By Garfield Robinson
Now that Mitchell Johnson has shown that he can manhandle the South Africans as well, England can feel better about their Australian misadventure. Now that South Africa’s highly vaunted batting has been revealed to be just as vulnerable to Australia’s high-velocity assault, then all the uproar currently surrounding England cricket should probably be seen as an overreaction to a result they were powerless to prevent.
Despite the fact that Johnson was unstoppable, and the outstanding difference between the two teams, South Africa were still preferred by many to win the current series. Quite a few number of pundits favoured the game’s top ranked test team on the basis that their batsmen would be better able to repel Johnson’s bombs, while the pace attack widely seen as cricket’s best, would block the escape routes that Australia often used to free themselves after suffering early setbacks during almost every game of the Ashes series.
In four of five tests against England, Australia lost five first innings wickets for fewer than 150 runs, but Brad Haddin and the lower order managed to formulate a getaway on almost every occasion. Surely, the South Africans were not going to allow that to happen with any regularity, and a batting unit with three players in the top-ten rankings would certainly not be bullied like an England batting line-up that was in disarray from the first test in Brisbane.
South Africa was a better team and was bound to put up a sterner fight. The Aussies were only able to overwhelm England because they caught them in a vulnerable state. Despite an outward veneer projecting strength, there were huge cracks under the surface that the resurgent Australians were able to exploit in a way that the South Africans wouldn’t tolerate.
This seemed a reasonable analysis leading up to the first test at Centurion. But it was shown to be totally erroneous after Johnson’s very first spell of the match. The South African’s were reduced to 28/3 after eight overs, all three wickets falling to the left-hander’s thunderbolts.
Things never really got better from there, and Johnson violently snatched 12 wickets in the match – seven in the first innings and five in the second – for 127 runs. The last pacer to take that many in a test for Australia was Bruce Reid in 1991, with 12 wickets against India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
If anything, Johnson was even more terrifying at Supersport Park than he was at any time during the Ashes series: bodies were battered, helmets were clanged, bats were broken, and blood was drawn. Batsmen who walked out to face the missiles that he consistently delivered at over 90 mph could be forgiven for thinking they had more to lose than just their wickets. They should probably have heeded the line that was added to a song in the musical “Old Miss Gibbs” that ran during the bodyline series of 1932-1933 as Harold Larwood threatened life and limb, and placed themselves in the firing line only “After kissing their wives, and insuring their lives.”
Australia would be a good team without Johnson, but with him bowling as he has done for the last six tests, they are simply unbeatable. The South African team has now been shaken and its confidence dented. Hopefully, they will not make the mistakes England did and seek to assign blame where none is warranted. If they are to come out of this series with any positive results a way has to be found to neutralize Johnson; and short of him falling over in a heap, or returning to his old wayward ways, there is hardly anything they can do.
The simple truth is that fast bowling, at its mightiest, is the most disruptive force in cricket, and we are all very fortunate to be currently witnessing some of the most ruthless and effective feats of fast bowling the game has seen. Nostalgia may impel us to recall the Bodyline series, or Tyson in Australia in 1954/55, or Lillee and Thomson’s fearful pounding of England and the West Indies in the mid seventies, or the famous four-pronged attacks that sprung from the Caribbean during the seventies and eighties, but it is difficult to see Johnson’s efforts lagging behind anyone in the game’s history.
As good as they are, the host’s batsmen have little chance of even limiting serious damage if Johnson continues in the same vein. Only AB deVilliers showed any real resistance, and even he fell to the Australian spearhead in both innings. Even if it were somehow possible to assemble a line-up of batsmen that have been the most comfortable combatting bowlers of high pace – maybe McCabe, Richards, Sobers, Hutton, Chappell, Gooch – Johnson would have still have caused extreme worry.
South Africa could try to prepare pitches that would dampen Johnson’s sting. The problem with that is that Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel would be hampered as well, and the Australian showed in Adelaide that he remains potent on easy-going surfaces.
In the end, the hosts will probably be forced to do what Geoff Boycott did after having his off-stump uprooted by the last ball of an over he faced in Barbados in 1981 from Michael Holding – an over often dubbed the fastest in history. Upon viewing slow-motion replays, the England opener, according to legend, accepted there was nothing he could have done; the bowler was just too good.
At the moment, Mitchell Johnson may be just too good, even for the game’s best players.
Also on cricketcountry.com