Australia in South Africa 2013-14 February 17, 2014

Johnson the avenging angel

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