Wayward Johnson poses dilemma
It's almost eviction time in Australia's touring Big Brother house. "Day 49, and Mitchell Johnson is still bowling rubbish," the Geordie narrator dribbles, changing only the date in his repetitive voiceover. The public now wants to dump Johnson, the pre-tour favourite for reality stardom in England. Most of his housemates have wavered at some point over the past week, downgrading him from a certainty to possibly, maybe, hopefully. For many of those on the outside they just want the saga to end this week in Birmingham.
But this is not a popularity contest. Johnson's position in the Test goldfish bowl depends on the selectors, three former opening batsmen with risk-free outlooks and a larrikin fast bowler. Andrew Hilditch and his panel don't want to discard a man who won all the challenges during the South Africa edition earlier in the year. Back then Johnson was seriously A-list, but over the first two Tests in England he has been the unintentionally bumbling extra nobody can stop looking at. And it hasn't been funny.
Ricky Ponting, the leader of the house, insisted he has not considered dropping Johnson during their preparations for Thursday's third Test, but left some wriggle room by talking about the unpredictability of the conditions in Edgbaston. He now wants Johnson at first-change instead of with the new ball and to employ him in short, attacking bursts. He doesn't believe any of the problems are technical.
"Right at the moment it is more of a confidence thing," Ponting said. "I'll probably look at him in this game playing in a slightly different way than I have in the last couple, and use him more as a strike-impact type of bowler. He has had the ability to strike for us and take wickets. That part of his game is still there. He is going okay, there has been other stuff going on off the field that is probably not making life any easier for us."
After weeks of silence, Johnson, 27, entered the diary room this week to open his hurt heart to a cashed-up women's magazine. Speaking in his soft, sensitive and sometimes squeaking voice, he said his mum's comments over his girlfriend stealing him away were not the reason for his loss of focus.
Allan Border, one of Australian cricket's godfathers, doesn't like what he saw in Cardiff or London and wants Johnson to have another week off. All the tour batsmen say in public that he is bowling well in the nets. All the Australians are, apart from Brett Lee, who is coming in off four steps. But occasionally hitting the strip has been too difficult for Johnson at training.
England want him to play to re-hone their cut shots and clips through midwicket. Andrew Strauss and his men have thought a little about possible replacements - Stuart Clark is the most likely, followed by Shane Watson and Andrew McDonald - but are ready to blaze at Johnson if he stays in the limelight. "At this stage of the series it is important you look to seize on any opportunities that come your way," Strauss said. "We did that pretty well at Lord's, not just with Johnson, but generally. If we get those opportunities again it's important we take them."
The danger lies in the ability of Johnson's body to remember how to deliver a wicket-taking ball. He has eight victims in the series, mostly from batsmen who have been either surprised by some sudden late movement, or shocked to find a ball in a troubling area. Strauss succumbed in Cardiff and Alastair Cook fell at Lord's after the pair put on 196 before tea. Rarely have they benefitted from so many first-day donations as those offered by Johnson.
In the tour game at Northampton over the weekend he was rationed, delivering 18.1 overs and failing to intimidate lower-rung county players. There was only one wicket, but his team-mates have talked of all the edges through or over the slips. Such strong public support for a player so obviously out of form hasn't come since Mark Taylor arrived in England 12 years ago, when every cover drive in the nets was applauded.
Ponting warned observers not to make any assumptions on the make-up of the team for Edgbaston. How times have changed. In the England camp the only real issue is Andrew Flintoff's fitness, and he looked fine at training on Tuesday. Australia have whiteboards full of possible formations. "I don't know which way it is going to go with the overall attack," Ponting said. He does expect Nathan Hauritz, the offspinner, to have a significant role and believes the pitch will turn from the opening day.
Moulding the pace stocks is the migraine area. Ponting said Peter Siddle and Clark could fit in the same team - the coach Tim Nielsen believes they are too similar - but there is also some support for the multi-skills of Watson and McDonald. Even though Phillip Hughes has been wide-eyed and unsuccessful, Marcus North could be vulnerable if Australia want to shoehorn an allrounder into the side. Two hundreds in North's opening four matches make it hard to believe the issue has been discussed.
All these combinations would have remained wacky internal thoughts if it hadn't been for Johnson. Currently it feels like it would be too demoralising for the side's most qualified bowler to be dropped, but it is something that has happened often in the past. With only three or four spots for fast men in a side, they have always been vulnerable to conditions, form, injury and mood, both of themselves and the selectors. It happened to McGrath, Gillespie, Lee, McDermott and every other long-term contender.
Johnson has not been dropped since debuting in 2007, and any omission won't lead to years in the wilderness, especially with the recent rate of regeneration. If the team's Big Brothers evict Johnson before the toss it gives him a chance to re-group and toughen up away from international glare. In his current state they would be doing him a favour.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo