Batsmen’s ultimate nightmare – Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn

By Chaitan Papnai | Last Updated: Dec 30, 2013, 17:04 PM IST

Cricket has produced many fearsome and deadly fast bowlers. The 70s and the 80s had some of the best intimidating seamers, and most of them came from the Caribbean Islands. It would be a crime to write about deadly fast bowling without mentioning the famous quartet of West Indies -- Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft, who were considered to be the masters of this craft.

After that, we saw Malcolm Marshall, Jeff Thomson, Brett Lee, Shoaib Akthar, Shaun Tait, Shane Bond to name a few, before the legacy was carried forward by Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn.

In contemporary cricket, these two fast bowlers have given sleepless nights to many top class batsmen in the world. Both, on their day, are as lethal as anyone. For cricket and its lovers, it’s good news that both are at the peak of their career, and more importantly, fit enough to play for their respective sides.

In the first week of December, four top teams in the world, were playing against each other. India was up against South Africa in the ODIs, whereas England was locking horns against Australia in the Ashes. In both the high-profile series, Johnson and Steyn took the batsmen by surprise, with the help of their murderous bowling spells.

Steyn was up against the most prolific batting line-up of recent times. Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, who had been in the form of their life, were to face Steyn and company. I was looking forward to an exciting contest. And finally the moment came when South Africa put up a total of 359 in the first ODI as Dhawan and Sharma walked in to open the Indian innings.

Steyn had a new ball in his hands. First ball was right on the money by the speedster. It was a perfectly pitched delivery on the off stump which was left by Rohit Sharma. Next delivery pitched at a good length, shaping away from the right-hander as he was beaten comprehensively by the speed and swing of the ball. Third one was again a similar kind of a delivery, which Rohit left to the keeper. Off the rest three deliveries, Rohit was beaten by the speed, swing and bounce, but was lucky enough to survive. He didn’t even manage to connect with the ball in the first over which was a maiden. Steyn was on fire and the batsman was just clueless. It seemed as if Rohit had conceded the psychological battle to the bowler in the very first over.

When Steyn steamed in to bowl his second over of the innings, Rohit decided to play the bowler more cautiously and left almost every delivery through to the wicketkeeper`s gloves, giving Steyn his consecutive maiden. Mind it, we are talking about limited overs cricket. In Steyn’s next over, it was a test of patience for the 26-year-old right-hander. Rohit missed the edge on two occasions in the first three deliveries. Those two out swingers could have troubled even the best batsman in the world. Finally, on the fourth ball of the over, Rohit managed to connect his bat with the ball, a big sigh of relief for the batsman who had recently scored a double ton against Australia – becoming only the third batsmen to do so in the ODIs.

Rohit’s expressions said it all as he smiled and nodded. After surviving 15 fiery deliveries from Steyn, Rohit must have experienced something he will remember throughout his cricketing career. Being a ardent fan of Indian cricket, I got goose bumps while watching this deadly spell by Steyn. Poor Rohit, couldn’t have done better than that, as he was still hanging there at the crease. The spell not only tested the batsman, but also the young and talented Quinton de Kock, standing behind the wickets.

Within a few days of this devastating spell, Mitchell Johnson also came out with a deadly spell in Test cricket that forced the English batsmen to their knees. In the second Ashes Test at Adelaide, Oval - England were already reeling at 117 for four when Aussie skipper Michael Clarke handed the ball to Johnson to start a fresh spell. Earlier in the 51st over, Johnson had already rattled the stumps of English skipper Alastair Cook in the morning for a duck.

First delivery of the over was a swift and straight ball that hit the pads of Ben Stokes and Johnson had got his man. After a gap of three deliveries, Matt Prior, the new man in, got a thin outside edge off a delivery that pitched up and Brad Haddin took a low catch to send the batsman back to pavilion for a third-ball duck. The very next ball, Johnson sent Stuart Broad’s stumps for a walk. Johnson was on fire. It was an incredible over from the ageing cricketer, who was playing in his comeback Test series. A deadly spell by the left-arm fast bowler, on a comparatively placid track, left the visitors clueless. Johnson picked three wickets in the over.
But Johnson didn’t stop there. After a gap of one over, he picked up his fifth wicket of the innings in the form of Graeme Swann and then knocked out the middle stump of James Anderson off the next delivery. It was great sight to watch from a fast bowler.

These two spells reminded me of two other memorable spells of fatal bowling, which are still quite fresh in my mind even after years -- one by Shoaib Akhtar against India at Kolkata (when he rattled the stumps of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar off back-to-back perfect Yorkers) and second one by New Zealand`s Shane Bond against Australia at the World Cup 2003 (where he scalped six wickets with his express pace).

One common factor between Steyn and Johnson is their typical fast bowler’s attitude that makes them even more dangerous. Clocking over 145 kmph on a regular basis, both have the knack of surprising a batsman either by shaping the ball away, or by bowling a toe-crushing yorker or a perfect bouncer to terrorise any batsman.

Though such fearsome spells by fast bowlers are a rare sight to watch, they certainly inspire budding fast bowlers to keep trying hard apart from giving cricket lovers and opponents a thrilling experience.