that facing Mitch in the nets or in domestic cricket hasn't made much obvious difference so far and is unlikely to in the future. Added to that, he's 32 years old. He's not going to be around the Test world for much longer. The modern batting style, by contrast, is here to stay. Limited overs cricket is the perfect breeding ground for it and all Oz international players come through the same limited overs factory in the youth system. That doesn't allow for much diversity, whatever Johnson does. If England ever finds a MJ, Australia's in trouble.