The biggest thing to happen in cricket last summer was the second coming of Mitchell Johnson.
As we all know, after several years in the wilderness, Mitch bounced back into the Australian Test side, and, using a potent mix of intimidation, aggression and moustache, proceeded to eat batsmen for breakfast (and lunch and tea).
Such was the heightened level of fear experienced by English batsmen, that many facing Johnson were reported to have had “scared eyes” throughout the ordeal.*
The effect of this terror was devastating, brutal and effective. Mitch took the scalps of 37 frightened Englishmen, and was named Man of the Series in the 5-0 Ashes whitewash.
Fast forward twelve months and Australia has welcomed India for the summer. Mitchell Johnson has been good (he’s taken 13 wickets), but nowhere near the level of shockingly efficacious violence we witnessed during the Ashes.
There are a number of explanations for this marked turn-around. Obviously, Mitchell Johnson has lost the “surprise factor” – while England didn’t know that the oft-lampooned character of Mitch had been reborn as Gen Y’s Dennis Lillee, India would have studied the tapes and prepared accordingly.
Equally, the pitches so far have been conducive to batting, which certainly doesn’t help someone trying to regularly bounce batsmen.
In this same vein, the Phil Hughes tragedy may have weakened the nation’s appetite for primitive violence, and this has perhaps been reflected by a seemingly gentler approach from our fast bowlers. But I’ve seen Mitch bowl his fair share of the short stuff, so this theory hold less water than my brain after New Year’s Eve.
Of course, Mitch could have also lost a bit of form, but I don’t think that’s the case.
More likely, the change in Johnson’s efficacy is due the inherent social and cultural differences between his opponents. Simply put, the English were soft, while the Indians are brave.
While some may consider this argument trite and superficially racist**, it deserves attention.
Take Virat Kohli for example. He has been a thorn in the side of the Aussies all series: plundering runs and returning verbal barbs with equal venom. He has played aggressively and successfully and has won plenty of fans down under.
I don’t recall any Englishmen playing with anywhere near the bolshy attitude or effectiveness of Kohli. I recall petty bickering between teammates, trepidation and moaning – but certainly nobody was brave enough to blow kisses at a man pelting rocks at your head at 150 clicks.
It hasn’t been only Kohli. He has led from the front, but others have followed his lead. As a result, we are witnessing a less devastating Mitchell Johnson and a more competitive series.
Is Kohli and India’s bravery the best way to nullify Johnson and counter Australia – and something England were incapable of? Or is there some other, arguably less racist, explanation?
By Ben Shine
*Different to “dead eyes”, which denote the absence of a soul, and are arguably far worse.
**Nationalistic “banter” between different countries is permitted when there are strong ties built on a history of colonialism. It is even more acceptable when dished out by the subservient nation, in this case the two English colonies: (formerly) India and (currently) Australia.