Millennium Post

Go Johnny! Go! Go!

After spending a long period away from top flight cricket (he was dropped for Australia’s  mid-season tour of England in 2013), left arm seamer Mitchell Johnson returned with a bang, claiming 37 wickets in the 5-0 rout of England in the recently concluded Ashes series on home turf.   
The astonishing revival of Johnson put Australia right on top  as they reclaimed the Ashes in style.

Johnson’s devastating spells in fact evoked memories of the bygone era of lethal seamers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson who reigned supreme in the 1970s. A popular saying during the 1974-75 series was, ‘Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust, if Thomson doesn’t get ya, Lillee must,’ such was their destructive impact on Mike Denness’ visiting England side. Rolling on to the recently concluded Ashes series, Johnson,  sporting a Lillee-style moustache, enjoyed a similar role, claiming 37 wickets to be named Man of the Series.

On England’s last tour to Australia, Johnson was left out of the second Adelaide Test after spraying the ball around the Gabba in a wayward display that drew taunts from England’s Barmy Army.

Though Johnson admits the goading dented his confidence, the wheel has now turned as he is put the frighteners on England with his hostile, short-pitched bowling through out the series.
Lillee, who once described Johnson, then a raw 17-year-old from Townsville, as a ‘once-in-a-generation bowler,’ works closely with his protege.

In one example, Lillee has encouraged Johnson on long jogs to build the fitness needed for the lengthier run-up he has used since returning last year from a career-threatening toe injury.

While Lillee has been a key element in the left arm pacer’s development, it’s been a group effort which helped Johnson fulfill his undoubted potential. Adam Griffith, his bowling coach at Western Australia, has been working on getting him to run in straighter, staying tall at the crease and remaining high in his follow-through.

Terry Alderman, who took 41 wickets in the 1989 Ashes, gave advice on his wrist position, while Troy Cooley, head coach at Cricket Australia’s Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, has been concentrating on his run-up.

Johnson could be the fastest bowler in world cricket at the moment. He has frequently broken the 150-kmph mark during the last Ashes series and could go even faster in pitches like Perth with the prevailing ‘Fremantle Doctor’ breeze coming in over his shoulder.

‘When I sit back and look at it, I felt like my run-up rhythm was the best it’s ever been. I’ve lengthened my run-up since coming back from my toe injury. That’s made a big difference. I just feel like I’m getting better momentum through the crease and being able to hit those speeds without applying myself or forcing it. It feels pretty good,’ Johnson said. Australia captain Michael Clarke has also been using Johnson in shorter spells, which has allowed him to bowl at a higher intensity.

‘He has always been an X-factor, with bat and ball. He’s as good an athlete in the field as you’ll see. Mitch has always had that. It’s just about working out how to use him best in your team,’ Clarke said.

Another remedial factor are changes in Johnson’s personal life. Shy off the pitch, his struggles away from cricket were well known. Two years ago a public feud with his mother ended with her being excluded from his wedding to Jessica Bratich, a former karate athlete.

Now, bridges rebuilt, he has a wife who understands the pressures of elite sport and a young daughter, Rubika, who provides the perfect escape. Thomson, whose bowling style Johnson most resembles, likes what he is seeing from the dynamic paceman in the last Ashes series. ‘It really was shades of 74. I was really pleased for him. He was superb. The Poms (England) are used to playing on flat decks but they are not used to having to play backfoot cricket and he exposed that. He made the rest of the bowlers look like medium-pacers. It’s great to see a bit of feeling back in the game. It was old-fashioned cricket,’ Thomson said.

In ODIs, Johnson gave the first signs of his potential at international level against the strong Indian batting line-up in a match in Kuala Lumpur. He took 4/11 in just four overs, including the wickets of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh.

Johnson’s belief in his run-making is so strong that he would like to open in Twenty20s or one-dayers in the future, and he will always be able to claim his Test average was 99.00 after five games. His style is smooth enough for a specialist and when he nails a big swing it looks as effortless as Ernie Els on the golf course. The owner of a Test hundred and a 96, both against the might of South Africa, he will be mildly miffed if he doesn’t finish his career as a genuine all-rounder.

Fast and Furious

A recent article published in Spin, Guardian’s free weekly cricket email, explained the impact of pace bowling, an aspect exploited to the fullest by Australia’s left arm pacer Mitchell Johnson. At 85-mph, a ball takes 0.52 seconds to travel 22 yards. That’s less time than it takes Usain Bolt to complete his first stride, and a little more than it takes you to blink.

The important point is how long a batsman has to spot the length and line of the delivery, pick a shot to play, and then pull it off. To do it right, he needs to judge the position of the ball to within around three centimetres, and time the arrival of the bat to within three milliseconds. Any further, any sooner, any slower, and the ball misses the sweet spot. Put like that, hitting a cricket ball begins to seem like a prenatural act, as impossible as pinching a fly from the air with a pair of chopsticks.

They say it takes a minimum of 100 milliseconds for the brain to produce even the simplest action, and around double that to do something only a little more complex, like flicking a light switch. Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, found that it took between 400 and 500 milliseconds for the brain to complete all the processes needed to produce a subjective experience. In cricket, the time constraint imposed by the speed of the delivery often exceeds the time available to process information. Against fast bowling, a batsman operates at a speed that outstrips his own consciousness. So how is it done? It’s not that the best Test batsmen have quicker reactions than anyone else. As Peter McLeod, a member of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, explained to John McCrone in the New Scientist: ‘There is surprisingly little difference between top-class athletes and good, fit ordinary people. In laboratory tests of reactions using unskilled tasks, most people show much the same reaction time of about a fifth of a second.’

In his book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, Frank Partnoy breaks that half a second down into still smaller chunks. Roughly, the first 150 milliseconds is seeing the ball. The last 100 milliseconds is spent playing the shot. In one of his studies, McLeod found it is impossible for any batsman, he tested Allan Lamb, Wayne Larkins, and Peter Willey, to correctly react to any deviation the ball makes in the final 200 milliseconds of its flight. What matters then, is that chunk in the middle, the 150 milliseconds between seeing the ball and playing it. No wonder Kevin Pietersen tweeted last week ‘A HUGE difference when facing someone at 140kmh compared to 150kmh … When you are facing someone as quick as Mitchell, your instinct occasionally makes you do things you shouldn’t. PACE causes indecision.’

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