The fear factor

Written by Darlington Jose Hector | Updated: Feb 23 2014, 11:01am hrs
When Australian players line up to take the cricket field these days, there is this sense of adventure tourism. Facing Mitchell Johnson in the form of his life is nothing but an adventure, laced with that primal emotion called fear. One has seen Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson on YouTube and watched clippings of Andy Roberts and Michael Holding in their prime, but since then, cricket lovers have largely been subjected to a diet of medium and fast-medium bowling with the cliche, hitting the right areas, dominating commentary boxes across the globe. Of course, there was Waqar Younis and, later, Brett Lee, with their extreme pace, challenging the stumps and the outside edge of batsmen, but

Johnson is offering a different package altogether.

Johnson running into bowl has become a spectacle, a great event in itself. In recent history, no spell from a bowler has been looked forward to with so much excitement. So what has he done to transform himself The fast bowler has been around for a few years, but he was never this convincing and consistent as a bowler. He was often dismissed as a slinger, more unpredictable than English weather. His guru Dennis Lillee has clearly worked on Johnsons run-up and action, and the bowler is able to get more bounce now from a disconcerting length. He has broken two bats this seasonyes, you read that right. A batsman has been hospitalised and English cricket is in disarray; not to mention the mental scars on those who are still playing and facing him.

As everyone knows, cricket is played with a hard ball. It can hurt you in the wrong places. When a bowler is operating at 130-135 kmph, moving into line and playing it on its merit is an easy act for any international batsman. But when the speed moves up to 150 kmph and the ball kicks up from a length to around the throat, cricket becomes another game. Not only is one worried about getting out, but getting injured becomes a real possibility as well. For far too long now, international batsmen have had it easy, playing on feather beds and taking on medium pacers. You know that the bowler is unlikely to go down the leg-side or bowl too straight. He is mostly bowling at the imaginary 4th or 5th stump and bowling just short of length. It had become all too predictable.

Harold Larwood, Jeff Thompson and Malcolm Marshall, in their respective eras, were different and presented a frightening prospect. They could hurt with that ball. Now, this is something that cannot be coached. A Venkatesh Prasad or a Manoj Prabhakar can coach a bowler to attain some swing, but speed in the air is a natural act. Speeds over 145 kmph negate the state of the pitch. It doesnt matter then whether one is playing in Australia or Sri Lanka. Speed in the air helps you through even on a dead stripthink of a Shoaib Akhtar or Shaun Tait, though, they were regarded as erratic bowlers.

What Johnson has done is that he has brought back that bit of uncertainty into the equation with deadly accuracy. Ask any South African batsman for proof. Those blokes knew exactly what was coming up after watching English batsmen hopping and running for cover in the previous series. But sometimes, any amount of preparation counts for nothing when faced with a demon. One knows what to expect when visiting a dentist, but that does not make the experience any better. Johnson is such a case.

South African all-rounder Ryan McLaren was hit on the head by a Johnson special and had to be admitted to a hospital. He has now been ruled out of the second Test. Batsmen have been hit before on a cricket ground. Many times over. But this looked and felt different. This was like a knockout punch in a boxing ring. The ball thudded on to the helmet in the way a truck would ram a bicycle. McLaren didnt last long on the crease after that.

The truth is that Johnson doesnt bowl every delivery at 150 kmph. In fact, in the first innings of the first Test against South Africa, it was Ryan Harris who clocked the fastest ball at a little over 151 kmph. Morne Morkel had one delivery recorded at 149.5. So it is not just the pace. That way, even Harris and Morkel would be wreaking such damage. Experts believe its the angle of Johnsons attack. Many fast bowlers bowl bouncers. Many of those balls sail over the batsmans head or are left alone with a slight duck or a weave. With regard to Johnson, it has become quite difficult for batsmen to leave his bouncers alone. The angle and tilt are getting the batsman entangled into an ugly web of hands and legs, with the neck positioned alongside the handle of the bat. Its quite a sight, a sorry one at that. Leaving the ball has never been more difficult.

For instance, the left-handed Johnson has been coming around the wicket even for left-handers. The angle to the left-handers from around the wicket for a left-arm quick creates some unique opportunities. The inclination makes it a very tight bodyline delivery, especially when pitched short. Its very difficult to keep down such a delivery and all the batsman can do is fend it awkwardly. Johnsons deliveries to right-handers from over the wicket were easy pickings in the past, but now, he has added a bit more bounce to it. Like former English batsman Kevin Pietersen said pace causes indecision. Mind becomes a muddle when there is much heat in the kitchen. South African Alviro Peterson and English batsman Joe Root became jelly when faced with Johnsons hostility. His success seems to have reduced the hunt for the outside edge, a mundane skill.

Now, the question is how long can Johnson last. Bowling with such ferociousness is bound to take a toll on his body at some point. The golden summer may not repeat itself, but Johnson is a legend already, notwithstanding whats on offer in the future.