Matt Prior avoids a bouncer by Mitchell Johnson
© PA Photos

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Monsterball

Last season Mitchell Johnson revived not only his own flagging career but also something cricket had quite forgotten: the terrible thrill and fear of the bouncer

Daniel Brettig |

Does anybody remember laughter?

Not the belly laughs of administrators, broadcasters and players hoovering up money from T20 cricket. Not the amusement of fans at fielding misadventures or commentary gaffes. And certainly not the smug chortle of batsmen attacking bowlers with the impunity offered by bulging bats, shrinking boundaries and emasculated pitches. The snorting of which we speak is a deeper, darker kind. It is the predatory, hyena cackle of the Australian slips cordon behind Mitchell Johnson.

"You expect sledging and tough verbal encounters all the time, but one thing you don't want is that situation where another team feels they've got such an advantage that they can take the piss," says one of Johnson's contemporaries. "You see a few times when Mitch has his back up. There's laughter from the slips in the Australian team, as if to say, 'You've got no chance and thank god we're not having to deal with this.' That's the last thing you want, a team that feels such an advantage they're able to muck about a bit."

Down the years such laughter has been heard occasionally, brought on by the speed and malice of Jeff Thomson and the West Indian batteries that followed him. After their 17-over Via Dolorosa against Michael Holding and Andy Roberts on a treacherous Old Trafford pitch in 1976, John Edrich erupted into the maniacal giggles of a deserter happening on a mirage when informing Brian Close of his score. One. Thomson was blackly amused by the travails of his victims, enjoying the power he possessed to bore through layers of skill and ego to the fears beneath. In recent times Shoaib Akhtar's celebrations were characterised as much by screeching laughter as the aeroplane run.

By 2013, however, such tales had become just that. Stories told by coaches, former players and pundits like Holding, a voice crying out in a wilderness of pragmatic medium pace and elbow-flexing spin. Dale Steyn for a time carried the flame of pure speed, but his shaving back of a few kilometres in the name of longevity meant that he was more likely to find the outside edge than additional cheekbones to join Craig Cumming's. Morne Morkel had the pace and bounce but not quite the menace. And both men had actions that offered a decent sight of the ball - a morsel of comfort also offered by Australia's latter-day Ferrari, Brett Lee.

As for Johnson, he lurked in the background, occasionally lethal but more often unreliable. The general view was that his highest peaks had already been scaled, however briefly, against South Africa in 2008-09. Australia's selectors chose him at some times and not others, never completely trusting him to hold up under the sternest pressure. During the India tour in early 2013 he played a single wicketless Test, and was suspended from another as one of the "Mohali four" who failed to submit homework to the coach. In the middle of last year's Ashes series in England he might as well have been completely unknown, much as when he first arrived on the Australian scene 14 years ago.

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"What have we got here?"

Appearing at Adelaide Oval No. 2 on an April morning in 1999, Johnson turned a few heads well before he warmed up to bowl in centre-wicket training. None of the other players, most known to each other via the increasingly regimented pathway of junior competitions and talent identification, had seen him before, not even the Queenslanders. They laughed at his choice of haircut - an undercut with a ponytail. He was 18. Introducing himself as "Mitch from Townsville", Johnson strapped on his one pair of bowling boots and loosened up.

Jonathan Trott was dismissed for a duck by Mitchell Johnson, England v Australia, 2nd NatWest ODI, Old Trafford, September 8, 2013 © AFP (More than) a handful

Jonathan Trott Manchester, September 8, 2013

The ball that started it all? Australia's first ODI after the failed bid for the Ashes in England was a washout in Leeds, but a finer day in Manchester allowed Johnson to charge in. Trott thrust his gloves towards a first ball that was angled across the eyes. It was the quickest delivery England's No. 3 had faced all summer. This missile, and a couple more in another rain-curtailed affair at Edgbaston, convinced Australia's selectors to let Johnson loose against Trott and Co at the Gabba.

Yuvraj Singh Mohali, October 19, 2013

Not strictly a bouncer, but fast, short and moving away from Yuvraj, who dabbed at it with feet leaning closer to leg stump than off. Brad Haddin clasped the chance above his head, an unusual stance for a wicketkeeper in the subcontinent. On returning to Australia, Haddin said Johnson had hit his gloves harder on slow Indian pitches than at any other time, and on any other surface, in his career.

Jonathan Trott Brisbane, November 22, 2013

Another venomous throat-ball to finish what Old Trafford started. The match and series changed in the fraction of a second between the ball leaving the bowler's hand and its arrival well ahead of the batsman's schedule. Trott's gloves were raised in self-defence as his head jerked away, and though the Kookaburra went to ground, Australian spirits rose and blood thirst spread through the stands. Trott lasted another four Johnson balls before he was taken behind - off another bumper - on the stroke of lunch. Nothing was the same again.

Graeme Smith Centurion, February 13, 2014

Smith and Johnson had plenty of shared history, mainly defined by broken fingers. But each new series brings a fresh start, and this time Johnson immediately stated his intention with a short-pitched attack and a backward short-leg fielder. The first ball thudded into Smith's thigh pad, and the second ballooned off gloves raised in fearful self-preservation. At the end of the series South Africa's captain bade farewell not only to Johnson but the international game altogether.

Hashim Amla Centurion, February 15, 2014

Perhaps the most storied bouncer in cricket is the one Ernie Jones fired through WG Grace's beard. In the second innings of the Centurion Test, Johnson's first ball to Amla would have done the same had the batsman not been wearing a helmet with a visor. There had been plenty of Johnson bouncers through the summer, and plenty of outcomes. But the stupefied expression that passed across the unflappable Amla's face as he composed himself said it all. This was not for the faint of heart, nor perhaps the entirely sound of mind.

Within the space of a ball or two, the curiosity of players and coaches turned into a more alert posture. The kid was every bit as quick as Dennis Lillee had said when he urged the Academy coach Rod Marsh to get him down to Adelaide. Chris Hartley, then Australia's Under-17s gloveman and now Queensland's, said the impression was forceful. "Everything about him was very raw but there was just these natural ingredients. The ball came out of his hand really quick, his action was a little bit loose but fundamentally it was very fluent and very simple."

By the next summer, Johnson had begun to lose some rough edges. The ponytail was the first to go, perhaps fortunately for all those now emulating the moustache. His action grew tighter, and his role was defined in Queensland's youth team: take the new ball and scare the living daylights out of the opposition.

The national U-19s carnival that December was played in Perth, with its storied fast pitches. Horror stories quickly mounted. New South Wales were battered; Ed Cowan and Aaron O'Brien bore the brunt of a spell in which Hartley stood 30 metres back and still took the ball on the rise. Noticing that Johnson regularly overstepped two or three times an over, Cowan pleaded with the umpire to overlook the no-balls so he would only face six deliveries at a time, not eight or nine. Previously cocksure teenagers opted for chest guards. Queensland's glee grew with each match.

The encounter they had waited for was to be against the hosts, a Western Australia XI with Shaun Marsh at the top of the order. Only 16, Marsh was still two years away from the Sheffield Shield hundred that would have Steve Waugh waxing lyrical, but he was already the jewel in his state's junior programme. The pitch at Settler's Hill was tinged green and fast. Queensland chose to field, eliciting a confident response from the hosts - runs on the board would see them through. Johnson sized up Marsh and proceeded to deliver a one-two punch more recently familiar to Alastair Cook, Dean Elgar and Stuart Broad. Hartley recalls:

"The first ball was a quick bouncer that whizzed past Marsh's grille. He turned around, and looked at where I caught the ball with wide eyes, as if to say, 'Wow, what was that!' Mitch followed up with a ball that pitched about middle and off, straightened enough to beat the outside edge, hit the top of off stump and snapped it in half. The joy coming from our team was completely at odds with how silent the sidelines felt with the WA team, who had been banking on Shaun. He'd not just been knocked over but had his stump broken in half…"

A suitably shaken WA were razed for 74. Johnson 4 for 21. Lillee's public pronouncement of Johnson as a "once-in-a-lifetime prospect" was still two years away.

Musing on his early career, Johnson observes that whatever happened with his technique and confidence, he always had the bouncer to fall back on. It was always more reliable than fuller balls that often skewed wide.

"If I look at my whole career it's been an important ball for me," he says. "Just using it at the right times and with the right venom, making sure that if I am going to bowl it I'm going to bowl it hard into the wicket. If I do get hit I know I can bounce back and still go hard with it. 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."

****

Johnson's passage between 1999 and 2013 featured repeated injuries, swift development and elevation to the Australian team. He was not always confident of his progress, even if he could look utterly terrifying on the pitch. Moments of transcendence - Kuala Lumpur in 2006, Melbourne in 2007, Perth in 2008, Durban in 2009 - were fleeting. The shy, ponytailed Townsville youth often crept through the Cricket Australia veneer, whether in ham-fisted attempts to assert himself verbally or in the combination of nerves and family troubles that engulfed him in successive Ashes in 2009 and 2010-11.

Warning, Bell: England's No. 5 gets a wake-up call in Brisbane, 2013

Warning, Bell: England's No. 5 gets a wake-up call in Brisbane, 2013 © Getty Images

Those struggles make more sense after reading one of his earliest interviews, ahead of his first Shield match at the MCG in 2001. "When I first found out I was actually coming to Melbourne I started shaking," Johnson told Channel Seven. "I'll probably do that again when I wake up on [match] day. I know I will have a lot of mixed thoughts but I'll just try and play the game and forget about what's going on around me. I don't really feel there is pressure on me. I just feel a bit nervous and I'm just trying to get on with my own thing at the moment and not think about it all too much."

Those nerves were compounded by a bowling action he struggled to rely on, and a team uncertain of how to use him. Johnson's immense speed was allied to enormous strength, and when he seemed unsure of where the ball would go it seemed safer to use him in longer spells. The 166 overs he slung down in four Tests in India in 2008 were 18 more than any other member of the attack did: and yet he did not bowl when Australia needed wickets on the penultimate afternoon of the series, due to Ricky Ponting's concern about the over rate. Then, as in England a year later, the only laughter emanated from Australia's opponents.

In late 2011, when a freakishly injured toe at the Wanderers ruled him out of the home season, Johnson could think of nothing better than getting away from cricket. Even including the 2010 Perth Ashes Test, where he took nine, his past three series had reaped 24 wickets at near enough to 50 runs each. "I just wasn't sure where I was going," he said in 2012.

"If I hadn't got the injury and let's just say I got picked on the next trip - because there was concern that I wasn't going to get picked - I don't think anything would have changed in my performances. I don't think I would have retired but I definitely would have stepped away from it a little bit. Before my injury I wasn't confident and didn't believe in myself. The first two months away from it I didn't miss the game at all. I'd spoken to one of the coaching staff and said, 'I'm just not interested in it.'"

The interest slowly returned. Watching an Australian team that had begun to win again helped. Rousing displays against India in Melbourne and Sydney through Boxing Day and New Year added a sense of purpose to Johnson's recovery work, as he followed on television from Perth. Especially helpful was the sight of Michael Clarke pointing to the badge of his cap when indicating where Peter Siddle and James Pattinson should bowl to India's tail at the MCG. That visceral, physical threat was Johnson's greatest weapon, and he resolved to use it more liberally the next time around.

McLaren sank to his knees and removed his headgear to reveal blood on a swollen wound above his right ear. He did not play any domestic cricket for the remainder of the season

Vitally, Johnson reconnected with Lillee. He trained in Perth as national selector John Inverarity looked on. The break refreshed his body and mind, while Lillee sharpened his technique. A believer that the run-up is the most important part of a bowling action, Lillee lengthened Johnson's approach and encouraged an exaggerated piston motion with his arms for rhythm. At the wicket, the placement of Johnson's feet was refined, improving his height at delivery and thus his arm and wrist positions.

By the time Johnson went to England for an ODI tour in 2012, the technique he would carry though the following year's destruction was in place, even if the results were not immediate. Most importantly, he had belief in the method and in himself. Bolstered by Lillee's four-word "TUFF" mantra (Target, stand Up, Front arm and Follow-through), he was markedly less affected when spectators jeered him at The Oval. Not many knew it at the time but Johnson had found the path that would lead, 16 months later, to an Ashes date at the Gabba.

****

Settling at the top of his mark in Brisbane on the second morning, Johnson was nervous but ready. He knew his plans for the English batsmen, his role in the team, and that he had the confidence of the captain in the slip cordon and the coaches at the boundary's edge. It had not always been possible to say all this. Doubts about the reliability of his bowling action had slipped away over the previous summer, and bursts of speed at the IPL, and then in the ODI series in England and India, had impressed Australia's planners. Most significant was that he made England's No. 3, Jonathan Trott, decidedly uncomfortable. It may be surmised that Johnson was chosen for Brisbane for his effect on Trott alone - the devilish sparkle in Inverarity's eyes when he named Johnson part of the Gabba XII said as much.

"You pick your players," Johnson says. "Trott was struggling with the short ball, and we'd noticed that in the one-day series earlier last year in England, the way he played it. So there was definitely a plan to bowl short to him. There were certain players through that series and in South Africa we wanted to bowl it to. It's probably more satisfying to bowl a good short ball to a top-order batsman. There was a couple through the series, a few to Alastair Cook and a couple to Ian Bell, those really good players."

Rusty early deliveries gave spectators a reason to groan, as Johnson sought to calibrate his sights. Then Ryan Harris drew an outside edge from Cook, sending Trott in to bat minutes before lunch. Afterwards, Australia's players would testify to the power of the next few minutes. Trott, usually inscrutable, had been a pillar of England's 2010-11 Ashes victory in Australia, yet here he was helplessly, hopelessly drawn into a bouncing, hooking battle with Johnson that could only go one way. He waved at a short ball on the stroke of the interval. It was the moment in which the series tilted sharply towards the hosts.

Mike Gatting is hit by a bouncer by Malcolm Marshall, West Indies v England, 1st ODI, Jamaica, February 18, 1986 © Getty Images Casualties of war

Three batsmen talk about what being hit on the head does to your game

Mike Gatting (above): Nose broken by Malcolm Marshall First ODI, Kingston, February 18, 1986

I always felt I was lucky because it was just my nose. As the surgeon told me, it could have pushed the bone back into my brain and that could have been serious trouble.

There is always the tingle when you are playing a fast bowler. You tell yourself, "Crikey, there is a battle on here. I've got to be at my best." When I faced Malcolm again there was that tingle. I tried to keep telling myself to watch the ball but I was not sure how the body was going to react. Was it going to freeze? Was it not going to do something I wanted it to do?

I knew Marshall was going to bowl me some bouncers. Marshall knew I would be looking for the bouncer, so he did not start with them straightaway. But then he came round the wicket and bowled the bouncer. I hooked. I was a bit late and it went over his head.

There was never fear. If there is fear you've got to stop playing. You've got to always back yourself to be able to get out of the way. I do not think about the Marshall hit at all. Even if I see it on film, it does nothing to me. I have a scar on the top of my nose between my eyes. When I see that I think: aren't I lucky?

Rick McCosker: Jaw broken by Bob Willis Centenary Test, Melbourne, March 12, 1977

I was asked by Greg Chappell, our captain, whether I wanted to go back to bat or not. I said I did. I wanted to be part of the match.

I guess it was a risk going back. But it was a diminished risk, because by that time, late on the third afternoon, the wicket had become quite flat and the English bowlers had been in the field for at least a day.

What that incident did not change was my attitude towards batting. I did not change my attitude to the hook shot. I realised there was a reason why it happened in the first place: the lack of proper technique in playing the hook.

There was no fear when I went in to bat after the injury. You are anxious that nothing like that happens again, but that does not necessarily mean that you go out there with fear. Otherwise you are giving the game away, because being an opening batsman you are always going to cop it. You just have to learn to improve your technique."

Andy Lloyd: Struck on the right temple by Malcolm Marshall First Test, Edgbaston, June 14, 1984

"Before the ball that hit me, I had already faced a few short deliveries from Garner and Marshall. But this one just flew at me and caught me completely unawares. I thought it was going to go over my left shoulder. Instead it hit me on the temple.

My first impulse, like that of many batsmen who are hit in the face or head, was to get up and bat. At the time I was not in intense pain. I knew there was a problem when I tried reading the advertising signboards fencing the ground. That's when I realised there was something wrong. I lost 35% of central vision in my right eye. The biggest issue was whether I was going to play cricket again.

One of my first county matches on return was against Glamorgan in 1985. I made 160. Greg Thomas was a pretty rapid fast bowler and he bowled a lot of short stuff at me, but what he and the others did not know was: I was picking the ball after it had pitched; it was the full balls that were causing me difficulties in reading the length. The depth perception in my eyesight was the main problem.

I was 50% the batsman I used to be after that injury. But it did not damage my confidence. The only time you lose confidence is when you are not scoring runs. My ego was bruised, but on my return I became a more attacking player. That was because I knew I couldn't play for England again with my reduced eyesight.

I played Marshall later quite a few times. My game plan was the same: play back because he is going to bowl fast at you, but look to come forward because that is how a bowler tries to get you out. That is how you play fast bowling.

Interviews by Nagraj Gollapudi

A repeat in the second innings hurried Trott onto a flight home, battling a sense of mental and emotional burnout that Johnson himself could have related to in 2011. Johnson had also pointedly gone after England's tail in each innings. Australia's fielders grew increasingly aggressive, enlivened by the blood sport taking place before them. Clarke's confrontation with James Anderson was notable for turning on stump microphones, but it was representative of a wider aggression. While the gunslinger Johnson fired life-threatening bullets, the hyenas cackled expectantly from behind.

"Your fast bowler is someone who raises the intensity levels on the field and takes the fielding team with him. When you see a fast bowler like Mitch on song, that lifts the whole team and changes the complexion of the game completely," says Robin Peterson, part of the South African team that was next on Johnson's menu. "It gets the crowd going, the commentators going, and as they're bowling at speed, the slips and everyone around the bat jumps onto the bus and it becomes really intimidating. There's no relaxing. Even while he's walking back to his mark you're hearing chatter about it and the slips let you know that the next ball's going to be coming just as quick."

England's bowlers were lined up for punishment in a systematic, consistent way not seen for years. The Australian bowling coach Craig McDermott wanted his pacemen to intimidate bowlers in the way he had been by Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and company. Led by Johnson, they made Broad, Graeme Swann, Anderson and others choose a quick innings over a long one. Skittish strokes grew increasingly prevalent across the series; five out invariably meant all out. At short leg, George Bailey watched Monty Panesar's difficulties with mounting anxiety.

"I was just trying to get him to get his elbow out of the way, for starters," Bailey said. "That didn't look that much fun. He was muttering away to himself to watch the ball. It was not pretty."

In an attempt to defend the honour of his team-mates, Swann admitted more than he realised about how Johnson's speed was undermining England's lower order. "I honestly don't think any of our batsmen fear for their physical safety," Swann wrote for the Sun. "Bowling of that pace ups your heart rate, and sometimes people play more shots than normal because of the surge of adrenaline. We've had plenty of batsmen caught on the hook, for example, in the first couple of Tests."

As England hooked themselves to oblivion in the second Test in Adelaide, effectively ceding the Ashes right there, Australia's fielders laughed like winners. Johnson was the reason.

So what is it like to stand in the middle, fighting not only for your wicket but your health?

In South Africa, a team steeped in speed was routed by Johnson on a Centurion pitch concocted to maintain the hosts' unblemished record at the ground. AB de Villiers was the only local batsman to survive or thrive for an extended period, and even he needed to make the most of his outrageous talent. More representative were the struggles of Peterson, the left-arm spinner whose batting pretensions were challenged fully. For him and the rest of the tail, the torment began in the viewing area.

"When you see any fast bowler running in," he says, "bouncing out your top order and bowling at that pace, it sends a message to the lower order, because you know he's going to come hard and aggressive at you. You try to be calm and relaxed, but it's difficult to be calm and relaxed facing 150 clicks. It's a very difficult proposition to sit there and watch.

"We were all well aware he was bowling pretty well, we saw that in the Ashes. But the change facing Mitchell last series to this series was definitely his aggression. Besides that, he bowls short spells where he's very quick every single delivery. You can feel he's running in at you, and that's an intimidating thing.

"The guys put in all the work in the nets and hours preparing, facing short-pitched bowling and getting hit a lot in the nets as well. But it doesn't prepare you for when you're out there. The biggest thing from the lower order's perspective is courage more than skill. He doesn't give you any soft balls, he bowls everything at a high intensity, and he was just too good. Period."

Too good is one way of putting it. Too fast, too dangerous another. On a pitch offering variable bounce, Johnson used every angle available to him, causing major problems for left-handers Peterson, Ryan McLaren and Morkel by switching around the wicket. This is the fast bowler's equivalent of using the grenade launcher on an assault rifle. When Malcolm Marshall told a debutant David Boon in the 1984 Gabba Test, "Are you going to get out or do I have to come around the wicket and kill you?" he spoke an inconvenient truth for those who believe cricket should be played by gentlemen.

"Facing him around the wicket is really hard work," Peterson says. "You've got a short leg, a leg slip, a guy out on the hook and a fine leg. It's tough because you can't score on the off side. When you're batting, if it's not only about trying to preserve your wicket and it's about survival and protecting yourself as well, it becomes a different proposition. Hence all the arm guards, chest guards and protections going around.

"You really feel like you're absolutely pushed into a corner with nowhere to go, and I'm not sure how batters are going to be able to adapt to it. Sometimes you do things in the heat of the moment where you feel like 'How the hell did that just happen?' That's pace bowling, that's what it does to people, it takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you do things that you wouldn't necessarily do against a guy bowling at 135kph. It's not about being scared, but sometimes it is so quick your body just reacts before you actually realise what you've done."

Peterson dealt with the ordeal as best he could, resorting in the second innings to an exaggerated hop across to the off side in an effort to mix up Johnson's line and perhaps tempt him to pitch fuller. It was a short-term policy that had the minor consolation of reaping 21 runs and ending with a dismissal - not to Johnson but to a grubber from Peter Siddle.

© Getty Images

But it is not the 22 wickets in three Tests that spring instantly to mind when recalling Johnson's impact on the victory in South Africa. Nor is it the masses of children who sought his autograph in Centurion, St George's Park and Newlands, many wearing fake moustaches. It is the threat of danger underlined by Holding. "We haven't seen too many people bowl with that sort of aggression and that sort of pace," he said after watching Johnson in Centurion. "I think it's finding out some batsmen who have been quite comfortable over the past five or six years with the medium-pacers they've had around."

Ryan McLaren found out most of all. Johnson's bouncer cracked into the side of his head as he tried his best to stave off a vast defeat in the first Test: hot pace, rearing bounce, a momentary loss of bearings, and a sickening rifle-shot sound as ball met helmet and skull with head-on precision. McLaren sank to his knees and removed his headgear to reveal blood on a swollen wound above his right ear. Australia's players crowded around with genuine concern across their faces.

In appreciating the profound effect of Johnson's destructive summer, the fate of this lesser-known victim is worth noting. Though he resumed at the batting crease and edged Johnson soon after, McLaren was ruled out of the following two Tests when he complained of recurring headaches and other side-effects of concussion. Scarcely reported was the fact that he did not play any domestic cricket for the remainder of the season. If anyone was laughing at this, it was with the kind of rueful inflection that accompanied a Dale Steyn quip from 2012.

"Where else in the world do you get the opportunity to basically kill someone with two bouncers an over? Or try, legally."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

 

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