Australia in England 2009

Johnson left sweating on place

Alex Brown at Lord's

July 20, 2009

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Mitchell Johnson shows his batting talent, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 5th day, July 20, 2009
Mitchell Johnson hit 63 in the second innings, but it couldn't make up for an awful bowling display © Getty Images
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The contrast could not be more stark. Andrew Flintoff, England's marquee all-rounder and emerging pace spearhead, claimed 6 for 119 and man-of-the-match honours from 39 high velocity overs, highlighted by a second innings haul of 5 for 92 from 27 overs, the last ten of which were delivered without respite on the final day. A Herculean performance, and one worthy of recognition on the Lord's honours board.

Mitchell Johnson, Australia's emerging all-rounder and marquee pace spearhead, bowled just two fewer deliveries than Flintoff in the second Test, albeit for the somewhat less flattering figures of 3 for 200. His 0 for 68 in the second innings was marked by short, ineffective spells and slumped shoulders. As the boundaries mounted and the economy rate soared, one wondered whether he wanted the ball thrown his way at all.

In two otherwise evenly-matched teams, the contrasting fortunes of the respective all-rounders proved the major difference at Lord's. While their batting efforts were remarkably similar - Johnson averaged 33.5 for the match, Flintoff 34 - the demeanour, application and general effectiveness of their bowling performances were night and day.

Flintoff's indefatigable efforts proved an inspiration to team-mates, and England's major task going forward will be to maintain his physical condition for the final three Tests of the series, and his career. Johnson, on the other hand, served only to deflate the Australians with his misfiring spells and submissive body language. Stick or twist? That is the question now confronting the tourists looking ahead to Edgbaston and beyond.

Speaking at his post-match press conference, Ricky Ponting sought to ease the mounting pressure on Johnson, but stopped short of confirming his place in the side for the third Test. Aware of the gaping chasm that currently exists between Johnson's dire form and his match-winning potential, Ponting all but deferred decisions on the all-rounder's selection future until after the tour match against Northamptonshire, beginning on Friday.

"[Bowling coach] Troy [Cooley] is obviously working really closely with him," Ponting said. "What you don't want to do with young-ish blokes - Mitch has only played 20-odd Tests and is still pretty new to the game and pretty new to fast bowling - is to fill their heads full of too much and have him thinking of too many things all the time. I've been there as a batter, and the more information sometimes you can get into your head the harder it makes everything.

"We have to be careful of the way we manage him over the next little bit. He's up for the challenge. He's continually trying to make himself better in all aspects of his game. He'll continue to do that this week. Hopefully we see some improvement from him in Northampton, if he does happen to play that game. It would be great to see him get a bit more confidence and a bit more rhythm than he's got at the moment."

Seldom has a tour match taken on such importance. Following a defeat at Lord's that exposed fundamental flaws in both batting and bowling, Australia's three-day game at Wantage Road will presumably go far to determining their selection and tactical course for the remaining three Ashes Tests.

Chief among their concerns is Johnson who, if his current malaise persists, cannot be entrusted with the new ball duties in Birmingham or beyond. A like-for-like swap with Brett Lee appears the least painful solution, but given that Lee has yet to bowl since suffering a side strain during the England Lions tour match, such a move would represent a considerable gamble.

A reconfigured attack featuring Stuart Clark, the destroyer of England two years ago, will also enter the thinking of Ponting and on-duty selector Jamie Cox, however Johnson's performance against Northamptonshire will go far to determining his own path, and that of the team, for the final three Tests.

"Of course I can see him playing [at Edgbaston]. With him, it was only a couple of games ago that he was bowling as well as anyone going around. There was a lot of talk about Mitchell Johnson arriving here and everyone wanting to see him bowl and see him bat. That was only a couple of weeks ago. It's not as if he's lost everything he's ever had. He'll work hard over the next ten days to give himself the best chance to keep improving.

"We haven't spoken about changes as yet. Over the next couple of days we'll sit together and talk about first of all the make-up of the team for Northampton and what we need from certain guys out of that game for selection for the third Test. I don't think there'll be drastic changes to our set-up. It was only a week ago that we dominated the Test match as well. We shouldn't forget that, and it's important that all the players don't forget that. That's what we've got ahead of us over the next ten days."

Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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