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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 1, 2012, 5:22 GMT

    For Ashes Aus should look at Johnson, Starc and Hilfenhaus for sure as they all can swing. Also add Siddle, Pattinson OR Cummins. Take only two spinners. Lyon and Beer may be. Two WK- Wade and anyone other than Haddin. In batting Clarke, Watto, Warner, Cowan, Hussey should be certainities. There will be fight for two more spots. One Openor and one middle order. Khawaja, Quiney ..... What happened to Forrest ?

  • Geoffrey on December 1, 2012, 4:20 GMT

    Really hope Johnson plays in the ashes. The poms love his bowling.

  • Bryn on December 1, 2012, 2:02 GMT

    if he gets selected for the ashes tour which i hope he does i hope he plays i would love nothing more than to see him ripp apart englands weak weak batting lineup followed up in the next innings with some thumping of their even weaker bowlers

  • Rohanj on December 1, 2012, 0:05 GMT

    @sawifan, spot on about the Poms Anderson and co, like Johnson they've all had their moments of success, but all have also had long histories of minimal success and outright embarrassment. For proof look at all their averages, they're all remarkably similiar to those of Australia's bowlers, even Swan and Lyon though sure anyone would concede the former is the better bowler at this stage of their careers. The way Poms carry on you'd think they're like the West Indians circa 1980s. Touring England holds no fears for Australia, the result from 05 and 09 could have easily, EASILY gone the other way! And their bowlers CERTAINLY hold no fear for us either. That said, no I don't think Johnson needs to tour either, Starc will do just fine!

  • Vernie on November 30, 2012, 23:48 GMT

    Australia made a huge error in leaving out Starc for the first two tests. Anyone of Siddle, Hilfenhaus or Pattinson should have been left out for him. The future looks bright for the pace department though, Cummings, Starc, Hazelwood and in a few years Sandhu. Still have hopes for Johnson if he can get his head right.

  • Merv on November 30, 2012, 21:18 GMT

    Johnson was a yard faster than Starc and two faster than Hastings. How did Hastings get in our Test side? I know he is a Victorian, but ...really. Johnson was extremely economical except for the tail ender slogging and really worried the South Africans with his pace. Welcome back!

  • Dummy4 on November 30, 2012, 20:19 GMT

    The difference is Johnson, for all his 'once-in-a-generation' tag - is a good bowler, but over the years as it has transpired - not exactly elite class. He has pace and bounce, but equally he is sensitive, and his swing is reliant much more on conditions rather than action. He offers unquestionable batting talent though. In comparison, Mitchell Starc's swing is all wrist position and action, he doesn't have the low-arm of Johnson .. so perhaps a shade less pace, but his wrist right behind the ball allows a 'snap' and swing both ways which isn't reliant on Fremantle Doctor. Johnson is much more like Andy Caddick, Starc has potential to be more like Vaas or who knows, (wishful here..) Akram!!

  • Peterincanada on November 30, 2012, 16:28 GMT

    @valvolux Not entirely true. He produced great spells at Durban and the Wanderers before he was brought down in the Ashes.

  • Justin on November 30, 2012, 15:22 GMT

    Oh please. Johnson has always bowled well at the waca...and honestly I am happy to see him back, for this one test. In recent years all left handers have been able to swing the ball in here...and there's no harder delivery to a right handed batsmen than a left hander who swings it in, as starc showed today. The best thing that has happened to aussie cricket was getting rid of the loose end of Johnson. Hes like broad for England, his record is decent when the conditions are perfect for him, but he's cannon fodder the other 90% of the time. We shouldn't read anything into his performance here. He is a decent back up at best, if siddle, hilfy, patto, Harris and Cummings aren't available. None of them are as dangerous as Johnson on his (very rare) day, but collectively they are the tightest and best bowling group in the world. Take Johnson outside the waca and his best ball is the rank.wide one outside off that occasionally gets a nick.

  • Trevor on November 30, 2012, 14:45 GMT

    Can't believe he's back in the team! I look forward to more amusement (and a shed load of runs for England's batsmen) if he gets picked for next summer's Ashes.

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