Indian affection pushes Johnson to centre-stage
For his durability, experience and current run of strong form, Mitchell Johnson is looming as a central player in Australia's plans for the Test matches against India.
There is something else that will also enhance Johnson's chances of taking on a major role for the tourists, an attitude more so than an attribute. Johnson enjoys bowling in India, loves the feel provided by the SG ball, and has no qualms whatsoever about the adversity destined to be faced by all fast men on the subcontinent.
Across six Test matches in India, Johnson's returns have been serviceable rather than spectacular - 21 wickets at 37.23 - but he has developed an affinity for the region and its conditions. The captain Michael Clarke and the coach Mickey Arthur value his ability to deliver long spells and summon the occasional burst of reverse swing, despite conditions that could not be more different from Johnson's happiest hunting ground at the WACA.
If Johnson is yet to play in a winning Test match in India, on at least one occasion he should have. The 2010 Mohali Test ended in a one-wicket victory for the hosts, yet with a few runs still required Johnson pinned Pragyan Ojha for the plumbest of LBW shouts, only to have the umpire Billy Bowden deny the appeal. That day, the SG ball sat comfortably in Johnson's left hand, and it did again recently when he began training with it again in preparation for the tour.
"I love bowling with the SG ball. It's a nice feel in the hands, it's a bit thin at the seam but it stands up taller," Johnson said. "In their conditions over there what I've learned is the ball really doesn't swing. The last couple of times I've been there, watching the Indians they bowl a lot across the seam for 10-12 overs, and then they seem to really get into the rough side, getting a bit of sweat into it and shine the other side, and getting reverse swing. That's something I've picked up over there.
"Reverse swing is a very hard thing to face, so that'll be something we'll be trying our best to do … I'm sure the guys are already practising it over there. I've had SG balls at training sessions. I actually went back to club training while we were in Perth and bowled with an SG ball over there and it started to do a few things early on. All us fast bowlers have been given an SG ball to play with and we've been working on that. I'm looking forward to getting into that practice game [in Chennai] and seeing if it all works."
Australian knowledge of how to bowl fast in India reached a peak in 2004 when the visitors won the series 2-1, breaking a drought that stretched back to 1969-70. However those lessons had been all but lost by the time Ricky Ponting's team returned in 2008, when none of the bowlers seemed to have any clue about how to get the ball moving.
Their coach Troy Cooley appeared even less an authority on the topic, and the vistors' eyes widened at how often India's bowlers ignored the conventional seam-up approach and had the ball reverse swinging inside a handful of overs. Since then a little more know-how has been gained, and Johnson said he had taken time to watch footage of Zaheer Khan by way of refreshing his memory.
"It does go [reverse] early, and with a hard reverse swinging ball it does make it even harder to face I think," Johnson said. "I've been watching Zaheer Khan bowl, he's an unbelievable left-arm bowler, and just watching the way he bowled over in their conditions. When the ball's reverse swinging when it's hard and then bouncing through a bit more it's very difficult, and he's had a lot of success over there.
"Hopefully a few other guys like Peter Siddle have learned from that and are going to take that into the tour. We've got a few fast bowlers over there but I'll be pushing as hard as I can to get into that first XI. It's a great thing to have for Australian cricket in a Test series over in India, very difficult conditions to bowl in as a fast bowler. I love the challenge of bowling over there in those conditions, against a great side. There'll be some fiery net sessions I'm sure."
While Australia's selection of a 17-man squad has provided the team with a wide array of options, there is a view within the team that to load up with spin in deference to the slow, low surfaces likely to be on offer would detract from the great strength of pace bowling that has helped lift the team to third in the ICC's Test rankings since Clarke became captain.
Steve Rixon, the assistant coach, is adamant that high quality pace bowling will be as difficult for India's batsmen to face as wily spin will be vexing for Australia. Though not a selector, he counselled those choosing the team for the first Test in Chennai not to sap an area Australia is strong simply because it is the done thing in India.
"That's one thing we keep forgetting about," Rixon said. "We talk about swinging the ball up front and reverse-swing during the game is very important. But having tall bowlers hitting the deck hard at 145 (km/h) is equally as hard for any Asian player to combat as it would be for our guys to combat their spin bowling.
"We're going to have a distinct advantage with our quick bowlers. Our quick bowlers will play a part and it will be the fact that they hit the deck hard - whether [selectors] have a leaning towards your spinners, which I'm thinking is going away from our strength. But I don't make that decision. Our quicks have put us where we are. In these conditions, we shouldn't ignore that. Just because you're playing in different conditions, your strength is still your strength."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here