Thursday, April 1, 2010

Johnson's Quest

Mitchell Johnson is a relative rarity among world bowlers – in that he bowls left-arm fast. Last year we examined the increasing percentage of left-handed batsmen in world cricket since the Second World War, but there has not been a similar increase in left-handed bowlers over the same time period. However, currently there are two leftie pacemen in the higher echelons of the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings as Zaheer Khan’ recent successes have lifted him to sixth place. In addition, Australian newcomer Doug Bollinger’s excellent start to his Test career sees him now up in fifteenth place. Could we be in a golden era of left-arm seamers. Perhaps all that is now needed is a return to form and fitness for England’s Ryan Sidebottom, who peaked at number 5 a couple of years ago.

Johnson has certainly blown hot and cold throughout his Test career but a return of 155 wickets in 34 matches is not something to be sniffed at. In fact, only 4 Australians had taken more wickets over the course of their first 34 matches and Glenn McGrath also tallied 155. But one thing missing from Johnson’s resume is the number one position in the Test bowling charts, a feat achieved by only 4 left-arm pacemen in Test history.

There have been some notable near-misses. Wasim Akram – often considered the greatest of all left-arm quicks - ended his career with 414 Test wickets to go with his 502 in ODI cricket but never made it to the top spot in the Test arena, peaking at number 2. That was also the position that Kiwi Richard Collinge and Australian Bill Whitty reached, while Chaminda Vaas, Trevor Goddard, Bruce Reid and Frank Foster all had to content themselves with third place. Garry Sobers spent more than a decade at the top of the Batting tree but never managed higher than number four with the ball in all his different guises.

Two of the four left-armers reached top spot in the early days of the resumption of Test cricket after the Second World War. England’s Bill Voce – who originally made his name as foil to Harold Larwood in the 1932/33 Bodyline series – spent six months as number one more by default than by any great deeds on the field. Australian Bill O’Reilly had spent the war years as number one before playing his final Test in early 1946 which proved to be a very one-sided affair as New Zealand were routed for just 42 and 54 at Wellington. On his retirement, Voce took over the top spot before five different bowlers shared the spoils in 1947 ending with Ernie Toshack, who spent just 56 days on top spot before Ray Lindwall took over for a large proportion of the next seven years.

Lindwall’s run was interrupted by a left-arm swinging team-mate of his – Bill Johnston – who enjoyed an unbroken two-year spell in the number one position from December 1950. Indeed, during that period he became one of only six Australian bowlers to ever reach the magical 900-point barrier with the ball. Ironically, despite a stellar Test career in which he took 160 wickets in 40 Tests, he is possibly best remembered for his first-class batting average of 102 on the 1953 Australian Ashes tour when he was dismissed just once in 17 innings.

And so to the most recent left-arm paceman to occupy top spot in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers. Alan Davidson made his debut in the ill-fated 1953 tour of England but blossomed into one of Australia’s finest all-round cricketers. In the famous tied Brisbane Test of 1960 he became the first man to score 100 runs and take ten wickets in the same Test. That performance took him to the top of the Test all-rounders table to go along with his top spot in the bowling rankings. He still occupied that position with a staggering total of 902 points when his Test career ended in early 1963 at the age of 33.

So – there are some illustrious names for Johnson to try to emulate, but by peaking at number two he has already achieved more than some of the greats of the game managed in their careers. It will be interesting to see in the years to come if he can reach the heights of his hard-hitting predecessor Davidson. Of course, Dale Steyn et al will be trying their utmost to ensure that he doesn’t!