Speed kings

Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson are the leading exponents of an art that puts an enormous physical load on its purveyors while it also tests the willow wielders to the hilt, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Supreme fast bowling often generates an unparalleled buzz. Batsmen essentially move over from the ‘good’ to the ‘great’ category only when they show the necessary technique and guts to quell the men, who hurl the red cherry or the white ball with ‘menace’ written all over the delivery.

Currently, Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson are the leading exponents of the art that puts an enormous physical load on its purveyors while it also tests the willow wielders to the hilt. In his seminal book The Art of Fast Bowling, Dennis Lillee writes: “I believe that in the battle of wits that exists between you and your foe, it is your duty to be a relentless hunter. Fire everything you have at him, and then try to summon up some more until you have him beaten and on his knees.”

These words from the high-priest of fast bowling are a pointer to the relentless intimidation, focus, fierce attitude and obviously the right technique that define a speedster’s armour. And these are all facets that add to the fear-factor of Steyn and left-armer Johnson.

True to their larger-than-life match-altering presence, Johnson and Steyn had imposed their signature in the first two Tests. Johnson’s match-haul of 12 for 127 sunk the South Africans in Centurion. Never the one to be left behind, Steyn scalded the Aussies in Port Elizabeth. His second innings assault — four for 55 — or more precisely the three for 11 spell that scalped Michael Clarke, Steve Smith and Brad Haddin, ensured that Graeme Smith’s men pulled one back.

If Johnson pushed the speed-gun to its limit in Centurion, Steyn allied pace with swing in Port Elizabeth to wreak havoc. Though placed on the opposite spectrum when it comes to ‘country of birth’, together Steyn and Johnson have firmly moved the spotlight back to the Fast Bowlers’ Club. May be it is also due to the historical context — great spinners like Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble have bowed out while others like Graeme Swann or Harbhajan Singh have either retired or are trying hard for a comeback.

However, there is no denying the sheer quality that Steyn and Johnson have bequeathed to a skill that essentially blends a primitive urgency with the suave fluency of a F1 car. They may be jostling for the top seat at the high table reserved for men, who stretch the legacy of Fred Trueman and Wes Hall to the modern day but in their evolution, Steyn and Johnson have taken divergent paths.

Ever since his international debut in 2004, the whispers around Steyn being the next great fast bowler, gained volume and intensity. “He has the best action in the cricketing world now,” gushed Javagal Srinath after being the ICC match referee in a few games that Steyn played in his early years. Over the last decade, Steyn has made steady progress and is the spearhead of an attack that has other fine bowlers like Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel.

Johnson, meanwhile, had to live up to the legacy of Glenn McGrath’s metronomic accuracy, Jason Gillespie’s iron-will and Brett Lee’s sheer speed. The shadow of his immediate seniors was a heavy burden that Johnson had to bear and soon fitness-issues and form-woes affected him. From being an assured prospect, Johnson denigrated to being a lottery-ticket. His skippers never knew what they would get — a potent bowler or a wayward speedster.

The halo, though, was wrested back thanks to his 37 wickets in the recent Ashes that Clarke’s men won 5-0. The marrying of speed with short-pitched bowling, forced the England batsmen to recalibrate their approach. When life and limb are threatened, the last thing a batsman thinks about is safeguarding his wicket because reflex kicks in and only the extremely strong-minded survive. England somehow lacked that spirit.

With his approach in Centurion, Johnson showed that his Ashes success was not a flash in the pan though he couldn’t muster enough to rattle the South Africans in Port Elizabeth. But it was an ultimate tribute to Johnson’s skills when Steyn graciously said that he was motivated by his rival’s spells in Centurion. Praise from a rugged opponent is the one that any sportsman cherishes the most and Johnson couldn’t have asked for more.

And just like their varying paths to success and numbers, the two also operate in contrasting team-environments. Steyn may be the leader but he has a superb support cast in Philander and Morkel while Johnson is in a sense alone and in his own space among the Aussie ranks that he so effortlessly dominates. Yet, there is no denying their ultimate impact on guiding the fortunes of their respective teams. The fans couldn’t have asked for more.


Second Test, Port Elizabeth, February 20-23, 2014. South Africa won by 231 runs.

South Africa — 1st innings: G. Smith lbw b Harris 9; D. Elgar c Harris b Lyon 83; H. Amla lbw b Johnson 0; F. du Plessis c Smith b Lyon 55; A. B. de Villiers c & b Lyon 116; Q. de Kock c sub (Henriques) b Smith 7; J. P. Duminy lbw b Lyon 123; V. Philander c & b Clarke 6; W. Parnell c Haddin b Lyon 10; D. Steyn (not out) 4; M. Morkel (run out) 1; Extras (b-4, lb-4, w-1) 9. Total: 423.

Fall of wickets: 1-10, 2-11, 3-123, 4-181, 5-200, 6-349, 7-378, 8-413, 9-420.

Australia bowling: Harris 27-6-63-1; Johnson 25-5-70-1; Siddle 34-9-96-0; Lyon 46-7-130-5; Warner 3-0-10-0; Smith 8-0-30-1; Clarke 7.5-2-16-1.

Australia — 1st innings: C. Rogers lbw b Philander 5; D. Warner c Smith b Philander 70; A. Doolan c de Villiers b Parnell 8; S. Marsh c de Villiers b Parnell 0; M. Clarke c Elgar b Philander 19; N. Lyon b Morkel 15; S. Smith c de Villiers b Morkel 49; B. Haddin b Steyn 9; M. Johnson b Duminy 27; R. Harris c du Plessis b Morkel 26; P. Siddle (not out) 11; Extras (lb-4, w-2, nb-1) 7. Total: 246.

Fall of wickets: 1-7, 2-41, 3-41, 4-81, 5-120, 6-128, 7-168, 8-205, 9-209.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 13-3-55-1; Philander 13-0-68-3; Morkel 17-0-63-3; Parnell 8.3-2-31-2; Elgar 0.3-0-1-0; Duminy 5-0-24-1.

South Africa — 2nd innings: G. Smith b Johnson 14; D. Elgar c Haddin b Siddle 16; H. Amla (not out) 127; F. du Plessis c Haddin b Siddle 24; A. B. de Villiers c Haddin b Johnson 29; Q. de Kock c Clarke b Lyon 34; J. P. Duminy (not out) 18; Extras (b-2, lb-6) 8. Total (for five wkts., decl.): 270.

Fall of wickets: 1-20, 2-42, 3-112, 4-167, 5-231.

Australia bowling: Johnson 15-1-51-2; Harris 13-1-74-0; Lyon 17-2-48-1; Siddle 19-2-89-2.

Australia — 2nd innings: C. Rogers (run out) 107; D. Warner lbw b Duminy 66; A. Doolan c Smith b Morkel 5; S. Marsh lbw b Philander 0; M. Clarke c du Plessis b Steyn 1; S. Smith lbw b Steyn 0; B. Haddin b Steyn 1; M. Johnson lbw b Philander 6; R. Harris lbw b Steyn 6; P. Siddle (not out) 3; N. Lyon lbw b Elgar 0; Extras (b-2, lb-17, w-2) 21. Total: 216.

Fall of wickets: 1-126, 2-152, 3-153, 4-156, 5-156, 6-166, 7-197, 8-209, 9-214.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 20-5-55-4; Philander 17-3-39-2; Morkel 15-6-46-1; Duminy 14-3-33-1; Elgar 7.4-0-24-1.

* * * *

First Test, Centurion, February 12-15, 2014. Australia won by 281 runs.

Australia — 1st innings: C. Rogers c Duminy b Morkel 4; D. Warner b Steyn 12; A. Doolan c Peterson b McLaren 27; S. Marsh c Smith b Philander 148; M. Clarke c Philander b Steyn 23; S. Smith c Petersen b McLaren 100; B. Haddin lbw b Peterson 0; M. Johnson b Peterson 33; R. Harris b Steyn 19; P. Siddle b Steyn 2; N. Lyon (not out) 4; Extras (b-4, lb-8, w-11, nb-2) 25. Total: 397.

Fall of wickets: 1-15, 2-24, 3-72, 4-98, 5-331, 6-332, 7-348, 8-391, 9-391.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 29-6-78-4; Philander 24-5-69-1; Morkel 22-5-73-1; McLaren 20-4-72-2; Peterson 15-0-49-2; Duminy 12-1-44-0.

South Africa — 1st innings: G. Smith c Marsh b Johnson 10; A. Petersen c Haddin b Johnson 2; H. Amla lbw b Siddle 17; F. du Plessis c Clarke b Johnson 3; A. B. de Villiers c Warner b Johnson 91; J. P. Duminy c Johnson b Lyon 25; R. McLaren b Johnson 8; R. Peterson c Clarke b Johnson 10; V. Philander lbw b Lyon 15; D. Steyn (not out) 7; M. Morkel c Haddin b Johnson 0; Extras (b-14, lb-2, w-1, nb-1) 18. Total: 206.

Fall of wickets: 1-11, 2-15, 3-23, 4-43, 5-110, 6-126, 7-140, 8-189, 9-202.

Australia bowling: Harris 17-3-51-0; Johnson 17.1-1-68-7; Siddle 13-1-33-1; Lyon 14-0-38-2.

Australia — 2nd innings: C. Rogers b Steyn 1; D. Warner c Smith b Peterson 115; A. Doolan c de Villiers b Duminy 89; S. Marsh c de Villiers b Steyn 44; M. Clarke (not out) 17; Extras (b-3, lb-14, w-7) 24. Total (for four wkts., decl.) 290.

Fall of wickets: 1-1, 2-206, 3-243, 4-290.

South Africa bowling: Philander 11-2-28-0; Steyn 14.2-2-61-2; McLaren 11-0-47-0; Morkel 13-4-38-0; Peterson 19-0-87-1; Duminy 4-0-12-1.

South Africa — 2nd innings: A. Petersen c Haddin b Johnson 1; G. Smith c Doolan b Johnson 4; H. Amla c Marsh b Harris 35; F. du Plessis lbw b Siddle 18; A. B. de Villiers c Smith b Johnson 48; J. P. Duminy c Doolan b Johnson 10; R. McLaren c Haddin b Johnson 6; R. Peterson b Siddle 21; V. Philander (not out) 26; D. Steyn c Clarke b Harris 3; M. Morkel (run out) 1; Extras (b-10, lb-5, w-11, nb-1) 27. Total: 200.

Fall of wickets: 1-6, 2-12, 3-49, 4-97, 5-128, 6-140, 7-151, 8-165, 9-178.

Australia bowling: Harris 12.4-5-35-2; Johnson 16-3-59-5; Siddle 16-6-55-2; Warner 2-0-3-0; Lyon 13-1-33-0.