Australia keep faith in Johnson
Two years of steady development have won Mitchell Johnson some extra time as he tries to save his Test spot following a scattergun performance in the Lord's defeat. Despite eight wickets in the opening two games, Johnson has been Australia's greatest disappointment on this trip and his waywardness allowed England to thrive in both innings of the second Test.
The Australians have a couple of days off in London to try to forget the past five days of Andrew Flintoff-inspired trauma, but it will be a hard week for Johnson to erase from his memory. Johnson, who showed himself as a high-level allrounder in the most recent series in South Africa, is a confidence player and his self belief drained throughout the game to the point where he started his second innings with the bat by turning his head away from Flintoff's short balls. However, he managed to battle through the fear and was last out for 63.
Australia have a series of pressing issues in their three-day tour match against Northamptonshire from Friday, when Stuart Clark and possibly Brett Lee will be eyeing Johnson's spot. Lee remains doubtful for that match and next week's third Test with a stomach problem, but Johnson will be feeling internal pressure to perform despite receiving support from his coach Tim Nielsen.
"We need to keep things in perspective, he's had a brilliant two years," Nielsen said. "We're not hiding from the fact he didn't have a great Test here, but he got better as the Test went on, which was pleasing. It's nice to have eight days to get him up and get him bowling. He's been too good for us to think, 'oh well, he's not going to play at Edgbaston'."
Troy Cooley, the bowling coach, is the man in charge of getting Johnson's groove back and the tough task relies on instilling confidence and correcting a significant technical flaw. Johnson has been falling away in his delivery stride, which affects his arm position, and it was one of main reasons for his tendency to deliver short balls outside off stump or full ones on leg. In 38.4 overs he gave away 200 runs while occasionally snapping out of the haze to take three wickets.
"He's such an athletic bloke and such a quick learner, if he can get one or two little things right he'll be back on track," Nielsen said. "There are a couple of things he can work on to get a bit taller. He's got an action that's a bit slingy, so his release point is pretty important. The bottom line is that when he's standing tall and coming down and through the line at the batsmen he's got every chance to be successful." Nielsen was also pleased Johnson was still able to deliver at 90mph.
Lee has not bowled since tearing a muscle during the warm-up match before the first Test and was limited to sprints on the outfield over the past week. With Johnson out of form, Australia missed an experienced and reliable operator - Ben Hilfenhaus was exceptionally tight while Peter Siddle combined moments of fire with excess - but they won't be rushing Lee back.
"We have to be careful that we don't," Nielsen said. "He has a bowling-specific injury. If you [injure] it again it can be six, eight or ten weeks before you come right. We have to nurse him back."
If Lee doesn't play against Northamptonshire he is unlikely to be risked in the third Test. "If he had to bowl 11 overs in a row like Flintoff did yesterday, we'd want to be confident that he's strong and fit and confident enough to do it," Nielsen said. It's not something Lee will be able to prove in the nets.
Australia's other injury worry, Shane Watson, will figure in Northampton and is expected to bowl after recovering from a thigh problem. However, his main role is as the side's reserve batsman and Nielsen was confident the allrounder could fill any position in the line-up. Phillip Hughes is the biggest problem in Australia's order after managing 57 runs in three innings and displaying an inability to overcome England's short-ball tactics.
Watson failed as an opener during a stint with Queensland two years ago and the selectors have been criticised for not choosing a specialist to cover spots one to three. "We picked a batsman who we can think can play a role from one to six," Nielsen said.
Hughes is only 20 and has two centuries in his five Tests, but is suffering his first major slump. He was given out caught by Andrew Strauss in the second innings in a line-ball decision, the second time he had been dismissed by Flintoff in the series.
"He's been a bit unlucky in his batting here, things didn't really go his way," Nielsen said. "He got to 30 in the first Test and nicked one. He's just a start away from being on the go. We've got to remember he's played five Test matches - and had some exceptional results in those five. He's up against a good bowling attack and will keep working hard."
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo