Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Perth, 1st day November 30, 2012

Johnson accentuates the positives

Mitchell Johnson's first day of Test cricket in a year was neither brilliant nor disastrous. But importantly, it was encouraging

At his best, Mitchell Johnson is unplayable. At his worst, he is unwatchable. Australia have seen both versions of Johnson over the years and are generally happy if he provides something in between. That's what he delivered on the first day at the WACA, where this time he was unflappable. Perhaps it was Ricky Ponting's retirement that drew the attention away from him. The expectations that weighed him down in the past were gone. He was happy to be Mr In-Between.

There was a little bit of tripe, sure, but when you're Mr In-Between, you accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives. The positives were some seriously awkward deliveries that worried South Africa's batsmen. He finished with 2 for 54 and built enough pressure to help his colleagues take wickets at the other end. All in all, Johnson can be content with his return to the baggy green.

It was at this ground four years ago that Johnson bowled one of the most venomous spells in recent Test history. In the dying light on the second day against South Africa, he collected 5 for 2 in 20 balls, succeeding with a mixture of his slanting angle, quick bouncers and clever slower balls. He finished the innings with 8 for 61. Anyone expecting to see the same Johnson this time would have been disappointed; anyone with more realistic hopes should have been satisfied.

Johnson's first over showed that he can still make batsmen dance. Graeme Smith, who has twice suffered a broken hand due to Johnson's zip, was immediately jumpy. His first ball from Johnson was a bouncy warning, his fourth reared up and struck Smith on the fingers, lobbing just short of gully. There was no need for an x-ray on this occasion, but the battle had resumed. The first ball of Johnson's next over, Smith flashed wildly at a wide ball, hoping to exert some authority. He failed. Shane Watson removed Smith in the next over, but Johnson could share the credit.

His first spell was strong; his second provided the reward. The debutant Dean Elgar, who must surely have watched some of Johnson's fierce past performances against South Africa, thought he could get off the mark and get on top of Johnson by pulling a short ball. Instead, all he could manage was a top edge to Matthew Wade. A late wicket - Dale Steyn, who played on - boosted Johnson's figures, but the next three balls were wide of off and carved for boundaries by Morne Morkel.

That was the Johnson that some Australian fans remembered - a wicket, and a lot of runs conceded. But it was a one-off over in an otherwise encouraging day for Johnson. Aside from hitting Smith on the gloves, he produced a zipping short ball that forced Vernon Philander into the kind of twisted, distorted posture that you could almost imagine was how he woke up on the morning of the Adelaide Test with a sore back. He was struck by the Johnson delivery but it didn't cost him his wicket.

The captain Michael Clarke must have been happy with Johnson's return. That he has even found his way back to Test cricket is an achievement. When he injured his foot while batting during Australia's famous victory in Johannesburg last November and was subsequently sidelined for the rest of the summer, it saved John Inverarity's new selection panel a decision. Ostensibly, Johnson was Australia's spearhead, but he had become unreliable and at a time of change he looked like following the coach and the selectors out the door.

But a promising start to the domestic season for Western Australia earned him another opportunity. He is not expected to lead the attack. If all Australia's fast men were fit, he could be seventh or eighth in line. But when required, he can play a role. He can intimidate, he can pick up the odd wicket, and he can create the kind of uncertainty in batsmen's minds that helps his colleagues collect more victims as well.

On the first day in Perth, he was outbowled by the younger left-armer Mitchell Starc, whose two early wickets came from good, full-length deliveries that crashed into the stumps, one having been preceded by a bouncer that left Jacques Kallis hesitant. Starc finished with two wickets - he is yet to take more in a Test innings - but he showed plenty of promise. The debutant John Hastings created chances, as did Watson. The spinner Nathan Lyon earned some late rewards.

They all played their part, Johnson included. It wasn't a lead role, but it wasn't meant to be. That he had 190 Test wickets before today was irrelevant. He was just another bowler bringing to Test cricket what had worked for him at domestic level. He was not unplayable, or at least not often. He was certainly not unwatchable. Today, Johnson was somewhere in the middle. And as the old song goes, you don't mess with Mr In-Between.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here