‘Once-in-a-generation paceman’

To see this marauding Aussie thundering in to bowl was a great spectacle. Simply put, Mitchell Johnson will be missed.

In his pomp, such as during the Ashes series Down Under in 2013-14, Mitchell Johnson was a mean and ruthless machine.   -  REUTERS

The legendary Dennis Lillee, who shaped Mitchell Johnson, giving some tips to the left-arm paceman at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai on June 29, 2007.   -  V. GANESAN

The physicality of his bowling was hard to miss. When he bounded in with his muscular frame moving forward in cohesion, his moustachioed visage lending him a menacing look, his eyes focussed on the target, Mitchell Johnson could leave even the well protected modern-day batsman terrified.

In his pomp, such as during the Ashes series Down Under in 2013-14, Johnson was a mean and ruthless machine. A head-hunter who could run through line-ups and alter course of matches in a matter of a few hostile overs, dent egos and break limbs.

It was hard work though. Each time a fast bowler lands on his back foot and transfers weight on to front foot, a force measuring eight to 10 times his body weight passes through joints below his waist.

The end result was often devastating for the opposition and rewarding for Johnson.

Evoking memories of Thommo

The manner in which he intimidated batsmen with pace and lift evoked memories of Jeff Thomson in his prime. Interestingly, Thomson’s pace partner, the legendary Dennis Lillee, played a major role in the rise of Johnson.

Growing up in Queensland, Johnson idolised Lillee. It was Lillee who spotted the spark in a young Johnson.

And Lillee worked on Johnson at home and in the Chennai-based MRF Pace Foundation. Johnson learnt the nuances of pace bowling from the old master. The art of not just bowling well, but picking up wickets is a precious one.

So impressed was Lillee with Johnson that he called him a “once-in-a-generation paceman” before the Queenslander began his international career. It was an audacious remark but Lillee had good reasons to be bullish on Johnson.

Lillee did extensive work on Johnson’s technique when the paceman visited the MRF Pace Foundation in 2007. The maestro’s technical inputs shaped Johnson’s career.

Mending Johnson's methods

“He has all it takes. There’s just a little bit of cleaning up to do,” Lillee had said then.

Former India paceman T. A. Sekar was the Chief Coach at the Foundation when Johnson’s methods were mended by Lillee.

Recollected Sekar speaking to Sportstar, “Johnson had a sling-arm action, and, like all bowlers with his kind of release, he was side-on. But then, Johnson was taking too long in his load up. His non-bowling arm was going too far behind. And he was travelling too far across. The timing of the arm rotation is very important. If you get that wrong, you tend to jump to compensate and lose control.”

Sekar added, “It is the load-up that determines the rotation of the arm. Dennis shortened Johnson’s load-up. This consequently improved the position of Johnson’s front arm which was not quite ideal then.”

Throwing light on Lillee’s thought process, Sekar said, “Dennis always said if your run-up and load-up are in place, your front arm will be in good position. He showed that with Johnson. Dennis never called an action good or bad but chose to label them as efficient and inefficient.”

Sekar went on. “When he did not get his load-up right, Johnson tended to slant the ball across right-handers and went for runs. After Dennis corrected the flaw, Johnson was able to bring the ball into the right-hander or straighten it. He was a different bowler.”

A rhythm bowler

There were occasions, as his career progressed, when Johnson, rather frustratingly to his supporters, slipped back to his old habits but then he would seek Lillee again to rediscover his form. The Aussie was very much a rhythm bowler.

When his mind and body were in harmony, he hit the pitch and the bat hard. He was more a seam bowler — he angled the delivery away from the right-hander or got it to straighten or come in from over the wicket.

He could get the ball to straighten or move away from the left-hander at terrific speeds from over the wicket. His bouncer was lethal, particularly from round the wicket from where it would follow the batsman.

Johnson’s numbers reflect his methods. In Australia and South Africa where he could exploit the bounce and seam movement, he excelled.

The pace spearhead picked up 171 wickets in 34 Tests Down Under at 24.43. In South Africa, he fired out 41 batsmen in just eight Tests at 25.29.

Johnson’s record in England, where the ball swings, suffers in comparison. He ended up with a modest 38 scalps in 12 Tests in the Old Blighty at 36.63. He can thus be classified as a seam bowler.

Facing Johnson, the batsmen not just had to cope with awkward bounce, but needed to look out for the delivery that skidded off the surface; a legacy of Johnson’s sling-arm and rather round-armish action.

A match-winner he was. His strike-rate of 51.1 is the best by any Australian bowler with 150 or more wickets in Tests. Considering the galaxy of great bowlers who have paraded their skills for Australia, this is a remarkable achievement.

As many as 198 (at 21.72) of his wickets came in the 39 Tests that Australia won in his career. Johnson was a man for the big occasion and struck when it mattered. To see this marauding Aussie thundering in to bowl was a great spectacle.

Simply put, Johnson will be missed.

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