Johnson's Edgbaston hopes recede
Australians 308 for 8 dec (Watson 84, Hussey 75 ret ht) and 270 for 3 (McDonald 75, Hughes 68, Manou 59*, Watson 50) beat Northamptonshire 226 for 7 dec (Wakely 62, Wessels 50, Siddle 3-53) and 217 (O'Brien 58, McDonald 4-15) by 135 runs
The Australians have recorded their maiden first-class victory on this tour of England, but the path to a Test triumph appears more treacherous by the day. Another dispiriting performance from Mitchell Johnson has cast significant doubt over his mechanical and mental readiness for Edgbaston, and placed the one-time spearhead in grave danger of the axe.
Johnson conceded at least one boundary in each of his first six overs on Sunday; a streak that could have stretched to seven but for the negative tactic to bowl short and wide of the Northamptonshire batsmen in the closing stages of his spell. His main persecutor, Niall O'Brien, is more notable for his work behind the stumps for Ireland than his first-class average of 27.68, but the left-hander was made to look every bit the specialist batsman after thumping Johnson for seven of his nine boundaries en route to 58, scored in better than even time.
Johnson's woes also extended to the field, where he dropped Ben Howgego at mid-on off the bowling of Stuart Clark, but it was his analysis of 1 for 65 from 11.1 overs - ending a match in which he dismissed a solitary tailender, and conceded runs at close to six-per-over against a second-division county line-up - that might have tipped the selection scales against him. Demotion at Edgbaston would represent a stunning fall from grace for a bowler who, barely a month ago, arrived on these shores touted as the world's most dangerous paceman and charged with leading Australia's Ashes defence.
Johnson conceded 45 runs in his opening seven-over burst, and his second spell in the final hour of play proved similarly disappointing. Bowling to the Northamptonshire tail, Johnson watched forlornly as his eighth over was dispatched for 12 runs. His next, a maiden, was greeted with a rousing Bronx cheer from the Wantage Road pavilion, as was his eventual dismissal of David Wigley - concluding a stretch of 35 wicketless overs, dating back to the first innings of the Lord's Test.
"He didn't bowl as well as he would have liked at Lord's," said Tim Nielsen, the Australian coach. "He had some times today when he went for four, five and six an over with the ball flying through gully and slip. That's the nature of the beast.
"The conditions were probably a bit different here to what it was in Lord's. We didn't have our best day or best game with the ball. We also lost 6-30 but we're not calling for five blokes to be dropped form the batting group. That's the game of cricket. Some days you nick them, some days you whack them, other days you bowl all right and some you don't. We've got to keep preparing well and try to do it better each week."
As was the case in the first innings, Johnson's inconsistent length contrasted with that of Clark, who further enhanced his selection chances with two wickets. Clark might well have made a greater impact in the wickets column if not for the dropped catches from Johnson and Phillip Hughes, but nonetheless appears poised to provide the Australian attack with the pressure-building accuracy it lacked in the two Ashes Tests to date.
Entering the three-day match at Wantage Road, many observers felt Clark would duel with Peter Siddle for a sole pace berth at Edgbaston, only for the crosshairs to shift to Johnson as the match progressed. Siddle, curiously, bowled just four disciplined overs in the second innings, possibly indicating the desire of the Australians to keep him on ice for Edgbaston.
"There's nothing wrong with him," Nielsen said. "He's bowling well, he had a good hit out to start. We wanted to get (the others) some bowling and we had to fit them all in."
Australia's allrounders, Shane Watson and Andrew McDonald, did their future selection prospects no harm, with Watson belting his second half-century of the match in the morning session - this one raised in just 28 deliveries - and McDonald claiming 4 for 15 from 11 overs.
"He played a pivotal role in four Test matches in a row, where we won three of them, against South Africa," Nielsen said of McDonald, who also scored a sparkling 75 at the top of the order in the second innings against Northants. "He offers us flexibility with our bowling in that he can bowl long spells. He's accurate. He does chip in for wickets as we saw today. He got nearly 70 in his last Test innings for Australia. He catches well. He's a ripping bloke around the team. He brings plenty to the table."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo