We must remember and acknowledge what he has brought to the game, writes Ted Corbett
Here’s a sentence I never dreamed I would have to write. . . How I can compare Australia’s Test winner Mitchell Johnson with the greatest left-arm fast bowlers in history?
A year ago, that would have been ludicrous. It would also have caused the Barmy Army to add another couple of insulting lines to their mockery of Johnson and it would have made the best batsmen burst out laughing.
Johnson was a flop — “he bowls to the left and he bowls to the right” the England fans sang before the song descends into obscenity — and no-one thought he was anything but a wild bowler with an armful of tattoos.
Even when he rushed out England in five Tests this winter we still wondered if he was out of the top drawer.
Now he has added 12 South African wickets to his tally in the first Test — on their wickets not on pitches that seemed to be specially prepared for his talents — and we have to start judging him with our eyes wide open.In elite company
We should begin by asking if he is as good as Wasim Akram (my own personal favourite), Alan Davidson (who is regarded with awe by great judges like Richie Benaud) or the genius Gary Sobers.
You can throw in India’s own Zaheer Khan, the slower but effective Chaminda Vaas of Sri Lanka, Bill Voce, assistant to Harold Larwood in the Bodyline series, Trevor Goddard, the South African allrounder and half a dozen other swinging southpaws.
Perhaps the Johnson era will not last long for he has already had a considerable career but, even if it continues for only this southern season, we must remember it, and acknowledge what he has brought to the game.
The Mitchell mayhem started in the mind of Dennis Lillee, great fast bowler, great coach. There is no finer understanding of the ways of quick bowling in the world and Johnson is lucky that their first meeting happened when he was 17.
Lillee is one of those cricketers who teaches me something every time we meet which, I am pleased to say, has been a frequent happening since we first got together in 1981.
Happily, I saw some of his outstanding performances but one of the more obscure displays remains at the front of my mind 25 years on.
He was pro for Northants in 1988 and one day against Derbyshire showed us all just how precision, control and artful bowling on a helpful pitch is sometimes better than fast and furious.
He simply strode to the wicket, let the ball go by his standards almost gently.
Once the game was won he flung his sweater round his shoulders and walked off; the gesture of a great athlete in his pomp.
Of course he encouraged Johnson to let fly — and throw in a few gestures and verbals too — and within a few overs England was on the retreat.
Thus the Lillee wisdom has propelled Johnson into the top ranks of all quick left-arm bowlers even though Akram was so fearsome that the best Lancashire batsmen avoided the net he was bowling in and Davidson was simply a magician in white.Unmatched skills
As for Sobers his skills were such that at Nottingham and throughout the Caribbean I have heard stories that left me gasping.
A friend of mine was interviewing Sobers on the golf course when a mishit drive headed his way. My pal ducked: Sobers used his putter like a bat, took the ball on the half volley and “caught” the golf ball off the edge.
That is beyond genius.