Australia's new pace sensation September 17, 2006

Slow-starter Johnson hits his straps

Mitchell Johnson decimated India, but has flown back home to Australia as earlier planned. But we'll certainly be seeing more of him in the future.
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Mitchell Johnson's stirring effort against India has pitchforked him into the spotlight © Getty Images

Mitchell Johnson decimated India's top order in a four-over burst on Saturday evening, but 24 hours later, he was homeward bound, as Australia trimmed their 18-man squad to a more manageable 15. Johnson, like Phil Jaques and Mark Cosgrove, had been told weeks earlier that he would get only two games in Malaysia, and he was just happy to have made the most of his chances.

"I'm going to go home, do a little bit of training and get prepared for the ICC [Champions Trophy]," he said, when asked what his immediate plans were. "Obviously, I'd love to be around the team, but it was all planned a while ago. I'll play a couple of club games at home, and be as prepared as possible."

Dressed in a team shirt and tracksuit bottoms, with a labret piercing shining in the glare from the cameras, Johnson would have no difficulty passing off as a surfer boy on the Sunshine Coast. And he found it hard to put into words just what he had done to swamp a famed batting line-up, even if conditions had been helpful. "I just felt really good," he said when asked to relive the moments. "I was swinging the ball and hitting the deck hard.

"It was an amazing feeling. You grow up watching guys like Sachin and Dravid, so it's just a great feeling to bowl against them. To get them out as well is just amazing. Funnily enough, I wasn't nervous." According to him, there had been no specific plan for Tendulkar. "We were working towards getting him to play one side of the wicket, and that seemed to work," he said, as he looked back on the 87.3mph delivery that took the edge on its way through to Brad Haddin.

Dennis Lillee had identified Johnson as a hot prospect half a decade ago, but a succession of injuries thwarted his progress. He continues to work hard in the gym, and net sessions are carefully monitored so that he doesn't overexert himself. The return of Troy Cooley, one of the architects of England's Ashes triumph, has also helped. "Having him [Cooley] back is really good. I've worked on my run-up, worked on my wrist position, just little things. I feel like I'm swinging the ball more."

The presence of a legend at the other end on Saturday was also a big inspiration. "It was the first time I got to bowl with Glenn McGrath," he said. "I actually said to Mike Young, our fielding coach, how good this feels, to have the opportunity to bowl with McGrath. The other game against West Indies, he was speaking to me about a few things and helping me along the way."



Matthew Hayden is pretty sure his Queensland team-mate, Mitchell Johnson, has what it takes to make it in the big league © Getty Images

Johnson maintained that being part of the squad over the past couple of tours had been of great benefit to his progress. "It's made me realise what you have to do to come up to a certain standard," he said, and his view was echoed by Matthew Hayden, his senior at Queensland. "I think the progress Mitch is making now is a direct benefit of playing at the highest level," he said. "Someone of his obvious talent, once he's exposed to the opportunities of international cricket, he's going to take his ability to a new level.

"Let's face it, he was like a kid in a candy shop yesterday when he was bowling to Tendulkar. Then he dismisses him, dismisses Dravid. I mean, what can you say to a young fast bowler other than, 'Mate, you've just got two of the best and greatest batsmen in the world out'. That sort of confidence will certainly help."

Johnson played down suggestions that he was now the great hope of Australian pace bowling. "That's the first I've heard of that," he said with a grin. "It does put a bit of pressure on you, but you've got to put that to the back of your mind."

Priority for the moment was the need to improve further, and he said that interaction with his seniors and peers had helped a great deal. "I'm just speaking to guys like Glenn, and [Nathan] Bracken, who's also a left-arm bowler. I'm just working on not being so predictable, especially in one-day cricket where you have to vary your pace and your length."

Having played in India a few times with Under-19 and Australian academy teams, he looked forward to the challenge of playing on pitches that are traditionally not seam-friendly. And though the focus was on the Champions Trophy, he continued to harbour every Aussie's dream of taking on England in an Ashes series. "That would be a massive bonus for me if I get that opportunity," he said, eye shining at the prospect.

Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of the national selection panel, is in Kuala Lumpur, and he said that there were no regrets about the pre-meditated decision to send Johnson home. "Mitchell was well aware what our plans were for him," he said. "Obviously, he's in the squad for the ICC tournament. We have ten days of preparation in India before that starts, and it'll be the ideal build-up for him."

For the moment, he can go home and watch Brett Lee, one of his role models - he named Curtley Ambrose as another - get stuck into the Indian and West Indian batting line-ups. "I'm always trying to bowl as fast as him, but I don't think that's possible at the moment," he said with a smile, before adding that his leaping celebrations hadn't necessarily been Lee-inspired. "The celebration just comes naturally," he said. "Sometimes it might look a bit silly."

Johnson, a self-confessed slow starter, can now bask in the company of his loved ones before turning his attention back to the subcontinent. "It's taken me a while to get a few wickets," he said. "The first few games, I was very nervous but now, I think my confidence is a lot better." And after the manner in which he left his calling card at the Kinrara Oval, batsmen will be more than a little wary when they next come across him, surfer boy or not.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo