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The left-arm quick arrived for the Ashes with a huge reputation, but is battling with technical and mental issues
Peter English at Lord's
July 16, 2009
An office worker's bad day might not even be noticed by those nearby and once the computer is shut down the offender can promise to be more productive in the morning. The same principles don't apply to sports people, who star and slump in front of crowds recognising all their wrong moves. Mitchell Johnson's timing at the crease was as bad as his mind's decision to allow him to flop in the opening exchanges of an Australian cricketer's most coveted overseas occasion.
Acting as the team's weather vane, Johnson was cloudy, unsettled and sultry before a brighter spell late in the afternoon. England were slowed on their march to 364 for 6, with Johnson taking two wickets, but this is a day he will remember in colours of red and pink.
If Johnson had bowled in 80 Tests instead of 23 he would have known in the first couple of overs that this was not the moment to match the exploits of Glenn McGrath and the other celebrated Australian fast men at Lord's. He would have simplified his approach, settling on an off-stump line and making sure runs were saved instead of flooded. Showing the outlook that suits his fresh face, he did the opposite, trying to fix things on the run into the crease and subsequently struggling with line, length and body language. He swung from angry to embarrassed, perking occasionally to remind people what he can do, in a return of 2 for 107 from 19 overs.
In the slips cordon Johnson, who bowled the second over of the morning, was causing hands on hips before the first drinks break. At Johnson's worst, when Andrew Strauss was being fed cut shots in the bowler's only show of sustained accuracy, Ponting crouched and stared at the ground, not knowing whether to rant or encourage. From a distance he did neither. The players hadn't inspected the Lord's lunch and already their performance in Cardiff felt like it had occurred in a previous series.
Strauss was the main beneficiary of Johnson's miscalculating arm, taking four boundaries off six balls in his opening spell. After four overs Johnson had given away 26 and that turned into 53 in eight and 77 off 11. Johnson had more chance of getting MCC members to loosen ties than tighten his line and one spell ended with him lying on the pitch after sliding in a failed attempt to stop a drive.
"If you feel a guy is a little bit down you take advantage of it," Strauss said. "He's a hard bowler to pick up, one of those guys who when he gives you loose balls it's quite important you go at them. We were able to do that and from then on he was struggling to rein that back in."
Like Shane Watson, his fellow former Queensland team-mate, Johnson shows everyone how he is feeling. Another four came from Strauss's cut show. Johnson turned around, bent over to wipe his hand in the footmarks and trudged back to his mark. Later that over, he skidded one back into Alastair Cook to have him lbw for 95. It was his 100th Test wicket. He barely smiled.
Ravi Bopara's first ball was so far down the legside it couldn't be touched. Twenty-four runs came in three overs and he was wiping his nose with his shoulder. It was sad. The bowlers weren't concerned enough by the slope to speak to Brad Haddin about it and the wicketkeeper said the team was guilty of trying to do everything perfectly.
A trap for inexperienced bowlers is they are always working on something technical, trying to find the formula for feel instead of feeling it. Is the front arm in the right position? What about my follow through and wrist? Hey, you at mid-on, should I do anything different to deal with the slope when I deliver a slower off-cutter?
In cluttering their minds they forget to run in and stare at the spot where the ball should land. Dreamers like Johnson can torture themselves when they fuss over technical data. Some trouble has come from home recently - Johnson's mum has complained to the papers that she never sees her boy - and for someone who runs in most days trying to hurt batsmen, he is a sensitive man. He does not want everyone to read about his family business; having them watch every delivery is enough.
Australia also had a number of significant issues distracting them throughout the opening day, with Nathan Hauritz's dislocated finger as much of a problem as Johnson's waywardness. The malaise was copied in the field where fumbles, overthrows, 15 byes and a dropped catch in the gully by Michael Hussey improved England's position. Only Ben Hilfenhaus, the most inexperienced of the attack, looked like an international operator in all of his spells. At tea the 407 the hosts reached at Edgbaston four years was looking vulnerable, but the bowlers were able to lay out some speed bumps.
Johnson came back shortly before the new ball was due, although the gloom returned when Matt Prior's two thick edges scooted through gully for fours. The teapot stance was reminiscent of Allan Border in 1985. Then suddenly he produced a brutal reversing-swinging delivery that was helped on to the stumps via Prior's inside edge. This made him slightly happier, but the breakthrough was not a quick fix. His moment of clarity was swamped by more fuzziness.
"Late in the day he brought the ball back into the right-hander which is a very good sign," Haddin said. "With a bit of luck he's got everything back in order and where he wants it to be."
Taking the new ball and running in from the Pavilion End, he gave up nine runs in the opening over. Shane Warne was in the commentary box mentioning "rubbish". There was a lot of trash and the occasional treasure. Johnson arrived in England as the side's fast-bowling spearhead and has seven wickets for the series, but has not yet looked like a world beater.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?