In the line of fire?

It’s 7 December 2013, Adelaide Oval, Day 3, Session 2. Mitchell Johnson delivers a sustained spell of intimidatory bowling, not seen from an Australian bowler since the 70s. On a new but typically benign Day 3 Adelaide pitch, Johnson uses pace and aggression to terrify the England middle order and tail. If there was any doubt about the surprise direction this Ashes series is heading, Johnson dismisses it along with seven English batsmen with that brutal display.

It is thrilling, captivating stuff and the sense of imminent danger to the batsmen builds the fervour in the crowd. We want blood (literal or metaphoric), particularly Broad’s and Anderson’s. Seeing their stumps horizontal as footwork betrays fear, slakes the thirst but builds an appetite for more. Johnson does not ‘bounce’ his opponents out – all of his wickets in that spell come from balls that are pitched up or on a good length. His short balls, judicious in their selection and mentally devastating in their impact, wreck the English footwork – the pitched up ones, their stumps.

It’s hard to imagine scenes like that this summer. Crowds will not bay for blood. Bouncers will likely be used sparingly and may well be greeted with gasps rather than cheers.

So what is the future of the bouncer and intimidatory bowling more broadly? Treading the same path in the same direction as many in the last week, we desperately need it to remain a part of the game.

The key to Johnson’s success last year was his ability to disrupt the footwork of top order batsmen and convince tail enders that there was not much to be gained from hanging around. It was the fear of being struck by the ball that made this possible, not the fear of death. To give credit to Johnson his bowling at its most vicious targets the ribs, not the head. Batsmen in fear of their heads will step back from the stumps, while those in fear of their ribs will move inside the ball. It was Broad’s leg stump that got knocked over as the full ball went behind his pads.

While, no doubt, cricketers should and will be more circumspect on the more violent aspects of the game this summer (Clarke is unlikely to use Johnson as part of a threat to injure a batsman again) the answer is not to stop bowling the bouncer. Rather, the challenge is for us as fans of the game is to appreciate the tactical importance of the short pitched delivery, while acknowledging what happened to Hughes. To relish the contest that unfolds with a truly fearsome fast bowler roaring in and admire the bravery of the batsmen who are putting their safety on the line with every ball faced. To banish the baser elements of our natures that rubberneck at car accidents, enjoy wet cobblestones in the Tour de France and, deep (or not so deep) down, quite like it when a batsman cops a cherry on the chest.

As people who write about the game we (yep, one piece and I’m using ‘we’) should be careful about creating images of violence, just because we are running out of ways to describe five days of cricket.

Every day we play the odds – every time we cross the road, turn right across traffic, paddle a board out to sea or pad up to bat. We accept the odds because they are infinitesimally small. However, part of the deal we make is that it might go wrong and we are willing to accept that risk because the potential rewards outweigh the likelihood of tragedy.

Phillip Hughes accepted that. Otherwise how would a little bloke like him summon the bravery required to regularly walk out to the middle and face bowling of that pace and accuracy? In reviewing the tragedy that occurred last week we should reconsider the risk but also acknowledge the benefits it gives us. Me, I’m hoping for a respectful summer of cricket in the finest traditions of the game. That is something that we did not have last year and perhaps Phillip Hughes has reminded us of what is important, on and off the field.

But back, now, to the Adelaide Oval. This time it is 4 February 1989 and just months before the new dawn that was the 1989 Ashes series. Australia are up against a West Indies bowling lineup with Marshall, Patterson, Ambrose and Walsh. Dean Jones and Alan Border had put on a well constructed 208 run partnership after coming together at 3-75 the previous day (I got Dean Jones’s, Steve Waugh’s and Trevor Hohns’s autographs that morning). As Jones’s partners fall away it looks as he’ll be stranded short of his double century.

Out strides Merv Hughes at 8-383. With almost 400 on the board in a dead rubber, Merv could be forgiven for shirking at the challenge of facing that fast bowling battery. Instead he faces up and plays the most characterful innings of his unspectacular batting career (to that point 81 runs at 6.75). As he sticks about and as Jones gets closer to his double century the West Indies bowling becomes more and more intimidatory. Hughes wears the pill all over his body, with limited tools to defy the short pitched bowling, but he keeps facing up and only backs away from the stumps to occasionally hoik the ball over the offside field. Jones gets his 200 and they put on 114 together. To cap things off Hughes gets his maiden first class 50 and finishes on 72 not out as Whitney is caught behind off Patterson.

That is the bravest innings I have witnessed in the flesh. How about you?

About Dave Brown

Upholding the honour of the colony. "Play up Norwoods!"


  1. Thanks Dave. Well explored. Cricket will certainly apply a fascinating self-examination over the summer. There’ll probably be more caution in the short-term, and possibly more gentlemanly conduct, but I don’t think the game’s fundamentals or tactics will change.

    I saw Michael Holding bowl at Adelaide oval against SA when he played for Tassie. We sat in what I think was probably the old Edwin Smith stand, and despite being young and with flawless eyesight, I couldn’t see the ball. He glide in, release it, and next thing the keeper, at least a pitch length behind the stumps, was scooping it over to the slips. Sweet Jesus. It was awe-inspiring, and more than just a bit scary. It certainly demanded bravery, although I couldn’t tell you who was batting. Maybe Rodney Hogg, although, disappointingly, I don’t recollect him threatening to belt anyone!

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Apart from G Yallop, Mickey

  3. Correct Swish! You’d need a pretty big barn if you invited everyone Rodney threatened to a square dance.

  4. Chris Weaver says

    Is it bravery? I’m more akin to thinking it’s courage these guys display, as per Jackie Stewart’s definition that what separates courage from bravery is that courage involves knowing the risks, yet looking fear in the face.

    We live in an era where the balance between ball and bat has lost its equilibrium. In the last 15 years we have seen boundaries first get roped off for fielder safety, then get brought in to satisfy a hitter’s lust; pitches that have become uniform in creation, offering little deviation in bounce or early deterioration; we’ve seen bats become much better designed, gaining power but retaining a similar weight; a stricter interpretation on wides; ‘free hit’ no-balls in limited over games; and, of course, the rise of Twenty20.

    This desire to see fast-scoring, big-hitting cricket has its victims. How many wrist spinners are backed to toss the ball up nowadays? How many seamers are confident of just bowling line and length? Bowling skills have deteriorated sharply, to the point where the only advantage gained is one I’d argue is outside the spirit of the game (the ’15 degree’ rule).

    Fast bowling designed to unsettle is one of the few areas of the game in which the bowler can legally instill indecision and – yes – fear. Indeed, it has actually increased in importance. The one bouncer per batsmen per over rule (introduced in 1992) is now two per batsmen per over; sparing bouncers are also now allowed in limited overs cricket. Without it, the game risks losing an extremely important element – that of physical risk. I’m not talking about the sort of violence and propensity to injury present in contact sports, but enough sense of danger and physical challenge as to make cricket a sport, rather than a pastime.

    I reckon anyone who has played the game at any level has known that element of fear (also present when fielding close to the bat) and learned to appreciate the game and its top players more because of it. There will of course be a reaction and a recalibration in how we play the game, certainly over the next year or two. But I do fear that the game’s lawmakers will be reactionary and remove an important part of the game’s spectacle and – crucially – its challenge.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic and thought provoking article , the Hughes tragedy is going to take a long time for the game to recover from , if ever . I too hope administrators don’t hastily over react to this terrible freakish accident . Lillee and Thommo in 74 75 were as intimidating and threatening as any 1 with a fine player in Dennis Amiss destroyed before he went out to bat

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