Special and brutal
Fast, furious and mighty effective
7 for 68 v South Africa, first Test, Centurion
Moments after Graeme Smith was pinned on the gloves and caught behind off Mitchell Johnson's second ball of the Centurion Test last February, television cameras cut briefly to a shot of South Africa's open viewing area.
There are three men in the shot. To the top left is Paddy Upton, assistant coach, psychologist and body language expert. Upton is going about his business, buried in his laptop and looking for all the world like the national captain hasn't just been made to look utterly foolish by a screeching bouncer. Top right is Dean Elgar, fidgeting nervously with some headphones, then jerking his head up to the left and the replay.
Most striking, though, is Wayne Parnell, looking straight ahead with the thousand-yard stare of a man who has just seen the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Johnson's delivery to Smith had just that sort of transfixing effect on many of those present at Centurion Park. It was the start of a performance that, by its ferocity and the assistance he gained from the pitch, was arguably more terrifying than anything seen in the Ashes against England. There is one other thing about Parnell's expression that stands out in hindsight: he wasn't even playing.
This was not supposed to happen. Australia's Ashes victory had been comprehensive, driven by Johnson, Ryan Harris and Brad Haddin, but the physical and emotional heft of that achievement seemed bound to be followed by a letdown. How to sustain the force with which a 5-0 sweep had been achieved, and against the world's best and most stubborn team? Certainly, Smith had not seemed worried on match eve. After all, Centurion was a Protea playground, where their only Test match defeat had come via heavy rain, two declarations, and an ill-gotten leather jacket for Hansie Cronje. As Smith put it: "We know how to win on this ground."
All those years unbeaten in Centurion, all that confidence, and all that expectation that Australia would not be quite as good as they had been against England: every last bit of it evaporated at the sight of Smith's departure in such a vivid manner. It is arguable that a single ball had not sent quite the same shudder through a dressing room since Shane Warne's "ball from hell" to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993.
One man in the viewing area who was on the list of batsmen that day was Robin Peterson. In an interview to the Cricket Monthly he remembered the effect Johnson had on the South Africans watching. "When you see any fast bowler running in, bouncing out your top order and bowling at that pace, it sends a message to the lower order, because you know he's going to come hard and aggressive at you," he said. "You try to be calm and relaxed, but it's difficult to be calm and relaxed facing 150 clicks. It's a very difficult proposition to sit there and watch."
The South African with the best view of all had been Smith's opening partner, Alviro Petersen, taking it all in from the non-striker's end. Like Smith, Petersen had faced Johnson before, but his reaction to Smith's demise said much for how different a bowler Johnson had now become. Try though he did, Petersen could not get his feet in line. They were to remain rooted to his guard as he swished at another quick one in Johnson's third over and edged through to an exultant Haddin.
Next in was Faf du Plessis. The last time Australia saw du Plessis, he was the implacable, impassable figure who foiled their efforts to win the Adelaide Test and take on the No. 1 ranking. James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus had suffered broken bodies, if not spirits, during that match, and du Plessis was the major reason why. Johnson had not played in Adelaide, not trusted as a first choice. Now he charged in, pace at a peak and rhythm strong. When the ball left his hand it was travelling at better than 150kph. When it pitched, du Plessis was just establishing its trajectory. When it reared off the pitch, du Plessis had no time to adjust, an involuntary expression of surprise escaping his lips. When it skewered off the shoulder of the bat to Michael Clarke in the slips, a commentating Mark Nicholas spoke only in staccato: "Oh quick! Too quick! Vicious!"
Johnson's reaction to the wicket arrived in two parts. He ran down the wicket, arms outstretched, and offered a brief but definite glare at du Plessis as he went past the vanquished batsman. There were no angry words, but oodles of intimidation. Then, as Johnson met the delighted Australian slips cordon, his expression grew angrier, blood-thirstier even. His eyes were fixed upon a group of South African spectators at third man, who had offered a few of their opinions quite freely in the early overs of the innings. A yell of "you f***ing beauty" was fired in their direction. Johnson was operating right on the edge, and what a sight it was.
At the end of the over, he took his cap from the umpire Richard Illingworth. His figures read 3 for 5, and he was about to be spelled by Clarke, in order to maintain the pace and menace. There would be another four wickets for Johnson by the end of the innings - Ryan McLaren's off stump plucked out, Peterson's gloves thrust at a bouncer, AB de Villiers' defiance ended by the collapsing tail and an offcutter slower ball, and Morne Morkel edging a delivery that pranced so sharply that even a man of his height could not ride the bounce.
But it was that first contact with the South Africans that opened up the avenue for Australia, and left the impression that there was not a batsman in the game who could have coped with Johnson in this sort of rhythm, in this mood, on this pitch. The Centurion surface spawned an unusually large number of byes and wides due to its variation in bounce, meaning batsmen had a split-second longer to watch for the height at which the ball would leap at them. Johnson's speed was such that this often took too long to provide an adequate riposte.
In his masterful Wisden essay "Jeff Thomson Is Annoyed", Christian Ryan speculates that Thomson was never quite as fast again after the death of his former flatmate Martin Bedkober, struck in the chest in a club game, providing a reminder of what a cricket ball could do to a man. Johnson has also now seen the full destructive power of the ball, through the loss of Phillip Hughes. Centurion was special, the most memorable bowling display of 2014, but it was also exceptionally brutal. In his heart of hearts, Johnson may even join the South African batsmen in quietly hoping he never sees the like of it again.