No Johnson, no problem
Australia will enter the Perth Test on Friday with a pace attack made up of Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris and Ben Hilfenhaus. Mitchell Starc may also join them. If all the fast bowlers in Australia were fit, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins would be among the first picked. Where Mitchell Johnson would rank is anyone's guess, but he wouldn't be higher than sixth in line.
While the Australians trained in the WACA nets this week, Johnson was hobbling around in a moon-boot in Melbourne, where he was due to have a check-up after a season-ending surgery on his toe in December. He had hurt it during the Johannesburg Test, in which his last act was to partner Cummins as the winning runs were struck late on the final day.
At the time, it felt like a changing of the guard. The 18-year-old Cummins had outbowled his older colleague, the man who was supposed to be Australia's spearhead. In the 12 months up until that point, Johnson had taken 24 Test wickets at 46.75. He was, figuratively, on his last legs. As it happened, he was literally as well, as something in his foot gave way during that final day.
It is a measure of how little Australia have missed Johnson in the past four Tests that they have bowled out their opposition in all eight innings. Only once have they conceded more than 300. But if there is one venue at which Australia would like to have Johnson in the mix, it's the WACA. They haven't been without him in a Perth Test since the Warne-McGrath era.
Something about the WACA works for Johnson. He took 11 wickets against South Africa at the venue three summers ago, including a breathtaking spell late on the second day. Against England last season, he picked up nine wickets. The pace and bounce allows Johnson to dig in short balls at the ribs, and the Fremantle doctor helps him swing the ball in to right-handers, something he finds so difficult elsewhere.
In four Perth Tests Johnson has bowled 160.1 overs for 30 wickets. In Glenn McGrath's last four WACA Tests he bowled 160 overs for 18 wickets. But for all the statistics, for all the great Mitchell Johnson memories from past Perth performances, it is impossible to think that the Australian attack under the guidance of bowling coach Craig McDermott will seriously miss him in this match.
McDermott is another man who did his best work at the WACA, where the pace and carry can encourage fast men unfamiliar with the conditions to bang the ball in too short too often. Generally, the best way to bowl there is to use the speed and bounce as a shock weapon, something to surprise the batsmen and keep them guessing. As often as not, full and straight is still the way to go. Edges will always carry to the cordon.
Harris enjoys the WACA nearly as much as Johnson. He has 29 first-class wickets there at an average of 24.65, his best of six-for having come last season in the Ashes. He is a bustling bowler who hits the wicket hard, but bowls full enough often enough to nip the ball around and cause problems. He has the pace to sharpen a batsman's reflexes with rib-ticklers.
Surprisingly, Siddle has struggled in Perth over the years. His best in a first-class match there is 2 for 63. But the McDermott mantra, to aim at the top of off, will help Siddle at the WACA. If he can resist the temptation to drop his length back there is no reason he should not be a force this week.
Hilfenhaus has 21 first-class wickets in Perth at an average of 36. But like Siddle, he has subtly changed his style. He swings the ball later than ever and the breeze across the WACA might just help him to mix things up even more. He can only hope it doesn't make him swing the ball too much to catch the edges, for that has been a familiar feeling for him in the past couple of years.
Starc is yet to play a first-class game at the WACA. The offspinner Nathan Lyon made his first-class debut there and picked up six wickets. He enjoys the bounce and the breeze helps him to drift the ball. Whichever way Australia's selectors go, they should have an attack that can thrive in the conditions.
Of course, if Johnson were fit, it would be hard to leave him out. But his injury has freed the selectors up to look further afield. Pattinson has burst on to the scene as a result, and Hilfenhaus has re-emerged as a new force. The attack, in whichever configuration has been required, has worked well. Most of the bowlers have shown they can deliver the kind of match-winning spells that Johnson occasionally produced. But none leak runs and spray wides like he did.
While they work at the WACA over the next five days, Johnson will be watching, his left foot still encased in wrapping as he continues to recover from surgery. It's unlikely he will be able to bowl this season. The IPL looms as his next chance to show that he still has it, and he hopes to be picked up in the auction for this year's tournament.
At 30, and with 190 Test wickets to his name, it is too early to write Johnson off completely. He may remain a key bowler for Australia in the shorter formats. But the more success Australia's attack has under McDermott, the tougher it will be for Johnson to regain his Test place. For now, let's remember the stinging performances he has delivered at the WACA. And over the next week, let's see if his replacements can replicate his deeds.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo