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

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

Daniel Brettig at the MCG

December 28, 2012

Comments: 32 | Text size: A | A

Mitchell Johnson was the most successful of the Australia bowlers, with four wickets, Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 1st day, December 26, 2012
Mitchell Johnson has returned to the Australian team with better self-belief © Getty Images

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

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Posted by Shaggy076 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.

Posted by potofazherbaizan 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).

Posted by featurewriter 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.

Posted by Someguy 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.

Posted by Someguy 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.

Posted by LordBile on (December 29, 2012, 6:55 GMT)

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

Posted by LillianThomson 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.

Posted by Insult_2_Injury 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?

Posted by rohanbala 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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by andrew-schulz on (December 29, 2012, 1:39 GMT)

Ah, Mervo, Hastings was not picked ahead of Johnson. They were both there in Perth when Hastings played his only attest.

Posted by Markus971 on (December 28, 2012, 22:51 GMT)

Go Johnno.. Don't waste it mate!

Posted by Thornss on (December 28, 2012, 22:17 GMT)

now SL must be feeling what the Australians felt when they were facing Larwood and Co during the Bodyline series....

Posted by   on (December 28, 2012, 15:38 GMT)

mitch johnson is my all tym fav fast bowler !! he's a beauty to watch bowling and his action is perfect and he swings the ball too gud !! totally a great asset !! if anyone in this world can compete with dale steyn to be an intimidating fast bowler its mitch and siddle !!they got the talent abd tht agressive luk on their face and in your face attitude !! wht more u want frm a quick bowler ?? just aussie fans are mad at him becoz he doesnt get wickets i aint an aussie fan so i just enjoy watching his beautiful inswingers and yorkers and his great bowling action !! just like ishant sharma too doesnt get wickets but a beauty to watch as a neutral !! on the other hand we have some not so attractive bowlers who gets tons of wickets like hilfenhaus etc but are boring to watch !! no offence intended !!

Posted by Marcio on (December 28, 2012, 12:52 GMT)

Like that little girl with that little curl right in the middle of her forehead, when Johnson's good he's really, really good - but when he's bad, he's horrid! It would be great to see him fulfill his potential (as with Watson). He was far more accurate with his bowling this test, and he really did look good with a bat in his hand. He's always going to bowl scintilating deliveries, but it's just a matter of getting the ball on the pitch the rest of the time. I'm surprised nobody commented about his bowling arm being so high - it was getting down towards side-on in recent tests. That has to be why his accuracy has been better.

Posted by Winsome on (December 28, 2012, 12:16 GMT)

He is wonderful to watch when he is switched on. Lovely strokemaker and can be an outstanding fielder especially off his own bowling. But he drives me mad and I don't want him anywhere near that Ashes tour.

Posted by inefekt on (December 28, 2012, 12:12 GMT)

@glance_to_leg If you are suggesting that Malinga is the original slinger then you are sadly mistaken. Jeff Thomson is probably the most famous slinger of all time as well as being the fastest bowler the world has ever seen. Yes, he was faster than Akhtar.

Posted by johntycodes on (December 28, 2012, 11:54 GMT)

With the fitness bloke kontouris having no idea how to do his job australia should consider a different 3 fast bowlers in every match at home at every venue and because lyon is so useless pick the home town spinner if needed.

Posted by   on (December 28, 2012, 11:46 GMT)

Johnson! I should have known that as soon as i bagged him out at Cricinfo a few weeks ago he would come back with a vengeance. Thats a very Mitchell Johnson thing to do. But i have a strong memories of him going AWOL when we needed him most in the last 2 Ashes series. So while his return to form is welcome, Peter Siddle is still the man that Australia must look too to lead this attack. With all this talk of rotation of pace bowlers it is Siddle who is the go to man for Clarke when the guts and determination of test cricket is required. Johnson, to use football terminology, is best used "coming off the bench", an impact player. We need to use him selectively so he doesnt burn out, lose his mind or do whatever it is that makes him so mentally vulnerable.

Posted by azzaman333 on (December 28, 2012, 11:32 GMT)

Leaves the selectors with one hell of a dilemma for Sydney. Two left armers, both with limited control but an ability to bowl the miracle ball that takes wickets from nothing. Can you pick both in the same team? Perth suggested no, but I guess a dead rubber is the best time to experiment with these things. Bird was very impressive though, just put the ball in the corridor of uncertainty all the time, never gave the Sri Lankans an easy run, and just enough movement to generate edges. Has to be pencilled in for the Ashes IMO. Partner him with Siddle and Pattinson and there's an extremely formidable pace attack with enough variation and control to take on any batting lineup.

Posted by Wozza-CY on (December 28, 2012, 11:22 GMT)

@LillianThompson- Kallis is only second behind or equal with Gary Sobers as far as the best all rounders go. I think a lot of people are getting carried away here. Johnson averages what he does because that's what he has done over a long period of time.....averages don't lie. Sure he has had a great game, but we all knew he probably wins you one in ten tests, so let's see how the next nine go! An interesting angle the article puts forward though....that it's the rotation that is helping his cricket? Wade is not a number 6 in tests & Johnson is not a number 7!

Posted by Mervo on (December 28, 2012, 11:20 GMT)

He would be among the first picked, for mine. Now our greatest ever left handed bowler and in an exclusive all rounder group with over 200 Test wickets and 100 runs. And our ultra dumb selectors picked trundler Hastings ahead of him. It just beggars belief. We really don't need a spinner at all.

Posted by Buggsy on (December 28, 2012, 10:37 GMT)

I agree with Stranded. We may not have Jimmy or Dale, but no other country has even half our pace bowling depth. Granted, Sri Lanka are not the strongest of teams, but for anyone who watched them bowl, you can't deny that Bird and Johnson weren't accurate, fast and ruthless. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 12 months for Johnson to have another one of his on-song days. Hilfenhaus really has to go back to the drawing board if he seriously expects his place back now.

Posted by glance_to_leg on (December 28, 2012, 10:36 GMT)

I have often found Johnson deeply annoying (slightly preening, narcissistic, and a squandered talent), but he looked outstanding in this match. Above all he seems to have come back with a proper bowling action, instead of the side arm sling that gave him little control (after all he is not Lasith Malinga ... there can be only one). I may be a whinging Pom, but good on yer, mate. And good to see him batting properly too. Well done, and have a great new year.

Posted by LillianThomson on (December 28, 2012, 10:34 GMT)

Johnson has always been a superbly gifted cricketer, but the psychological side of his game was horribly affected by the repeated attacks his mother launched upon his then-fiance in the media.

The English saw him at his most fragile, and probably don't fear him as much they should do. But he probably ranks third behind Garfield Sobers, Wasim Akram and Alan Davidson in the All-Time Left Handed All-Rounders Pantheon.

I find him a joy to watch. And since Wasim Akram, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist left the scene we haven't had anyone in world cricket who has been in the All-Time Top Five in their discipline. (I don't think Kallis displaces Miller, Imran or Procter, although he's close).

So we should enjoy Mitch, because we might have an awfully long wait for the next top class left-handed all-rounder.

Posted by nikubhan on (December 28, 2012, 10:25 GMT)

A request to CA: Please loan some bowlers to us deprived Indians.We have plenty of problems as opposed to your problem of plenties. We could even auction them IPL style n am sure u could use the extra dough to pep up your BBL!

Posted by handyandy on (December 28, 2012, 10:25 GMT)

Why even think about dropping Johnson for Sydney?

He would be the obvious choice as the allrounder to replace Watson.

Posted by   on (December 28, 2012, 10:13 GMT)

I think they will go in with four Fast-Bowlers, and a spinner, all the bowlers thrive on Peter Siddle`s, leadership. You need that in a bowling group, somebody who keeps you calm, but has the destructive bowling ability, and the nouse to understand the game. Wade will bat at 6, Johnson at 7, then Siddle, Starc, lyon, and Bird. This can only be a good thing, because Mitchell Johnson, is a confidence player, and a far better batsmen than his average projects, and he seemed more self assured at the MCG. First time i ever seen him in full control, of his batting, he has matured, as a batsmen, bowler, but more importantly a person. Well done, Mitch,

Posted by StarveTheLizard on (December 28, 2012, 10:03 GMT)

The very, very best bowlers out there may not be Australian. Nobody else has anything close to Australia's depth, however. What would England do without Anderson - or SA without Steyn? The team's odds of winning would change significantly. Australia loses a bowler and an even better performer is waiting right there.

Posted by Moppa on (December 28, 2012, 9:55 GMT)

Despite their injury woes, Sri Lanka's selectors have a pretty easy job for Sydney. I would pick Chandimal for Sangakarra, Randiv as a second spinner and Thisara Perera as a bowling all-rounder to give their attack a bit more depth. The funny thing is, Australia's selectors have a very tough job. What to do with Starc, Johnson and Bird? Stay true to the 'rotation' of Starc, and drop the man of the match or the promising debutant? Or break trust with Starc? Rest Siddle (not that he really needs it)? Replace Watson with the flaky Maxwell, or the pedigreed Khawaja? (OK, that should be an easy selection, but it seems the selectors are making it hard). While you could bat Johnson at #7 and add Starc, I think that puts pressure on his batting (and we know how he deals with pressure!) and is not a strategy that can succeed in England, so not worth experimenting with. Lots to be written in advance of what promises to be, ultimately, a fairly dull dead rubber...

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Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.
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