It takes a fair wind to bowl like the wind, says sometime 90+ speed merchant Dirk Nannes, so let’s appreciate Mitchell Johnson and others when we get to see it happen in the flesh.
There is something special about watching someone bowl genuine pace first hand. There’s an aura that tends to follow them when they’re ‘hot’. Even in international cricket, opposition batsmen start talking, and teammates start laughing about how people are almost getting ‘pinned’ in the nets. On the field, balls start to fly everywhere, batsmen duck and weave, helmets break, wickets fall and runs flow. It’s an exciting time for everyone.
I shared that ‘buzz’ of excitement and anticipation during the recent England v Australia ODI series when a resurgent Mitchell Johnson was sending down some genuinely quick bowling at English batsmen. It was a welcome sight, and I’m not saying that simply because I am Australian. To the naked eye, he was noticeably quicker and more hostile than anyone bowling in England this summer.
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The 90+ mph club is not a very big one, and when a member is in rare form, it’s a time to sit back as a viewer and watch something special. Sure, Mitch’s five wickets at 28.2 is nothing special on its own, but it’s the spectacle that quick bowling brings to a series that lifts everything in the game. Genuine fast bowling separates the men from the boys. It asks questions of both batsmen and bowler, all of whom need to be at the peak of their powers.
But why can a fast bowler be good one month, poor the next, and terrible for the next six months? What makes a bowler gain and lose form? There is no simple answer to it, but a key component is their body. By and large, fast bowlers are a fragile lot. Something the general public can never quite get a grasp on is this: a fast bowler is never 100 per cent fit. They are sometimes close, but there’s always something going on with their body. It’s a constant work in progress. Sure, they are fit enough to take the field, but I’m talking about being fit enough to wake up the morning after a game and tell your wife you’re feeling good. Those days don’t happen too often across a career!
Given that most 90+mph fast bowlers are rarely at 100 per cent, it can often be a bowler’s ability to cope on the ‘off’ days that determines whether their career sinks or swims. It’s a hidden art of the game.
It’s often this time when players are not quite at their best that bad habits creep into their game. Some change their action for the poorer, and their form tends to follow them down. The problem during this decline is that neither their injury nor their form is ever bad enough to stop them playing, and over time they become a shadow of their former selves. It’s also during these times when a bowler’s mental strength is most tested.
Often the hardest work a bowler has to do is to realise that they are not in great form, and find a way to ‘rebuild’ – to improve in the long term. Mitch’s injury in South Africa in November 2011 forced this to happen, and his hard work in rebuilding himself during an extended lay-off has reaped dividends.
Quite frankly, I don’t care whether my fast bowler is perceived as being ‘soft’, or is buying batsmen café lattes before a game, as long as they are taking stumps out of the ground on match day. And that’s why I would pick the currently exciting, aggressive (and quiet) Mitch Johnson for the first Test in November.
But no matter how any fast bowler gets there, it takes a very rare alignment of fitness, form, weather and playing conditions to allow a fast bowler to bowl like the wind. Stand back, admire and appreciate it when it happens. No matter how easy someone makes it look, there is a damn lot of hard work and pain, a heap of luck, and sometimes just a little bit of art that has allowed it to happen.