Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Not the Johnson of '09, but a fine imitation

To watch Mitchell Johnson zip the ball through at pace on a bouncy Potchefstroom pitch, to see him curve the ball just enough to trouble the batsmen, it was impossible not to think back to his tour of South Africa in early 2009. On that trip, Johnson was at times unplayable, his combination of aggression, speed and swing a menace to South Africa's strong batting line-up.
At the time, it seemed Johnson could have been anything. In the two and a half years since, he has been everything: hero, villain, leader, follower, superstar, nobody. Back then he was the spearhead, the new-ball star who had just demolished Graeme Smith's men - and his hand - in Australia.
A new-look Australian attack was being built around him, but within two years he was being fitted in around the rest of the bowling group. On the last day before his thirtieth birthday, Johnson showed that he can still deliver some of those same traits that made him a champion in 2009, with his effort against South Africa A.
There was a hint of his aggression, when he banged in a bouncer that JP Duminy couldn't escape, his bat fending the ball down accidentally. There were moments of swing, perhaps most impressively an inswinging yorker that ended the innings by bowling the No.11 Marchant de Lange. And there was speed that troubled both batsmen and the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, who at least once failed to get his hands in position in time to collect Johnson's delivery.
It wasn't the Johnson of 2009, but it was a recognisable imitation. Admittedly, the conditions could hardly have been more helpful. Peter Siddle was equally difficult for the South Africans to handle, and Vernon Philander troubled Australia's batsmen later in the day. Australia went in without Pat Cummins and Ryan Harris, both of whom would have thrived on the surface.
"We could have played all five [fast bowlers]," Johnson said at the end of day on which he took 4 for 38. "It looked like a bit of a WACA wicket ... You could see how much bounce there was and how much carry, there were a few balls that really took off today. Fast bowlers always love seeing that.
"There was a little bit of up and down [bounce]. It seemed like there was a spot from the top end that if you hit it back of a length it just went through a little bit low and if you bowled a touch fuller it was jumping. Especially with the newer ball it was doing that more so, and their boys did the same sort of thing, getting that bit of extra bounce as well."
Not that Johnson bowled with a very new ball. He hasn't had that job for some time: only three times in the past 18 months has he opened the bowling for his country in a Test. At first change he has been able to settle in to his rhythm without the pressure of being expected to curve the new ball like a hoop. And despite his love of South African conditions, it might not be something that changes on this tour.
"I'm happy to bowl wherever I'm needed for the team," he said. "I'd love to bowl with the new ball. If I get the opportunity to in the second innings I'll definitely put my hand up for it. I've bowled first change for a while now, especially in one-day cricket it's probably been my strong point. We'll wait and see.
"It didn't really swing as much with the new ball for myself. I got a couple to swing, but I found that it swung a little bit later on when I came on for my second spell. Peter Siddle said the same thing, he said it was swinging a little bit more as well. It's almost like English conditions, where you get the lacquer off the ball and get a nice shine on it, and it swings a bit more."
Johnson picked up two lbws in the top order, neither of which swung dramatically, and his delivery that bowled Robin Peterson was angled in to the left-hander. But Johnson is at his most dangerous when his variety surprises the batsmen, and that was the case on the first day in Potchefstroom.
Come the Cape Town Test, the conditions may not suit him quite as well, with a slower Newlands pitch likely. But he will love bowling at the Wanderers in the second Test. He took eight wickets in a Test there two and a half years ago and was Man of the Match, then ultimately Player of the Series.
He is not the same Mitchell Johnson that he was last time he visited South Africa, but he's performing a reasonable impersonation. For now, after his ups and many downs since the 2009 Ashes, the Australians will take that.

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