England v Australia, 2nd npower Test, Lord's, 3rd day July 18, 2009

What has happened to Mitch?

He arrived with a huge reputation but Mitchell Johnson's performance at Lord's has left him under pressure for his place

From the loungerooms of Launceston to the Long Room at Lord's, no single issue has dominated discussion quite like Mitchell Johnson's plummeting fortunes in England. The conquistador of South Africa has been reduced to an erratic, unreliable bit-part player this week, placing tremendous pressure on his fellow bowlers and greatly reducing Ricky Ponting's options.

The world's third-ranked bowler was the third best paceman in the Australian attack on Saturday, and a distant one at that. Too short, too wide and too easily dominated by England's openers, Johnson left Ponting with few alternatives other than to withdraw him from the attack after just three overs in the hope Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus would prove less wasteful with the new ball.

Johnson was eventually redeployed in the 27th over, and hardly inspired confidence by spearing the second ball of his second over towards the slips cordon and only just within reach of an outstretched Brad Haddin. A burst from around-the-wicket went some way to straightening his trajectory, however, and Johnson, for the first time in the series, managed at least to contain England's batsmen over the course of a ten over spell.

That Australia was satisfied with Johnson merely tying up an end indicates the extent to which the situation has deteriorated. Johnson was brought to England to provide vigour and menace, not contain, and his lack of direction and form continues to be the most pressing concern for Ponting entering the final three Tests of the series.

So what precisely is the problem? How has a man who broke Graeme Smith's hands twice in three Tests become a bowler whose performances are best viewed through barely-splayed fingers? Is the slide reversible?

Three recurring themes have emerged from conversations with sources close to Johnson on both sides of the Australian camp. They are, in no particular order, a lowering of arm height, an attempt to bowl too quickly and a domestic situation in which Johnson's mother has publicly harangued his fiancée in the Australian tabloids.

The last of these issues is the most difficult to gauge in terms of its impact. A sensitive soul, Johnson has rarely, if ever, had personal issues aired in public, and his mother's inflammatory letter to a Melbourne newspaper just days out from the Cardiff Test can hardly have helped his state of mind. Johnson was, until recent years, known as much for his shy demeanour as his express bowling in Australian cricket circles, and the combined effect of a public squabble and the pressure of "spearhead" status in his first Ashes series cannot have been easy to manage.

The mechanical aspects of Johnson's bowling are easier to identify, though not necessarily to fix. Troy Cooley, Australia's bowling coach, has worked at length to restore Johnson's arm height over the past 18 months, and despite success in recent series in Australia and South Africa, a more round-arm release has set in.

A lower release point, even by a degree or two, can substantially reduce a left-armer's margin for error. A taller, more orthodox delivery arm should offer a paceman greater control of length, and lessens the likelihood of the ball spraying laterally. And in attempting to live up to his reputation as Austalia's bruiser-in-chief, Johnson has sacrificed swing for pace. Or so the theory goes.

The Australian captain is in desperate need of a bowler who can penetrate the defences of England's best batsmen, and build pressure in partnership with the likes of Hilfenhaus and Nathan Hauritz. Johnson has failed in both regards to date

These are not necessarily new problems. On tours of the West Indies and India last year, Johnson struggled for consistency, but in neither case was he bridled with the responsibility of leading the Australian attack. His man-of-the series effort in South Africa and elevation to the role of spearhead for the Ashes series - in which every triumph and failure is magnified - has delivered him to a plinth he has never previously occupied, and one that has left him exposed as form and confidence have deserted him. Anonymity is no longer a luxury he can count on.

But such discussions are of little help to Ponting in the immediate term. The Australian captain is in desperate need of a bowler who can penetrate the defences of England's best batsmen, and build pressure in partnership with the likes of Hilfenhaus and Nathan Hauritz. Johnson has failed in both regards to date. Figures of 3 for 200 from 38.4 overs - including no second innings wickets - tell the tale of a man struggling for control over his game, and Johnson's body language has too often resembled that of a downtrodden trundler rather than the modern day gladiator Ponting had counted on.

Assuming England declare their second innings closed early on Sunday, there is little Ponting can do to rectify the unmitigated disaster that was Johnson's outing at Lord's. Edgbaston is another matter, however. Despite stubborn attempts to maintain the fast bowling unit from South Africa, Australia's selectors will now be sorely tempted to reintroduce the reassuring presence of Stuart Clark and/or Brett Lee into the attack, but just who would make way remains a sizeable point of contention.

Without doubt, Hilfenhaus has been the pick of Australia's pacemen while Hauritz, playing through the pain of a dislocated finger on his spinning hand, has grown in stature with each innings this series. Peter Siddle has not been as evident in the wicket-column as his peers, but has interspersed several blistering spells between occasionally wild ones. On intimidatory grounds alone, he is worth persisting with.

That, then, leaves Johnson, who has done less to justify his place in the starting XI than Australia's other three frontline bowlers. Demotion from spearhead to outcast in the space of three Tests would be both stunning and difficult to envisage, given the faith placed in him by Andrew Hilditch's panel over the years, but in these desperate times little can be assumed.

Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Hamish on July 22, 2009, 1:42 GMT

    In response to gzawilliam Hard to blame Johnson for Aus not winning the first test when he took 5 wickets in the match. He bowled terribly in the second test but a lot of the blame for Aus losing has to go to the batting in the first Australian innings.

    KevinL in 2005 Gillespie took 3 wickets in 3 tests aver 100 er 4.47 Mitch has 8 wickets in 2 tests averaging 41 economy rate 4 Not good but a far cry from how bad Gillespie was going.

    SpottedHyena, in the 2nd innings in Perth Johnson took 3 of the 4 RSA wickets to fall. In Melbourne he took 6 wickets in the match for 163 runs. Somewhat better than useless. In Cape Town he took 4-148 which isn't exactly run out of town on a rail bad.

    As to true_cricket_fan comparing him with McGrath is pointless but so far he stands up very well compared with Brett Lee. Since his elbow injury after about 5 tests Lee averages around 33. In his last 3 series he's averaged 61, 21.83 (MJ 11) and 249

    In the 2005 Ashes Lee averaged 41 over 5 tests

  • Nikhil on July 20, 2009, 13:39 GMT

    Mitchell Johnson was never the greatest of the players. True, he had a splendid series in SA against them, and he emerged as an all-rounder, but he will never be an ideal replacement for the likes of Mcgrath/Brett Lee. Let us see how he performs in the rest of the series. @ SpottedHyena: Friend, Ashes is NOT bigger than the world cup - I can't imagine why some people still think that way!

  • Michael on July 19, 2009, 22:52 GMT

    Mitchell Johnson is a great player, with a 100 wicket hall coming soon that is a great achievement. He is confidence bowler and a bowler who requires constant rhythm. He hasn't been getting much match experience after SA, however he will improve as a bowler. He's no where near as good as Dale Steyn, but with his batting improving he can become a genuine allrounder, play at 6, with Clark to come in as forth seamer. North can be a hit and miss, so hard decision to drop him. Will be great to bring in the backup keeper as the main keeper, and move Haddin into the batting role.

  • Wessels on July 19, 2009, 13:37 GMT

    Maybe the occasion is just getting to him - the Ashes is bigger than the World Cup. Make no mistake he is a champion player - fields, bats, bowls ridiculously well when he's on song. I agree his bowling might be a bit overrated - SA only really struggled with the left arm seam - then again when there was no swing - Perth (2nd Inn), Melbourne, Cape Town - he looked useless...and Aus lost...The most puzzling thing about the Australia team is the omission of Stuart Clark - any idiot knows the only reason SA won the series over there - was because he was injured. There's only one way to win a test match - and that is to take 20 wickets.

  • Anirban on July 19, 2009, 10:36 GMT

    Mitchell Johnson is a good bowler and his strength lies in his concentration.Before the beginning of the ashes series he was involved in some verbal warefare with english batsman like Bopara also his recent inefficiency was also overshadowed when he ended up in some verbal spat with Kevin Pieterson..All these on going media attack has also stressed him a lot...Give the bloke some time to get back on song...Two matches doesnt make a bowler a bad bowler...he is a class bowler for Australia and it will be good for the captain ricky ponting to use him properly and give some guidance as a senior cricketer...if bowlers like anderson,hilfenhaus can focus on their strengths by pitching on proper line and length so also can Mitchell Johnson...let him concentrate and focus so that he is able to use the best of his talent...

  • Etienne on July 19, 2009, 9:29 GMT

    Johnson had a blinder of a series vs SA, but the rest of his test bowling has been iffy at best. How a bowler gets to be ranked 3 in the world based on three or four decent innings performances is a mystery to me. Against India, Sri Lanka, West Indies and England he only averages 4 wickets a test and that at over 30. Nothing to get excited about.

  • utsav on July 19, 2009, 9:26 GMT

    i think,the pressure of spearheading the australian attack is getting to him.He is trying too many things.

  • Kevin on July 19, 2009, 8:33 GMT

    Sadly Mitch has to be dropped from the Third Test. Jason Gillespie was nowhere near this bad in 2005 and was dumped for his poor performance. I also think that Nathan Houritz should be relegated to 12th man: heaven forbid, no Warne, but we still have three part time spinners in the side. If we want to win the Ashes, play Lee and S Clark.

  • Mike on July 19, 2009, 5:22 GMT

    3 things wrong with Mitchell Johnson.

    1. His club cricketer at best wrist position. 2. His robotic action that doesn't allow him to produce a natural rythmic delivery( But atleast he won't get injured thats the main thing isn't it ... pfft.) 3. He obviously is feeling the strain of one of the toughest tours for an australian. Especially since he was our strike bowler before and had the nation relying on him.

    I for one think it would benifit Mitchell more than it would the australian team if he were dropped for the last tests.. He needs to sort his action out from the wrist to the head position to his run up. All seem out of wak.

    And to say he will get better in the series well thats great but he's cost us two tests now.. Don't smudge crap saying its rough to blame just him. He is our strike bowler and had two poor games where all the batsmen fancy him running in at them.

    Please get eg wasim akram to guide him. Troy cooley seems to be failing mitchell right now.

  • Sinha on July 19, 2009, 3:49 GMT

    It's best to drop Johnson and bring in Stuart Clark.

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