The moustache is a historic symbol of the villain. And a handlebar moustache? Well that is the staple of many of Australia’s finest criminals. When combined with tattoos and the threat of violence, there were times last summer when Mitchell Johnson looked more bogan underworld enforcer than professional Australian cricketer. Mitch looked like violence, and he backed it up with violence with the ball.
Fast bowling produces these sorts of characters. It has since ‘Demon’ Fred Spofforth spooked batsmen into believing he could perform dark magic with the ball. The parting in his hair was supposed to resemble devil horns. And the demon took it further by dressing as Mephistopheles.
Roy Gilchrist was violent on and off the field. His big innovation was the beam ball when Indian pitches wouldn’t allow him to attack heads with a bouncer. Rodney Hogg had a lunacy room to anger other fast bowlers into going after batsmen like he did naturally. Dale Steyn hunted, or at least caught, a crocodile. Jeff Thomson hunted batsmen. And Andre Nel made batsmen believe he was capable of anything.
This is fast bowling. That these men are dangerous is part of cricket’s narrative. It’s many people’s favourite flavour of the game. Fire in Babylon was a fine film, but it was also a couple of hours of fast bowling porn. It gave us the brutality and, crucially, the survival.
Most of us have enjoyed fast bowling our whole lives. It’s our coliseum: we’re watching the lion at one end bounce out the Christian at the other. Like boxing fans who want a knockout, we want the bang, the scare, the excitement, the danger and then the amazing survival and comeback. It’s not bloodlust, it’s contest-lust.
Cricket is a sport with public stoning, where the victim can smash away the rocks. But will we love it the same after such a vivid reminder that in the midst of life we are in death? Is the present outpouring of love and emotion stemming at least in part from how guilty we feel as fans for the decades of enjoyment we have got from fast men bowling bouncers?
A cricket ball is a dangerous thing. We didn’t need Phillip Hughes’ death to tell us that. It was dangerous before helmets, and it’s dangerous after them. We’ve lost two international cricketers to head injuries from the ball in the last two weeks: one from a bouncer, one from a straight drive when former Israel cricket captain Hillel Oscar was hit while umpiring. It’s a hard ball and it travels faster than ever before, from bat, from hand.
Unless batsmen wear a modern suit of armour, that is never going to change, because fast bowling and the threat it poses is always going to be there. The laws of cricket and the playing conditions recognise its lethal power, limiting the number of bouncers per over, as though it doesn’t take only one to harm. You respect a batsman more if he can handle it, survive it, and thrive on it. The danger makes him more of a marvel, more of a wonder. A bruise or break makes a batsman a conquering warrior. A survivor.
It’s all shown in the current bouncer ritual. A bouncer that just misses or hurts a little gets a stare or verbal follow up. But one that hurts a bit more gets a, “you okay?” And one that really hits has a bowler rushing to check on the batsman. Say what you will about fast bowlers, but real brutes don’t check to see if someone is hurt, they just prepare to keep hurting. It’s a dance between wanting batsmen to think you want to hurt them, and you hoping like hell you don’t actually hurt them.
Even Ryan Harris, the man who bowled a sustained spell of brutal throat-length bowling at the English in Durham, is not sure he’s emotionally ready for the first Test. Harris, who stampedes through the crease like a herd of pissed-off water buffalo. Harris, whose face is 75% snarl, and who is carved out of the hardest redwood. Because even with broad shoulders, thick neck, leathery skin, tree-trunk body and tough demeanour, Harris is actually a nice guy with normal human emotions, even if he camouflages that with naked aggression as he runs up.
So what of the man who sent down eight Tests of mass destruction last summer. That villain. That machine. Breaker of bones and hearts. Ender of careers and eras. What will Mitchell Johnson do when he needs to bowl a bouncer in Adelaide?
There will be tens of thousands at the Adelaide Oval. There will be tens of millions following at home. Everyone will feel differently. Some, like Merv Hughes and Ricky Ponting, will want a bouncer straight away. Others want fewer bouncers altogether.
Johnson will have to steam in and fling that ball as fast as he can. What he is trained to do, what he is paid to do, what he was born to do. At some stage, possibly early if Shikar Dhawan is in, Johnson will be expected, or instructed, to bounce him.
What will he do – a soft bouncer that travels safely over the batsman’s head to start, followed by a few slower but more accurate bouncers to warm himself up? Or will he just go for it with full Mitchell Johnson bone-breaking strength. If one just misses the mark, but scares the batsman, will he throttle forward or hold back?
What will he be thinking as he runs up? How do you prepare for a situation like this? It’s a proposition for a professor of moral philosophy, not a bowling coach. Everyone can give advice, but they aren’t the ones with the rock in their hands, and they aren’t the ones who have to live with what could happen next.
These are uncharted waters. People have been injured, and died, in cricket before but it has never been this public. We’ve never had shaky video footage and stolen photos to see it. We never put out our bats for Raman Lamba. This is on a whole other scale. And Johnson, who was vaunted for his brutality last summer, now has to bowl in a whole new cricket reality. Cricket 63.0.
If Johnson was like Gilchrist or Thomson, he might not care. But he does care. He cares a lot. Johnson isn’t a free-wheeling, fast-bowling demon – he’s a man who internalises, analyses and overthinks things. It’s what held him back for years, and it’s part of who he is as a cricketer. When the Barmy Army sang a hurtful song, Johnson took it to heart. He might be a stronger bowler, and a more confident human right now, but what he is about to enter is new and confusing. For someone like him, it’s a moral confrontation.
Last summer Johnson was waiting for James Anderson to face up, so he could give him “a broken f****** arm” in the first Test. This first Test has been moved so Johnson could be at the funeral of his friend from the same kind of bowling.
Fast bowlers aren’t the devil. Spofforth was a scientist of bowling, not a demon. Few bowlers are actual demons – they’re aggressive, they’re not often sociopaths, even if on their grumpy days they resemble them. Johnson is not a mad fast bowler. He’s not a demon. He’s not a hunter. He’s a bereaved friend who just went to a funeral. On Tuesday, less than a week later, he is supposed to deliver the same thing that played an unintentional role in that accident. Death has publicly entered the game through Philip Hughes. A bouncer is now not just something to knock the footwork of a batsman or bully out a tailender. It’s holds the possibility – however remote – of being someone’s last ball. In time, however, that is something you can forget, and must forget. In the midst of death, life – and cricket – carries on.
In Adelaide we’ll carry on. Bouncers will be bowled. We will all handle what happens next differently. And there are many possible outcomes.
What if Johnson hits someone? What if he knocks them over? What happens if they get hurt? What will the crowd do? What will Johnson do? What will cricket do?