Setting the pace, Australian style
A strange thing has happened in Australia's Twenty20 games over the past two weeks. Instead of the batsmen determining the result it has been the fast bowlers, the men usually required merely to get the ball into play, who have been doing the dominating.
In combining Mitchell Johnson with Shaun Tait and Dirk Nannes, Australia have formed a lethal attack that is making the game more interesting. It's about time the bowlers had a chance to even the Twenty20 imbalance, but the problem for the rest of the world is this trio's attributes are based around extreme speed.
The current group is working at levels beyond those attainable by men without fast-twitch fibres in their stomach and obliques muscles. Just as some athletes can sprint 100m in under 10 seconds, only a sprinkling of bowlers can deliver regularly at more than 150kph. Johnson, Tait and Nannes maintain it through four overs while Brett Lee used to be able to. Lee's replacement Ryan Harris, the next-in-line in the Caribbean, can almost get to that mark while the allrounder Shane Watson is comfortable in the low 140kphs.
It's not just Australia's pure pace that is hurting the opposition, but the speed mashed in with the need to score from every ball. If they could duck, weave and wait for the bad deliveries, most batsmen would remain unflustered. In Twenty20 they can't afford that luxury.
Johnson, Tait and Nannes produce balls in each over that force a batsman's defensive instinct to take over. The Australians have discovered that changing the outlook of a shot-maker can be as damaging as a wicket.
Having pace to burn has led to them winning five games in a row in the West Indies and they enter Friday's semi against Pakistan expecting to reach their first World Twenty20 final. They have already bumped and bounced over four teams from the subcontinent, including Pakistan, despite the pitches being on the slow side, even in Barbados.
West Indies were the latest victim, softened up by the quicks before the legspinner Steven Smith arrived, and in the five matches the pace triumvirate has collected 29 of the side's 47 wickets. In four of those games the bowlers allowed totals of less than 136, ensuring Australia's run-makers have been able to escape even from difficult situations. The side is built with the fast men as its platform; the batters have become the fancy window dressing.
Teams search desperately for something that consistently slows down Twenty20 runs and Australia's answer has been to crank up the pace. They know there is the potential to go for eight or more an over whatever the bowler's speed, so they've decided there is no point dropping back to focus on line and length.
"It's good to see the opposition jumping around and not being able to handle the short ball," Johnson said this week. "That's been a bit of a plan for us against the subcontinent guys." It's been a brutally successful tactic. England are the only other team from outside Asia left in the competition and will meet Australia if they both reach the final.
The sudden surge in Australia's international ranks has been caused by a mixture of good fortune - Johnson, Tait and Nannes are all fit - and a run of injuries that allowed two of those vacancies. Injuries to Lee, Tait, Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Nathan Bracken and Stuart Clark over the past year and a half forced Australia's selectors to peer outside their trusted core.
The emergence of Nannes, Harris and Doug Bollinger, who is unlucky to be at home, has given the squad even more enviable options. These three men have transformed from steady domestic operators to reliable professionals and their success has been spread across the genres.
In Twenty20 Nannes, 33, has a case to be the game's best bowler. He tops the overall wicket list with 96 in 66 games and leads the tournament table on 13, with a breakthrough every eight balls. It's unbelievable that it took so long for the selectors to recognise him.
Despite performing incredibly for Victoria in the lead-up, Nannes wasn't in Australia's 30-man squad for the 2009 World Twenty20. He shuffled over to join the Netherlands in England instead and by wearing the garish orange uniform was finally noticed by Andrew Hilditch's panel.
Johnson, a seriously dangerous performer in all forms, has the benefit of arriving at first change after Nannes and Tait have made a start on the panel beating. He bruised West Indies with a couple of wickets on Tuesday and has eight victims in total, the same number as Tait.
Like most unorthodox speed merchants, Tait doesn't usually know where the ball is going, so he is an even more awkward prospect for the batsmen. Still, his economy rate of 4.68 an over is the sixth-best in the competition.
The left-arm angle of Johnson and Nannes also ensures more balls at their opponents' bodies and less room to wriggle away from short ones. Batsmen know that with someone operating over the wicket it changes all their angles, from where they aim their pulls to the target of their cover drives. The slight delay as they adjust their thinking shaves time that is usually spent on perfecting the shot.
"We all bowl differently, which is good," Johnson said. "We blend really well together. Hopefully we can keep doing it." The approach sounds so simple. All you need to succeed is three high-class, high-speed fast men.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo