Johnson shows he can Shine

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The Independent Online

Richard Johnson looked the part well before he made his debut for Middlesex at the age of 17. Tall and strong, this strapping young man was already being thought of as the county's next Angus Fraser. With a high action and an aggressive approach to bowling, he consistently hit the splice. He bowled what is known in the trade as a heavy ball.

It came as no surprise to me that the Somerset paceman took to Test cricket so quickly when he eventually got his chance. Yes, his 16 Test wickets to date have come against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, yet it is the way Johnson has bowled in these matches which indicates he will not be exposed against better teams.

But his successes against Test cricket's two weakest sides have put him under pressure. Johnson now has to show people these performances were no fluke and that he can hack it with the big boys.

It is apt that injuries to Stephen Harmison and James Anderson should give him the opportunity to do this, because it is only the frailty of his right knee which has prevented the 28-year-old from being a regular and prominent member of England teams since the mid-Nineties. With age and a questionable fitness record working against him, the three-Test series against Sri Lanka will give a strong indication as to whether his future in Michael Vaughan's side is to be short- or long-term.

I had seen Johnson bowl several times at Middlesex's indoor cricket school in Finchley before I worked with him for the first time at the Cambridge Festival - an annual national tournament for under-19s - in 1991. I was out of the game with a hip injury, and was asked by the club to help Middlesex's next generation of cricketers.

From the first ball Johnson bowled he made a huge impression. At 16 he was terrifying 19-year-olds with his pace and hostility. He was way ahead of anyone else.

The week working with Jono was eventful, and climaxed with my having an altercation with the former left-arm spinner Ray East, who was coaching Suffolk.

After one match where Richard had gone for a few runs at the end of an innings I sat him down and told him he should avoid becoming too predictable in these situations. My advice, especially when tail-enders were at the crease, was to mix it up. Yes, bowl the odd yorker, but don't be afraid to throw in the occasional bouncer.

In the game against Suffolk Jono found himself in exactly that position. As advised, he gave the opposing batsman a couple of short balls, which nearly took his head off. After the second of these I could hear East muttering to my right. Johnson then decided to go for the yorker. This, however, he did not get quite right, and a chest-high beamer went flashing past the hapless batsman.

Johnson apologised, but East went apoplectic, and came storming towards me chastising Johnson and giving me a mouthful for allowing him to bowl in such a way. I told East that if his young pretenders couldn't hack it they should stay in Suffolk next year.

Surrey attempted to sign Johnson in 1992 but fortunately for Middlesex, his club side, Sunbury, had closer links with Lord's than The Oval.

That summer he made his first-class debut, but it was in July 1994 that he shot to fame when, at the age of 19, he took 10 wickets in an innings against Derbyshire. However, he was beginning to have problems with his right knee.

After another encouraging season for Middlesex in 1995 he was selected for England's winter tour of South Africa. But Jono was forced to withdraw with a back injury, and was told for the first time he would never play again.

The back recovered, but the right knee continued to hamper his progress. And it was not long before another surgeon told him the degenerative condition of the joint - which has been operated on on five occasions - would prevent him playing again.

Johnson can be stubborn, but this attitude, and his refusal to listen to surgeons, have kept him in the game when others would have walked away.

With his career drifting, Johnson then shocked Middlesex by moving to Taunton to work with the Somerset coach, Kevin Shine. During their time at Middlesex the pair had become close friends, and loved analysing their respective actions. To someone like myself it looked as though they were making a simple skill appear very complicated.

The work Johnson has put in with Shine has worked, though. From being a back-of-a-length bully he is now a more skilled and complete bowler. Whether this is enough we shall know before Christmas. I, for one, hope it is.