Centurion Johnson morphs into an allrounder
The Mitchell Johnson allrounder debate is over. His captain says he's an allrounder. He says he's an allrounder. The figures from this tour back them up. After Johnson completed his first Test century and ended up with an unbeaten 123 at Newlands, he was named Player of the Series and it wasn't a difficult decision. He was the equal leading wicket-taker from either team and remarkably he was Australia's third top scorer in a winning series.
It was fitting that at the end of such a magnificent summer he finished on a personal high, even if his team lost. When he slapped Dale Steyn over midwicket for six to reach triple figures for the only time in his first-class career, Johnson became the first Australian No. 8 to score a century since Adam Gilchrist and the first regular in such a low position to achieve it since Gary Gilmour.
As Johnson and Ponting sat next to each other after the match, Johnson was asked if he now considered himself an allrounder. A sideways glance at his captain and a pair of sly grins showed that it was a topic the two men had discussed. Ponting joked that Johnson could open the batting in the upcoming Twenty20 internationals.
"He's an allrounder," Ponting said. "I've had no doubt about him being able to become an allrounder for Australia since the moment I saw him first bat. He's always had the talent there and a good skill base. He enjoys his batting, he works hard on his batting, now he needs to keep improving in certain areas.
"But as we saw today if someone can go out and make a Test match hundred in 80-odd balls when you've got your backs to the wall, a lot of games are won and series changed as a result of somebody doing something like that. I have known he's been capable of that. It's a matter of him not being happy with what he's done and keep working hard and make himself into that really good allrounder that he hopes he can become."
The milestone had come agonisingly close for Johnson in Johannesburg, where he smashed his way to 96 before losing his last two partners, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, in consecutive balls. There was a similarly nervous moment for Johnson on this occasion.
On 95 he watched on as Andrew McDonald and Siddle fell from consecutive deliveries. Fortunately for Johnson, Bryce McGain was able to survive the final two balls of that Paul Harris over and within two more deliveries Johnson had dispatched Steyn over the boundary to bring up his century.
"It did pop up into my mind," Johnson said when asked if he was worried about another tail-end capitulation. "I was a little bit nervous and I started to think where I was going to get my next shot. I was thinking of getting down to Harris' end and trying to hit him back over his head. But I had to have some faith in the guys, we have got a good tail, I ended up getting it so I'm happy."
In Johannesburg it was Johnson's sixes that wowed the crowd the most, including when he took 26 off one Harris over. At Newlands, where he combined with Andrew McDonald for a 163-run seventh-wicket stand, the most impressive feature of Johnson's innings was the way he ticked his score along with proper shots like powerful cover-drives and flicks through leg.
Despite his success with the bat it is Johnson's outstanding bowling that has frightened the South Africans more over the past few months. The series-defining moment came in Durban, when Johnson got a ball to rise sharply and broke Graeme Smith's right hand, after he had done a similar thing to Smith's other hand in January's Sydney Test.
"He's an unbelievable cricketer, the type of cricketer any captain wants in his side," South Africa's allrounder and stand-in captain Jacques Kallis said. "We saw that from early on in Australia. To bowl at 150kph like he does, being a left-armer as well, and then to come in at number seven or number eight and hit the ball as cleanly as he does, what more do you want?"
Australia's challenge in the next couple of years will be ensuring that Johnson doesn't break down due to his heavy workload. He bowled more overs in this series than anyone besides the South Africa spinner Harris. It will help if Australia resist the urge to bump him up the batting order and let his runs continue to be a pleasant bonus.
"You can call me an allrounder if you like," Johnson said. "I enjoy batting at eight, eight or nine for me, I'm happy."
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo