A Case For Johnson

A little something I wrote a couple of years ago. I thought I’d copy it over to my blog to celebrate Johnson’s resurgence to be named the 2014 ICC Cricketer of the Year…

Supporting Mitchell Johnson seems obvious following his man of the match performance in the Boxing Day test, but this could be a tougher case to mount than it appears. Many cricket fans reject him off hand simply for being a knob. While noted, and agreed, I don’t think such criterion should form the basis of national team selection.

On the field, Johnson’s detractors will point to his erratic nature. His best is clearly impressive, but his worst often makes him a liability. What value are figures of 4/64 and 2/16, if in the next test he concedes 6 runs per over, and bowls a succession of wides and no balls, only to end up with 0/100? It is a worry, and a bad match or two could see him out of the side, especially when the injured players that gave him his opportunity return to full fitness.

However, there is a way for Johnson to retain his position.

In bygone eras, selectors faced a dilemma: should they opt for an even split of five batsmen and five bowlers, or skew the ledger in favour of an extra batsman?

In recent history, this decision has been relatively straightforward. A side containing Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath – two of the best bowlers of all time – could easily manage with only four front line bowlers, and so it became the norm. Alas those days are over. We no longer have those legends at our disposal. Perhaps it is time to seriously consider a fifth.

The obvious trade off that comes from reducing the number of recognised batsmen is to sacrifice a few runs. A good top order batsman should average around 45 runs per innings, whereas a bowler might only offer 15. The team effectively starts 60 runs behind (30 per innings), but hope to regain ground by performing better with the ball. The extra bowler brings the benefits of variety, reduced workload and therefore less fatigue to the whole attack. These advantages should allow every bowler to improve, but will it be enough compensate for the lack of runs?

That’s the dilemma, and it’s a tough call. At least in theory.

In practice, however, this predicament doesn’t really exist. The theoretical example made two assumptions. A batsman averages 45, and a bowler 15.

The estimate for a batsman is a touch optimistic in the current climate. Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey and even the unconventional David Warner have all been performing well, but the same cannot be said for their teammates.

In 6 of his last 7 series before retirement, Ricky Ponting averaged 16, 31, 17, 33, 24 and 6, producing a combined average of 20. These figures neglect the one anomalous series against India, where Ponting averaged 108. This result was thanks largely to a century, and a double century, his only 2 innings of any substance in the final two years of his career. Including this series raises his average to 33, which still isn’t much to be proud of by Ponting’s standards, and falls well short of our assumption of 45.

Ponting’s current replacement, Phil Hughes, hasn’t exactly cemented his position in the side, averaging 37 against a poor team.

Ed Cowan has averaged 34, to make a semi-respectable start to his career. Were others knocking on the door, he would be under immense pressure.

Shane Watson, who is again out with a recurrent calf injury, has been in poor batting form. Despite his hard fought 83 at the MCG this week, he has averaged just 26 in his last 5 series. It has been over 2 years since his last century.

The list of his potential replacements isn’t striking.

Rob Quiney scored a mere 9 runs from 3 innings against South Africa in his failed attempt to break into the side. This result, combined with his age, suggest he is unlikely to return.

Usman Khawaja averaged 22 against New Zealand in his last attempt at the top level before he was axed.

Other options are untried, such as the uncapped Glenn Maxwell who has been added to the 13-man squad on the back of Watson’s injury.

Bearing all this in mind, selecting a fifth bowler effectively comes with no downside. A tail end batsman is almost equivalent to what half of the Australian batting line up has been able to offer of late.

Furthermore, most recent matches have concluded with an injured bowler, which has left the attack severely exposed. The tactic of an extra bowler could be beneficial as an insurance policy, if nothing else. At least until someone can put the sports scientists back in their place, or teach them how to do their job.

Johnson would be especially suited to the role as the fifth bowler. He offers the most variety of any other fast bowler currently in the mix for selection; left arm, slinging action, genuine pace, swing, bounce. And if he has a bad day, he can be warehoused so as to limit the damage to both the scorecard and his confidence. This option isn’t available if he is one of only four bowlers.

On the other hand, there is justification to simply call him an all rounder.

ABC Grandstand’s cricket commentators floated the idea during Johnson’s impressive 92 not out, before quickly dismissing it on the grounds that he is not a world class batsman. What they failed to acknowledge is that neither are our recognised batsmen.

Johnson has a test average of 23. In some cases, this is actually an improvement on the form of those mentioned above.

Watson’s replacement should be a bowler, with Johnson promoted up the order. Considering the current squad, this leaves Mitchell Starc as the only option. Upon his return, Watson should be left to compete with Cowan, Hughes, Khawaja and Maxwell, for the remaining two batting positions. And following Hussey’s shock announcement to retire at the end of the summer, a third position will soon open up. There will still be plenty of opportunities.

In 2 or 3 years, the promising young quicks will have hopefully overcome injury and work load concerns and developed into regular top class bowlers. At this time, a return to a 6/4 split will once again be viable. This short delay will give Cricket Australia a few years to develop and replenish the ailing batting stocks.

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