Mitchell Johnson stood at the end of his run up and stared into striker Manan Vohra’s eyes. It was during the team’s nets on Thursday, a day before the leftarm pacer takes the field for the Kings XI Punjab’s game against Rajasthan Royals.
But the intensity was there. It was there in his eyes and the ball he bowled — a bouncer that whizzed past the young batsman before he could blink. It was unlike the intensity seen at most practice sessions.
In the scorching heat, every other pacer bowled in short bursts, but the 33-year-old Johnson did not relent for the next hour.
If Johnson’s slangy bowling action doesn’t resemble a tennis player’s serve, his endurance and concentration will tell you he has a past that involves the racquet sport.
These are qualities tennis players usually develop. Andre Agassi, in his autobiography ‘Open’, claimed how he would be forced to practice for hours under gruelling conditions by his father, so much so that he started to despise the sport.
A younger Johnson dreamt of travelling down paths treaded by such tennis greats. Cricket was not the feared bowler’s first love.
“I was very serious about tennis. I wanted to pursue it professionally. I played a lot of tennis back then,” Johnson told HT.
Then 18, Johnson had a booming serve, an aspect not hard to imagine considering the thunderbolts he unleashes with the cricket ball. His dreams knew no boundaries with such a weapon at his disposal. “It was my dream to win the Wimbledon. Someone I knew had got me a T-shirt from Wimbledon and I treasured it.”
Playing cricket on the dusty grounds of Townsville was something Johnson detested. He preferred the courts.
Unlike today, where he bats and bowls left-handed, he played tennis with the right hand. His powerful game caught the attention of various private clinics in Brisbane. “I was not ready to leave home and move to Brisbane then,” recalled the Queenslander. “I had to eventually give up tennis because we did not have the kind of money that tennis demanded.”
That commenced his affair with cricket. But there isn’t regret anymore. The mature pacer, in fact, has imbibed the qualities of his original passion into the game he is now renowned for. “Tennis helped me with my stamina, my movements became swifter and I developed tremendous hand-eye coordination. These are the qualities I have carried forward into cricket. They have benefitted me and how!”
If there are doubts about the impact tennis had had on Jonhson’s cricket, ask an opposition batsman!