Johnson plugs the leaks
A couple of months ago Mitchell Johnson packed his bags and got on a flight to Chennai. It was Australia's off season, but after having spent the World Cup in the Caribbean sitting in the dressing room while his mates went through another undefeated campaign, Johnson was anxious to ensure that he started the new season fully prepared. After all, with Glenn McGrath having traded the 22 yards for the Hall of Fame, there was a new-ball place up for grabs.
For Johnson, who can nudge the speedometer up to 150kph when his rhythm's right, sharing the new ball with Brett Lee would be the culmination of a dream that almost had its requiem three years ago when he was axed from the Queensland squad. For a young man who battled so hard to come back from near-crippling back injuries, it was the most bitter of blows, and one that nearly forced him to turn his back on the game.
For a while he drove a plumbing van for a mate but his heart and mind were elsewhere. "When I lost the [Queensland] contract, it was a very tough time for me," he says. "I did think about what I was going to do with myself. I wasn't sure if cricket was the answer. But I spoke to friends and family about it and they put me on the right path. I'm glad [laughs]. I wouldn't be here otherwise."
Within a year he had made his one-day debut in the Chappell-Hadlee series against New Zealand, and though he has yet to lay his hands on the cherished baggy green, there's a feeling that the moment is nigh for a 26-year-old that Dennis Lillee referred to as a "once in a generation" bowler nearly a decade ago.
With the pacy but erratic Shaun Tait out through injury, Johnson's main rival for the new ball is Stuart Clark, and the two couldn't be more dissimilar. In everyday life Clark wouldn't be out of place in a pinstripe suit, whereas Johnson would blend in perfectly with the surfer boys who congregate on Australia's Sunshine coast.
"I'd love to bowl with the new ball," he says with a grin. "That's what I do for Queensland. If I get the opportunity, I'm going to take it. But if I don't, there are a few things I can still work on with the old ball, like cutters and changes of pace."
Those old-ball tricks have been handed down by one of the masters of a generation past. Lillee and Troy Cooley, Australia's bowling coach, accompanied Johnson to the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai earlier this summer, and the work they did was mostly geared towards success on the placid pitches of the subcontinent.
"The cutters were something I'd never really tried before," says Johnson, looking back at his initial stints with Lillee at MRF. "I think that's going to be important here. The pitches are flat, there's not much bounce. There's not a hell of a lot for the bowlers here, but if you have those tools, it helps."
His last trip to India, for the Champions Trophy in 2006, highlighted his potential. Against England at Jaipur, he had 3 for 40, and the dismissal of Kevin Pietersen was the perfect fast bowler's set-up. A wicked lifter jolted Pietersen, and the next ball angled away to take the outside edge.
|For a while, he drove a plumbing van for a mate, but his heart and mind were elsewhere. "When I lost the contract, it was a very tough time for me. I did think about what I was going to do with myself. I wasn't sure if cricket was the answer|
Those were not typical Indian pitches, with some grass and plenty of bounce, but Johnson insists that the short ball still has a role to play in these conditions. "I think it's very important because you're testing the pitch to see what it can do," he says. "The one in Jaipur where I got Pietersen ... that might not have bounced on another pitch. It can be a surprise for the batsmen if you bang it into the pitch hard and you get the odd one to bounce a bit more." At Bangalore in the first game of the current series he got Sachin Tendulkar with a lightning-quick delivery that swung in.
Johnson has given a lot of thought to how he'll bowl in conditions that are vastly different from his stomping ground at the Gabba. "It's harder to bowl on a flatter pitch, but it brings in your offcutters and your legcutters and your changes of pace," he says. "But I'm also not going to forget about hitting the pitch hard and getting as much bounce as I can."
Lee is back after missing the World Cup, while Clark has slipped seamlessly into the void left by McGrath. Johnson himself managed a few games alongside McGrath, including in Malaysia last year where he rocked India with a stunning burst of 4 for 11 at the Kinrara Oval. What did he learn from the legend, and from the likes of Lee?
"You've just got to be yourself," he says earnestly. "You're picked in the team for what you do. So just go out there and bowl like you do. Don't change anything. It's a different level to your state cricket but you needn't change anything because you've got to this mark for a reason."
State cricket may be a notch below, but the early days at Queensland provided an invaluable education. Among his seniors were Michael Kasprowicz and Andy Bichel, and Johnson is well aware of the success that Kasprowicz had on subcontinental pitches [he won Australia the Bangalore Test in 1997-98 with a spell of 5 for 28].
"I've spoken to Kasprowicz and Bichel about bowling when I started out with Queensland," he says. "We've talked about India and they basically told me about reverse swing and cutting the ball and all that stuff."
Johnson is rarely without a smile these days, and says he's "honoured and proud" to be here. And why wouldn't he be? Instead of possibly installing jacuzzis and fixing leaky faucets, he has resurrected the dreams he had as a teenager. And in the days to come, it's the batsmen who'll get that sinking feeling.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor on Cricinfo