Cowan to give Johnson free rein
As the latest captain tasked with getting the best out of the famously enigmatic Mitchell Johnson, Australia A's leader Ed Cowan has decided on a directive to the left-armer that may be summarised by the following four words: do what you like.
Cowan made no secret of his desire to help build Johnson back up to a level of confidence and wicket-taking from which he may return to the Australian Test team, and said his intention was to let the bowler call his own tune. During the senior team's horrid ODI tour of England, Johnson said he had reconciled the fact his success or otherwise as a bowler depended largely on his mental state. To that end, Cowan wants to make him as comfortable as possible with Australia A.
"The most important thing that I want from him is for him to be happy and do what he wants to do. So my opinion is what he wants, essentially," Cowan told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the tour opener at Derby on Friday. "If he wants to run in and bowl fast, then we'll set fields accordingly, if he wants to contain or swing, whatever.
"He just needs to be relaxed and enjoy his cricket, away from the spotlight of international cricket and the pressures and the demands and the scrutiny most importantly that brings, and just get back to finding some rhythm and bowling well. Everyone knows how good he is, it's just a question of regaining that confidence in his body and his action. His action looks great at the moment, and I'll just be just letting him loose, let him do his own thing and have confidence to do that, that's a big thing."
At 30, Johnson is by a distance the most experienced bowler on tour. He is also the most capped tourist in Test cricket by a distance, his 47 Tests more than the rest combined - Cowan (seven Tests), James Pattinson (five), Steve Smith (five), Tim Paine (four) and Mitchell Starc (four). Cowan said he had seen early evidence that Johnson was more comfortable offering advice these days, rather than merely receiving it.
"There's a leadership aspect to him on the tour as well, already we've seen him giving of himself to the younger guys," Cowan said. "There's a wealth of knowledge there, and he feels a bit more secure to be able to give it to this group, so really looking forward to him being a leader in that sense. I think that will help him, rather than having to lead the attack he can be a guy who can enjoy his cricket, be a source of advice to the other guys, and we're looking forward to seeing him back to his best."
Another man edging his way back into the international game is the wicketkeeper Paine, following a lengthy and still resonant battle to repair a badly fractured finger. Cowan was with Paine last year at the time of one of his more disheartening medical assessments, and said the Tasmanian's determination to return had been matchless, overcoming self-doubt as much as his battered digit.
"I don't think people understand a lot of the time what goes on behind the scenes for guys to get themselves fit," Cowan said. "Not just physically but mentally, there's a lot of moments when you're injured for a long time that you start doubting if you'll ever play again or play as well as you did. Those are natural thoughts he's had to overcome, and in the last four or five months he's proved to himself that he's right, he's ready to play and prove himself and push back for international selection.
"He's such a talent, such a natural keeper and such a beautiful flowing batsman when he gets going. The expectation is just for him to play some cricket, to get through injury free and see what happens. I'm not looking for him to come and blaze it straight away, because it does take time to find your feet. He takes such pride in performance that I'm sure he'll put some great numbers on the board, but we'll just let him play and the rest evolve."
Paine will bat and keep wicket with reinforced gloves. Like Cowan, he will be hopeful that Johnson's deliveries are well directed.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here