While subtlety is a wonderful aspect of sport, and deception and guile bring a smile to the lips, fear is quite a different, dare I say more decisive, weapon altogether. I had seen Shane Shillingford, Ravi Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha work on a batsman’s indecision, luring him towards temptation and that was fun to watch. But to see Mitchell Johnson charge in, to see fear in the England batsmen is just so raw, so unequal. You can withstand subtlety and temptation with determination and self-control but when you are afraid, what do you call upon?
Single-handedly he has changed the course of the Ashes and I say that carefully. Brad Haddin, Michael Clarke and David Warner have made runs but without the fury of Johnson, I believe those runs would have been countered.
And when a fast bowler runs through a side, it is like a boxer landing a couple on the chin; everything about the opposition starts to stutter and maybe that is why batsmen tend to find form when the bowlers are demolishing the opposition! Ryan Harris slogs a quick fifty for example. Or George Bailey hits an invisible half-century.
With Johnson, it was always about rhythm. You might say that is true of all fast bowling (the great Michael Holding said he bowled at his quickest when he wasn’t trying to!) and I often wonder if rhythm comes from a settled mind and a conducive body or whether there are deeper causes.
But to see Johnson bowl this summer in the IPL was an eye-opener and there is little doubt in my mind that he was the key to the success of the Mumbai Indians. By bowling three overs, fast, at the start he allowed them to bowl Lasith Malinga where they most liked him to bowl; at the death. To give credit to Johnson’s renaissance to the IPL would be grossly self-indulgent but sometimes a change of environment just settles the nerves. Whatever it was, Johnson has provided us with one of the great sights of 2013.
If he can retain that going into 2014 and to South Africa, we will have the greatest fast bowler of modern times, Dale Steyn, arrayed against him and that will be an encounter to arouse the most gladiatorial instincts in cricket. Will South Africa throw up the kind of surface they did at the Wanderers against India aware that Johnson will be charging in to thump the ball on it? Will they back their batsmen to counter him and provide something for Steyn and Morkel? It will be a good series but I am not sure the ball will be flying by the batsman’s nose!
It was an easier decision for South Africa against India, aware as they were that there was no one remotely close to Steyn within the opposition. And his first spell was cricket of the highest class. In doing so he told the world yet again, and the opposition in particular, that great teams can only address themselves so if they have incisive bowling attacks.
It is something that I suspect India haven’t thought about consistently. Or maybe, India just do not have the know-how to produce fast bowling.In the last few years the odd bowler has come up; more swing than pace admittedly but capable of delivering in overseas conditions. But like the flowers of the evening, they haven’t been around when the sun rose again. RP Singh, Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel, Ishant Sharma (now he has been around but you know what I mean!), Praveen Kumar and the most gifted of them all, Sreesanth. But they either dropped pace, or fitness, or equilibrium and so, India go on yet another overseas jamboree without an arsenal that can retaliate. There is potential in Umesh Yadav and most certainly in Mohd Shami but the mind always puts caution ahead of optimism.
Indeed, Pakistan have shown that if you have a strong bowling line-up it can occasionally overcome inconsistent batting. But batting can only overcome indifferent bowling in limited overs cricket. And even that, not everyday!
India will always produce spinners, some better than others. Post Kumble and Harbhajan, Ojha and Ashwin have got to a hundred wickets as quickly. But to win overseas, you need pace; maybe not a tearaway Johnson or a thoroughbred Steyn, but at least someone who will cause the opposition to wonder what kind of surface to offer.
If Johnson stays fit, you know what to expect at Perth. And beyond!