Johnson leaves South Africa bloodied and broken
Mitchell Johnson produced the most intimidating performance of his international career to drive South Africa towards the brink of oblivion. Australia's pace spearhead claimed two wickets in the first over of South Africa's innings, then hospitalised Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis in 16 ruthless overs that placed both match and series firmly within Australia's grasp.
The South African top order had no answer to Johnson's express pace, brutish bounce and deft swing, and finished the day at a perilous 138 for 7 in reply to Australia's first innings total of 352. As dispiriting as the constant fall of wickets was for the hosts, by far the most depressing development of day two was the hand injury to Smith from the first ball faced to Johnson. Scans revealed the South African captain had sustained an undisplaced fracture to the base of his little finger; an injury that will almost certainly sideline him for the remainder of the series.
It was only two months - and two Tests - ago that Johnson fractured Smith's left hand with a snarling delivery that jagged back sharply off a gaping crack in the SCG pitch. But the left-armer required no special assistance from the wicket in breaking Smith's right hand, beating the batsman with a sharp, rising delivery that thundered into his glove and prompted immediate concern from the South African dressing room. Clearly, he is a bowler at the height of his powers, and quite possibly the best exponent of his craft on the international circuit.
Johnson was ably supported by his fellow seamers, most notably Andrew McDonald, who removed Paul Harris, Kallis and Morne Morkel in the space of six deliveries in the final session. The all-rounder was no doubted aided by Johnson's lead-up work - Kallis received three stitches to his chin, and lasted just two deliveries after resuming his innings - but still proved effective in maintaining a tight stump-to-stump line to South Africa's embattled tail enders.
The hosts might have been bundled out well before stumps if not for JP Duminy's stoic solo hand. Duminy has established a reputation as an exciting strokemaker in his short international career, but it was resolute defence and raw courage that delivered him to an unbeaten 73 and steered South Africa to within 14 runs of the follow-on target.
Still, this was a day that belonged to Johnson. In removing Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla in the first over of the innings - a sequence, incidentally, that appeared as W0W on the scorecard - and Mark Boucher in the over before tea, the Queensland paceman set Australian on course for a victory that, just a fortnight ago, seemed improbable in the extreme. But perhaps more significant than his three dismissals were the savage blows he inflicted upon Smith and Kallis; the nerve centre of this South African batting order. With Smith gone and Kallis rattled, South Africa require nothing short of a second innings miracle to keep the series alive.
Johnson worked tirelessly with his bowling coach, Troy Cooley, during the Australian summer to restore arm height and rediscover the bounce and conventional swing he lacked for the majority of 2008. The results have been plain for all to see on this tour of South Africa, and particularly so on the second day at Kingsmead. Johnson coaxed McKenzie into an edge to Brad Haddin with a shorter, angling delivery, then followed two balls later to remove Amla to a ball that swung sharply into the right-hander's pads. The South Africans were teetering at 0 for 2 just five deliveries into their innings. The collapse had commenced.
Johnson forged a superb new-ball combination with Hilfenhaus; the left- and right-arm swing befuddling the host batsmen. But it was surface movement, not atmospheric, that brought about the next breakthrough as Hilfenhaus, displaying brilliant powers of variation, cut back into the pads of AB de Villiers with a delivery that struck in line with leg-stump.
To that point, the flow of day two had largely been determined by the heavy overhead conditions. Whereas the Australians scored freely under blue skies on Friday, batsmen from both sides battled mightily in the swinging conditions of Saturday. It stood to reason, then, that when the clouds cleared in Durban in the hour before tea, Kallis and Duminy settled into something of a rhythm.
But the resistance would be short-lived. Johnson returned with a second spell every bit as venomous as the first, striking Kallis under the grille with a nasty bouncer, and bowling Mark Boucher with a yorker on the stroke of tea. He went to the break with the figures of 3 for 15, completely overshadowing the earlier deeds of his South African rival, Dale Steyn.
Steyn tenderised, then filleted, the touring batsmen in what was certainly his most ferocious spell in the home-and-away series against Australia. Though wicketless in his first spell, Steyn was nonetheless responsible for unsettling the Australian middle order - at one stage striking Michael Hussey flush on the helmet, and following with several choice words - to pave the way for his fellow seamers to strike. He was rewarded after the lunch break with the final two wickets of the Australian innings. A virtuoso performance.
Australia resumed play at 303 for 4 but, due largely to Steyn's efforts, could only advance their score to 352 all out. The Australians seemed set for an imposing total after surviving the first hour unscathed, but undermined their efforts on day one by losing four wickets after the drinks break - including three in the space of six deliveries - to an array of loose strokes.
It mattered little. Johnson's heroics with the ball papered over the cracks of Australia's flawed batting performance, and provided the tourists with a generous 214 run cushion at stumps on day two. With South Africa effectively eight down, it seems that only an act of God or Steyn can deny Australia in Durban.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo