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How Lillee reformed Mitchell Johnson

December 29, 2012

Wayne Smith, in the Weekend Australian, 28 December 2012, where the title is “Wilderness to worship: Johnson gets TUFF in Test comeback

mitchell-johnson-bowlingMITCHELL Johnson wasn’t just tough on the Sri Lankans in the Melbourne Test, he was tough on himself. Or, more correctly, TUFF – the mnemonic that Dennis Lillee drilled into him through that long year in the wilderness during which they seemed to be the only Australians convinced Johnson could ever again become a force in Test cricket.Too often, Johnson admitted yesterday, he had allowed himself to be swayed by outside influences but the one voice he always heeded was Lillee, the legendary former fast bowler who became his mentor in Perth.

An uncompromising, tough-love tutor was Lillee, brooking no excuses, tolerating no weakness, not that Johnson ever hinted at either. But the big left-armer desperately needed help. His fast bowling technique had disintegrated, live and on-stage, in front of the world. At times it seemed the bowler honoured in 2009 as the ICC Cricketer of the Year could barely be certain of hitting the pitch, let alone the stumps. What Johnson needed, Lillee realised, was a little bit of uncomplicated Henry David Thoreau philosophy – simplify, simplify! So he unceasingly drilled into Johnson the single word TUFF – standing for Target, stand Up, Front arm and Follow through, each letter a trigger to help him correct an element of his bowling that had gone off-line.

Battered Sri Lankan batsmen Kumar Sangakkara and Dhammika Prasad must have felt they were the “Targets” yesterday at the MCG, although what Lillee had in mind was more for Johnson to zero in on a spot on the pitch to land the ball.

“Stand Up” was intended to correct the habit Johnson had formed of falling away in his action, almost to the point of bowling round-arm at times. “Front arm” – well, anyone who has studied the statue of Lillee at the MCG in which he is depicted leaping into his delivery stride, left arm coiled like a catapult, would appreciate why he considered the front arm so important.

And by forcing Johnson to focus on his “Follow through”, Lillee ensured the whole action would flow as one, allowing no speed to leak away.

There was, as well, one final piece of advice Lillee passed on – for Johnson to think of himself no longer as leader of the pace pack but as a support bowler, one who relied more on guile and accuracy than old-fashioned aggression to take his wickets.

Well, it would seem there are limits to just how much a fast bowler can absorb. Certainly nothing about Johnson’s demeanour or bowling in his two Tests back under the baggy green cap suggests Lillee’s last advice got through.

He still hunts like a man with a starving family to feed. Johnson doesn’t set out to break batsmen, although South Africans Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis might disagree. So, too, Sangakkara after his tour of Australia was ended yesterday by a vicious Johnson delivery that leapt off a length and shattered his left index finger.

When Sangakkara was forced to retire hurt, the MCG giant screen announced wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene, whose thumb Johnson broke in the first innings, as the next batsman in.

Wishful thinking, sadly, so that left Prasad to face the music. Sure enough, five balls into his innings, he was wringing his left hand after Johnson had jammed him, too, on the bat handle. So severe was the damage inflicted that the match ended at the fall of the seventh wicket.

Not quite as bad as what the West Indies hit squad of Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel and Co inflicted at Sabina Park in 1976 when the last five Indian batsmen were listed “absent injured”, but almost. “I guess it was a plan for us,” said Johnson of the short-pitched assault. “Obviously the last couple of days in Hobart the boys went pretty hard at their batters with the short ball and they didn’t like it, so that was a plan through this Test match. Unfortunately, they got a few injuries out of it. I think that intimidation factor definitely worked out there today.”

To think that all of this drama was crammed into barely three hours’ play on the third day of this drastically abridged Test, this after the day had begun with Johnson in hot pursuit not of wickets but of the 27 runs he needed for his first Test century in Australia, his second ever. He had closed that gap to just eight runs when Jackson Bird was last man out, which might have irked a lesser man.

But Johnson is a gentle giant, who reserves his hostility for the contest. At close of play, Michael Clarke revealed, Johnson was the first Australian into the Sri Lankan rooms, earnestly checking on Sangakkara’s condition. If that’s how he deals with the enemy, it should come as no surprise that his immediate response on being denied a shot at his century was to console Bird.

The pattern of Johnson’s career is that when he fires with the ball, he fires with the bat, going back to his first Test half-century, against India in 2008 in Perth, where he also captured five wickets.Sadly, the reverse also applies. When he makes no impression as a bowler, his confidence evaporates and he becomes anonymous as a batsman. It’s perilous on the evidence of his two Tests back to suggest Johnson can become Australia’s first great allrounder since Richie Benaud. Still, he will go into his 50th Test next week with already 202 wickets at 30.55 to his credit and 1389 runs at 23.15, a fair start by any measure. “I’ve always enjoyed my batting,” Johnson said yesterday after being named man of the match. “If I can take what I did out there into the future and be consistent with it, I think I can become a good allrounder. Time will tell.”

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