There’s a visceral joy in watching genuinely quick bowling. Akin to the unembellished joy you derive from seeing two boxers slug it out. Or two rugby teams indulge in a ruck. It’s raw. It’s crude. It’s enticing and it incites a sense of primeval machismo.
So when Mitchell Johnson kept steaming in under the searing Adelaide sun and delivered thunderbolt after thunderbolt last Saturday, it wasn’t surprising that the air was filled with “oohs” “aahs” and “woahs” from everyone around at the Park 25 cricket ground. In a way, the fiery Australian pacer had turned the public park into an amphitheater, featuring the foremost exponent of fast bowling at his menacing best. Just like he promises to do at the Adelaide Oval on Tuesday and across the other Test venues in the country over the next month.
For all their bravado in the face of setting themselves up for the challenge to face Australia, it’s obvious that the Johnson-factor would have been the most discussed in the Indian camp ever since they landed here two weeks ago. Probably even since the time the four-Test tour was announced.
For, in no uncertain terms, the outcome of the Indian tour could well depend on how they fare against the threat of Johnson. This is not to say that Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle will provide any leeway for Virat Kohli & Co. But it is the left-arm pacer from Queensland, who will set the tone and the pace for the Australian summer, despite the unfortunate events leading up to its commencement.
With Johnson though it’s not just raw speed. There’s intimidation. There’s fear. You can often feel like he doesn’t just dismiss batsmen, he disposes them off like they were impediments in his path.
Owing to his slingshot release, facing Johnson is like fronting up to a bullet being fired at you. It’s rapid, it’s remorseless and it has every intention of hurting you. It’s also always coming at you. As a batsman you can depend squarely on instinct. There’s no time to think. It’s all muscle memory and reflex. There is no margin for error.
In England, India’s nemesis was James Anderson and his swing. He hurt egos, and dismembered reputations. Against Johnson, there’s much more at stake. In a way he does all that Anderson does, but then also possess the physical threat. “When you’ve got that pace up your sleeve it’s always in the back of the batsman’s mind a little bit and you can worry him. That’s part of the reason you play, to have that bit of intimidation,” he had said recently in an interview.
But till just over 12 months ago, Johnson was not even in Australia’s Test plans anymore. Injuries, persistent lack of form, and an emergence of a new crop of fast men had left him nearly on the edge of oblivion, as far as the longer format was concerned.
Then came the Ashes, and the demolition derby that he orchestrated on the Englishmen. But while Johnson always had the pace in him, it is only since late 2013 that he’s turned into a brute-at times a moustachioed one at that- with ball in hand. There are many theories to why that wasn’t the case always. It probably started with Ricky Ponting using him differently to the way Michael Clarke has over the last 12 months.
Ponting had inherited a bowling attack that was led by the metronomic Glenn McGrath and one based on indelible consistency. Johnson came at a time in his captaincy career where Australia were no longer an indomitable force. And for Ponting, Johnson like the rest of the bowlers were more about containing runs than being set free to run through batting line-ups.
There were also those who believed that Australia didn’t know how to handle Johnson. Some claimed that they were more intent on turning him into Alan Davidson whereas they would have been better off letting him be a Jeff Thomson. Others questioned whether Australia was ready for an erratic tearaway in an era where they weren’t running roughshod over all opponents like they once used to.
But when he saw the menace that he could potentially generate upon his return, Clarke instead looked at Johnson as his weapon to scare oppositions into submission rather than having to work them over.
In the Ashes, he also used him in short bursts. Johnson hardly bowled a spell, which lasted over five overs in the Ashes last summer. It kept him fresh. It also meant that the batsmen at the crease were aware that he might be back anytime soon. It added to the fear factor. It added to the dread. It added to the drama. It was a warning that he would be back to finish the job, anytime soon.
The transformation though really took place when Johnson returned to his roots and his original mentor, Dennis Lillee, the man who had famously anointed the boy with a slingy action and ponytail as a once in a generation bowler. The Australian pace legend’s major advice to his protégé was to lengthen his run-up so that he wasn’t using up too much energy in charging to the wicket. It worked like a charm. The extra yards of pace that Johnson was now generating is what has made the real difference.
It was in the IPL last year, while he was donning Mumbai Indians colours that the world really took stock of the new Johnson. Despite the placid wickets and the limitations of the T20 format, here was a genuinely quick bowler setting batsmen straight. Like he did with Chris Gayle. The destructive Jamaican had come to Mumbai on the back of having demolished attacks around the IPL, only to be roughed up by Johnson, who hardly bowled a ball in his half, and instead kept him rooted to the back-foot.
Later that year, he returned to torment Yuvraj Singh with a short-pitched barrage, just like he had earlier that month to Jonathan Trott in England. Lillee’s tall claims were finally coming true.
Back in his day, there was a chant that would go up in stands across Australia every time Lillee started off his run-up. “Lillllee, Lilllleee, Kill Kill Kill.” It’s unlikely that the Adelaide crowd will be making such demands over the next five days.
There were concerns over Johnson’s state of mind post the Phillip Hughes’ passing away. And it was well into his first training session that he began dishing out bouncers. But on the eve of the first Test, Johnson was confident of not letting his emotions get in the way of his performance. By the time you read this, Johnson might well have run through the Indian top-order. Or maybe they might have seen off that first spell. But they certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed doing it. For, there can be no joy in facing genuine fast bowling. Visceral or otherwise.
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In first Test as skipper, Kohli has nothing to lose
Adelaide: Virat Kohli generally doesn’t require a second invitation to talk about aggression or being aggressive. He thrives on it. Monday was no ordinary day though. It was the eve of his first Test match as India captain. The time was here for the boy wonder of Indian cricket to take the mantle of leading his country. That too in a land not known to be very welcoming towards opposition teams, and especially their leaders. And true to nature, it was his will to play aggressive cricket that Kohli reiterated, while insisting, “I don’t mind a fight.”
Kohli’s previous Test tour to Australia was an interesting one. He was among the few regular run-scorers in the mix despite being the youngest. But he also went through massive periods of self-doubt in the midst of all the failure around him. Like he said here, it was also a tour he believes was an eye-opener in terms of playing cricket Down Under. It was also in many ways a glimpse into the future of the Indian Test team.
“I don’t mind a chat on the field, a bit of banter. It probably makes me more determined I guess. That’s the spice that I like. Last time around, I enjoyed it. I had to take it for a couple of Tests, after a couple of incidents I found out there’s no other way of playing in Australia. Rather, just be myself,” he said.
But to be honest, Kohli has little to lose. Whatever the outcome in Adelaide, he will be handing the reins back to Dhoni in a week’s time. Win, and his tag as the heir apparent gets strengthened further. Lose, and it’s just forgotten as a one-off. Kohli though was confident of leaving his mark in his maiden leadership stint.
“You might see things different from what you usually see. I am someone who goes with what I feel. It might look funny but as long as it’s effective. But the intent is going to be aggressive. That’s something that I’ve played my cricket with, and it’s certainly something that I am going to use in my captaincy as well,” he said.
This will also be the first time India will start a series with a pace attack that has bowlers who can push the envelope in terms of genuine pace.
That according to Kohli makes this the best Indian bowling attack to come to these shores, and could also be the difference-maker this time around. He also said that there was no debate over whether his bowlers would dish out bouncers at the Australian batsmen.
“It is a part of cricket. It’s every bowler;s right to utilize it and it depends on what we have in mind. We have four bowlers who can bowl quick, all are fully fit right now. It’s obviously a great thing to have. Three-four guys bowling 140+, maybe couple of them going up to the 150+ as well. Feels good as a captain,” he said.