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A dream debut, but questions remain
- Richard Johnson has to make sure he does not go the Bob Massie way

London: Richard Johnson, by any standards, enjoyed a magical Test debut.

Only a dozen Englishmen before him, Jim Laker and Alex Bedser among them, had taken six wickets or more in an innings first time out.

Nobody will ever be able to take the memory away from him. Whether the right-arm Somerset seamer, however, can translate his Chester-le-Street fairytale against Zimbabwe into a significant international sojourn remains to be seen.

The signs, despite his six for 33 in 12 overs and two wickets with his first four balls, are not promising.

Nasser Hussain has repeatedly bemoaned the lack of out-of-the-ordinary players in the English game, and particularly the dearth of bowlers blessed with express speed or vicious, wrist-induced spin.

Johnson, burdened by regular injuries which delayed his debut for eight years, swings and seams the ball, making him a handful in overcast English conditions.

He also bowls consistently stump to stump, asking questions with every delivery.

It is unlikely, however, that he would be as menacing in Colombo, in Sydney, Islamabad or Delhi.

And, by the end of the second Test, even the outclassed Zimbabweans had begun to read the way he was shaping to bowl an in-swinger before drifting it back into them.

Johnson conceded 67 runs without a wicket in the second innings while James Anderson and Steve Harmison — two of Hussain’s ‘specials’ — shared eight wickets.

Great debut performances can be a mixed blessing. They have certainly never guaranteed future success. Narendra Hirwani would vouch for that.

In January 1988, Hirwani, a callow Indian youth barely known beyond the borders of Madhya Pradesh, took a record 16 wickets for 136 in his first Test — and that against the mighty West Indians — on a helpful surface.

His eight for 61 and eight for 75, however, are now remembered more as a statistical oddity. Hirwani, crushed by the burden of expectations, played 17 Tests in all, the last a wicketless outing in 1996 against South Africa.

Australia Bob Massie suffered an even worse fate.

Unplayable on his debut at Lord’s and swinging the ball both ways without a change in action, he took eight wickets for 84 in the first innings and eight for 53 in the second against England in 1972.

That performance earned him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year accolade but the Western Australian only played six Tests in all, spanning a paltry seven months.

Similarly, bad starts to a career need not be terminal.

Graham Gooch got a pair on his debut against Australia at Edgbaston in 1975. The second dismissal, caught behind off a Jeff Thomson thunderbolt pitching just short of a length and seaming away, must rank among the greatest deliveries of all time.

That did not stop a flow of 8,900 runs over the next 20 years and 118 Tests.

Viv Richards, meanwhile, began with scores of four and three in his first two innings, against India in Bangalore, towards the end of 1974. The selectors, however, saw something they liked in those seven runs.

They retained him for the next match in Delhi and the young Antiguan clattered 192 not out.

Shane Warne took one for 150 in his first bowl against India —and one for 335 in his first four innings — before he began to suggest the form which has made him the greatest wicket-taking spinner of all time.

For those still tempted to rush to judgement after a single appearance, horrible or magical, Maravan Atapattu must rank as the best cautionary tale of all.

He first appeared against India in November 1990 at Chandigarh and scored zero and zero.

Dropped for almost two years, he returned against Australia in Colombo and managed zero (first ball) and one (off two balls). Ignored for another year-and-a-half, he faced India again in Ahmedabad and made zero (ten balls) and zero (seven balls).

He could have been buried there and then as a man with the mental durability of rice paper. But, after another three years in the wilderness, Atapattu reappeared for yet another try.

Today he is Sri Lanka’s ODI captain and has scored five Test double centuries, a record only bettered by Don Bradman, Walter Hammond and Javed Miandad.

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