Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 3rd day December 28, 2012

Johnson, the scene-stealer

Mitchell Johnson is enjoying his time as Australia's stand-in Test bowler, sans the pressures of being their pace spearhead

Mitchell Johnson is the supporting actor who walks away with the movie. As he basked in the afterglow of a ripping performance with bat and ball in the Boxing Day Test, Johnson reflected on how his current walk-on part in the national team is working better for him than the role of senior spearhead, which he carried like a millstone for much of the two years that followed a pair of arresting series against South Africa in 2008-09. He is no certainty to play for Australia in the third Test in Sydney, and that suits him just fine.

Last summer when Johnson lost his place due to a foot injury at a time when he would probably have been dropped anyway, he was as close as an Australian cricketer can get to being thoroughly sick of the game and all that came with it. His increasingly erratic performances reflected a lack of enjoyment and the fact he had let the voices of doubt - both within and without - control his thinking. Given a year away, Johnson rebuilt his confidence, made a few subtle changes to his bowling method, and has returned not as a put-upon lead character but as a formidable reserve.

While they cradle their assortment of broken bones, Sri Lanka's batsmen will marvel at the fact that Johnson is only playing against them because as many as seven other bowlers ahead of him in the queue are injured. For Johnson, this competition for places means he is unlikely to play long sequences of matches in a row, and he is quite happy to get away in order to be rested and refreshed at the next time of Test match asking.

"It just comes down to belief and trusting my ability," Johnson said. "In the time I've had off I've been able to reflect on a lot of things. [Previously] I had probably got to the stage where I listened to a lot of outside influences, that doesn't affect me anymore. I'm just happy with how I've come back, and making the most of the opportunities I get.

"It's not every day you get to play for your country and I'm pretty proud of the fact I've played 49 Tests now. You've just got to look to the future and, if you get picked, go out there and make the most of it. That's what I'm doing … and playing with a smile on my face.

"I've always been happy playing for Australia, it just got to the point where I was feeling the pressure. It happens in professional sports, you can feel the pressure and start to believe in things that are said or outside influences, and it just got to that point for me. I've moved past that. I'm 31, I've been around the game for a long time now and I think I've matured in that I have belief in myself and just go out there and play my game and do the best job I can."

That job in Melbourne was to put the wind up Sri Lanka's batsmen with a series of withering short balls that wrecked their chances of doing decently in the first innings and all but ended the match in the second. The first ball he whirred down at Tillakaratne Dilshan clipped the glove and resulted in a catch to short leg, and after lunch another lifting delivery broke Kumar Sangakkara's hand. These were intimidatory blows, pure and simple.

"It's not every day you get to play for your country and I'm pretty proud of the fact I've played 49 Tests now. You've just got to look to the future and, if you get picked, go out there and make the most of it. That's what I'm doing … and playing with a smile on my face."
Mitchell Johnson

"The last couple of days in Hobart the boys went pretty hard at their batters with the short ball and they didn't like it," Johnson said. "So that was another plan through this Test match, to get up their batters. Unfortunately for them they got a few injuries out of it. I've done it in the past and it definitely helps, you don't have to get those last couple of wickets.

"I think that intimidation factor definitely worked out there today, and we bowled really well as a team through this whole Test match and beat them very well. To be able to have a good game out there was nice, but we've got to look forward to this next Test and hopefully keep driving it into them and win 3-0."

The other major factor in Johnson's star-turn at the MCG was the man bowling so fastidiously at the other end. Jackson Bird made the most compelling seamer's debut this side of Stuart Clark, who claimed 9 for 89 against South Africa on a seaming Cape Town surface in 2006. While Bird's figures were not quite as spectacular, his combination with the faster, less predictable Johnson was irresistible, leaving the Sri Lankan batsmen uncertain of their off stump at one end, and fearing for their safety at the other.

"His control with the new ball is an area that I think we've been looking for," Michael Clarke said of Bird. "He probably filled the role of Ben Hilfenhaus. To be able to swing the ball away from the right-hander with the new ball and then take it across the left-hander off the wicket is a great strength. The one thing I really like about Jackson is you know what you're going to get.

"He bowled into the breeze the whole game and did a fantastic job for us. On any given day you take your own wickets or score your own runs, but what gets forgotten is the work the guy does up the other end, and I think Birdy played a huge part in Mitch's success in the first innings, and it allows a bowler like Mitch to be able to attack."

Johnson took this licence to attack with rare fervour, and could do the same in Sydney. That's if he gets the part, of course.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Graham on December 30, 2012, 11:32 GMT

    With Hussey leaving the game and a top order still not established it is not time to put a bowling allrounder or a keeper at #6. We need batsman filling the top 6 positions. With Wade at #7 and Johnson #8.

  • Faysal on December 30, 2012, 9:12 GMT

    1. Warner 2. Watson 3. Hughes 4. Khawaja 5. Clarke 6. Johnson 7. Wade 8. Pattinson 9. Siddle 10. Starc 11. Lyon Warner is a good enough batsman as opener and has been excellent in the past two matches. Watson was decent as opener and even though I love him bowling, his injuries are too much a burden for Australia. Hughes can bat, Khawaja should be given a chance. Clarke is Clarke. Johnson should bat at 6, ahead of Wade. Johnson has more talent with bat than his average shows. It should about 35-40, instead of 22. He now runs out of partners or throws away his wicket looking for quick runs. Pattinson, Siddle and Starc can all bat so they don't need an allrounder (Cummins get injured too often).

  • Jeff on December 30, 2012, 1:17 GMT

    LordBile: I hope so too...but probably for different reasons. I'd like to see the Ego cop a few of Mitch's stingers on his tweeting hand. Looking forward to the double Ashes series - and back-to-back wins for Australia.

  • Mark on December 29, 2012, 10:22 GMT

    @LordBile - If the Johnson that played against SA in 08-09 or from this summer were to play against England, I don't think they would enjoy it quite so much. They might be in for a nasty surprise.

    That of course is the problem with Johnson, his consistency. The story is that he has fixed that and become more consistant. I am yet to be convinced, but I do hold out hope. If he can bowl like that, or close to it, every match. He would be a first pick every time.

  • Mark on December 29, 2012, 10:16 GMT

    @Wozza-CY - you are right, Wade is not a number 6, but if we got Paine or Haddin instead, they are both better keepers and better batsman (not sure why they are persisting with Wade in test matches, he has been pretty sloppy with the gloves and throws his wicket away with the bat). But while Johnson probably doesn't have the consistency to be a number 7, if you add the batting or guys like Siddle, Starc and Pattinson, you get a long tail, but they can all bat.

    Also, I personally would like to see how Johnson would go batting a bit higher. How badly has his average been affected by running out of time/partners or throwing his wicket away going for quick runs at the end of an innings? He has certainly missed out on 2 100's by running out of partners, which would have put him past Watson (who I also think is not a test level batsman, he is a 6 at best). A test average of 22.77 is clearly not an accurate reflection of his talent with the bat.

  • Lord on December 29, 2012, 6:55 GMT

    i hope england get to face johnson again, he was fun last time out...

  • David on December 29, 2012, 4:15 GMT

    @Wozza-CY I disagree that Kallis is equal to or close behind Sobers in the All-Time Pantheon of All-Rounders.

    He might be the second best Batting All-Rounder behind Sobers, just as Mitch Johnson is a Bowling All-Rounder.

    But Imran and Procter could and did win matches with bat or ball. Kallis is a superb supporting fast-medium bowler, but he has never been a Steyn or Donald or Shaun Pollock, whereas Imran was a bowler on a par with Wasim Akram and Procter was on a par with Peter Pollock and Vintcent Van Der Bijl.

    I love Jacques Kallis, and that he is equivalent to Tendulkar PLUS Zaheer. But he's a Batting All-Rounder.

  • Simon on December 29, 2012, 3:21 GMT

    Congratulations to Johnson. Hope he enjoys his 'rest' now so that he's fresh for a game against some opponent in February. When's the media gonna start putting pressure on the 'performance' and conditioning bureaucrats that determine what shape an athletes' - with finite life in his/her sport - career will take? It's an absolute disgrace that the CA front office is allowed to get away with dictating a professionals career, under the guise of protecting the athlete from injury and overwork, when all this has been created by the same people crowding the schedule with meaningless rubbish games, therefore cramming Test matches back - to - back - to - back! Next these spin doctors'll be telling us bowlers runups will be restricted to 8 steps in the interests of lowering impact problems at the crease, when it'll have more to do with trying to get 95 - 100 overs in a day to justify gate increases. What's the matter with the media: afraid of asking for fear of losing accreditation?

  • Ramakrishnan on December 29, 2012, 2:16 GMT

    Great to see a new Mitchell Johnson (a perfect replica of a smiling assassin) who went about his batting and bowling with a new found enthusiasm and got amply rewarded. I am sure, he will be a spearhead of the OZ attack (injuries permitting) for some years from now.

  • Dummy4 on December 29, 2012, 1:55 GMT

    Good showing by MJ. However he reminds me so much of England's Harmison in that he is a pure confidence bowler. I'd pick Siddle every day of the week and twice on Sunday.