How Rival Nations Will Respond to Rise of Australia's Mitchell Johnson

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2014

The latest chapter of Mitchell Johnson's story is one that doesn't need explaining. You only need to view a snapshot of headlines to understand the impact that Australia's reborn left-armer is currently having on Test cricket.

While Johnson's Ashes performance had the potential to be viewed as a fleeting resurgence, his demolition of South Africa at Centurion has confirmed the 32-year-old's status as the world's premier bowler at this moment in time.

So how will rival nations respond to Johnson's emphatic success?

If history has taught has anything, it's that cricket regularly adheres to Isaac Newton's third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That, however, may be overstating the complexity of the cricketing world's response to dominance, which habitually and naively descends to a case of follow the leader.

So, although we're set be flooded with statements suggesting that "finding a method" to counter Johnson is all that is required, you can be safe in the knowledge that Australia's rival nations will be running around like headless South Africans (Graeme Smith, Faf Du Plessis, Hashim Amla and Ryan McLaren almost lost theirs last week) looking for their predictable answer to Mitchell Johnson.

Their own Mitchell Johnson.

When the fabled West Indian sides of the 1970s and 1980s rolled out a dominant four-man pace battery, the rest of the cricketing world set its focus on unearthing a similar combination, believing that mimicking the Caribbean outfit was the best method if they were to be toppled.

That perception was disposed of by Shane Warne's arrival in the early 1990s; the leg-spinner's extraordinary feats convincing captains and coaches alike that big turners of the ball needed to be not only encouraged, but selected.

As 1996 arrived, Sri Lanka unveiled its radical approach to one-day cricket. Pairing Sanath Jayasuriya with wicket-keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana, the Sri Lankans reversed conventional wisdom and blazed their way to World Cup glory.

Less than 18 months later, Adam Gilchrist stood at the top of Australia's limited-overs line-up.  

Gilchrist's subsequent success in the Test arena saw Australia's rivals search for their own explosive keeper-batsmen. Quite comically, that saw international sides reach a point whereby batsmen who kept wickets as a hobby—men who viewed the gloves in the same way a child views their train set—often found themselves selected as their team's designated keeper in order to provide extra batting strength.

As a new century dawned, the same pattern followed, most notably between the sport's greatest rivals. In response to being dismantled by reverse swing in the 2005 Ashes series, Australia poached England's bowling coach Troy Cooley with the intention of developing the same destructive skill within their own bowling stocks. Even more striking was that reverse swing suddenly became the focus of training sessions right down to Australian grade cricket—a development this very writer was witness to. 

The lesson here is that the response by opposing nations to Johnson's breathtaking success is likely to be a predictable one.

England will look to Steven Finn—and more intriguingly, Tymal Mills—to fight fire with candles. South Africa will try to get Morne Morkel to bowl with his other arm. India will demand that Ishant Sharma adds some muscle and gets a haircut. New Zealand will tell Trent Boult to grow a moustache. The West Indies might even reopen their fast-bowler breeding camp in Barbados.

Kidding aside—although using Finn to combat Johnson at present is as feeble as fighting a fire with a candle—there are clear lessons to be learnt from Johnson's startling domination of Test cricket.

Watching Michael Clarke's use of his left-armed atomic bomb certainly won't have been missed by the South Africans. Smith and team coach Russell Domingo will have watched the lethal Johnson operating in short bursts. So perhaps the second Test at Port Elizabeth will mark the point where the South Africans change their use of Morkel.

It's true that the giant right-armer poses a physical threat, and that with his sharp pace and steep bounce, can become an uncomfortable proposition for any batsman. Yet, the numbers suggest that Morkel isn't the effective weapon he once was.


Morne Morkel's Test Bowling Record



Those numbers would indicate that Morkel is no longer the enforcer he was upon his entry to Test cricket. The improvement in economy and declining strike rate suggests that Morkel has assumed more a holding role as a back-up to Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander. 

Yet, with Steyn's pace gradually departing him, and Smith needing an answer to Australia's menacing speedster, the South African captain may look to his tall right-armer to assume the role that Johnson is performing in the opposing dressing room. 

England, meanwhile, are likely to learn a different lesson from Johnson's success. Harbouring their own strong and fast left-armer, Tymal Mills is a player who could see his development fast-tracked through the English game.

Like South Africa, England management will have taken note of the various ingredients that have gone into Johnson's resurgence, the most relevant of which is coaching.

By blocking out an array of external voices and working with only Dennis Lillee and Craig McDermott, Australia's now-irresistible force has discovered both a clarity and a simplicity in his work. It's an approach that Mills, and the struggling Finn, could both benefit from.

Certainly Finn, who was sent home from the recent Ashes tour after being described as "unselectable" by Ashley Giles, as per the Mirror, can look to Johnson's rejuvenation as a model for his own journey back to international cricket.

However, away from the international game, it's at domestic level where Johnson's impact will be most keenly felt.

The packed cricketing calendar and the proliferation of the Twenty20 game has changed the emphasis for developing bowlers. Whereas previous eras placed sheer pace on a pedestal, modern cricket has placed an importance on durability and economy. The inherent risks in fast bowling (injury and concession of runs) are of no value to both T20 franchises and international sides with relentless fixture lists.

Yet, it's the manner of Johnson's destruction that has the power to change that. Cricket coaches and administrators around the world have been reminded of exactly what searing pace does. So too, have the fans. 

More pertinently, Johnson's well-documented journey provides strong evidence that with the correct management, genuinely fast bowlers can still thrive at the highest level, despite the game's recent shift. Celebration of the left-armer's achievements will quickly turn to encouragement for others. Pace will be on the agenda from the grass roots of the game and up.

It won't just be Steven Finn being encouraged to bowl fast. The wayward speedster at first-class level, the strong and athletic youth at club training, the tall kid who can't bat in juniors: The encouragement to achieve extreme speed will be there.

That's the impact that Mitchell Johnson could have. Almost single-handedly, it's likely that Australia's savage left-armer has altered the short-term future of the game.

Profound in nature, and equally profound in effect.

Isaac Newton would be smiling. 


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