Johnson's found the inswinger
Batsmen the world over must be whispering to each other in hushed, worried tones. Word is spreading that Mitchell Johnson has found it. The second top wicket-taker in Tests last year, Johnson picked up his 63 breakthroughs without the key weapon of swinging the ball in to right-handers. Observers wondered how good he could be if he ever mastered that skill. The world is about to find out.
When he took the new ball in the first Test in Johannesburg, Johnson surprised the South Africans immediately with his newfound ability. Where once he had relied almost exclusively on his speed and bounce as the ball followed his natural angle, Johnson moved the ball in to Neil McKenzie and then found an outside edge from the left-hander Graeme Smith to give Australia the perfect start to the series.
"I don't know if it was the first or second ball that swung back into McKenzie," Johnson said. "My first two balls to Smith swung and obviously the second one got him. Being a left-armer bowling to a left-hander you've more chance of swinging it but it was actually really nice to see it swing back into the right-hander and swing back as much as it did.
"It put a bit of a smile on my face when it came about. I knew I'd done all the hard work in the nets. It wasn't like it just happened out of the blue. I'd been swinging it in the nets and it had been going well, and had my opportunity with the new ball and really wanted that chance to go out there and bowl with the new ball and swing it."
The opportunity to take the new ball was given to Johnson during last year's tour of the West Indies and was then withdrawn because he battled to control the swing. His existing armoury was enough to cause chaos every now and then, like when he skittled South Africa in Perth and grabbed 8 for 61. There haven't been any quite so devastating spells on the return tour but he is still the leading wicket-taker in the series with 12 at an average of 21.
Other breakthroughs were more telling in securing Australia's wins but few would have had Australia's coaching staff licking their lips like the perfect inswinger at Kingsmead that angled across Hashim Amla, pitched in line and straightened so dramatically that he was plumb lbw. Johnson said the key to discovering his new talent was relaxing and going back to basics.
"In the game situation I probably pushed a little bit too hard at times," Johnson said. "Now I've pulled it back just slightly and tried to be nice and tall in my action and tried to swing that ball. It does help when you get the new ball. I had my opportunities in the West Indies and I didn't swing it there.
"So I went back to the drawing board. I have worked a lot with Troy [Cooley] and he keeps in close contact with Dennis Lillee. Ben Hilfenhaus has given me a few tips as well because he can swing the ball. It's good when young guys like that can come through and have the confidence to speak to, I guess you could call me a more experienced member of the team."
It's easy to forget how experienced Johnson has become in a short space of time. He made his Test debut two summers ago but in a changing attack has quickly become its spearhead in South Africa. Few would call Johnson a senior bowler compared to the injured Stuart Clark but the two have exactly the same number of Test wickets - 90.
|Few would call Mitchell Johnson a senior bowler compared to the injured Stuart Clark but the two have exactly the same number of Test wickets - 90|
It's Johnson the Australians will look to as they aim for a 3-0 series clean sweep when the third Test begins on Thursday in Cape Town, where he will take the new ball against a fresh opening pair, Ashwell Prince and Imraan Khan. Incredibly, he has never bowled to the veteran Prince but has recent memories of the debutant Imraan, who made 100 against Australia in the tour match in Potchefstroom.
"In the first innings [Imraan] batted quite well," Johnson said. "In the second innings we tried a bit of a different tactic towards him, bowling a few more shorter ones and getting him stuck on the crease a little bit. We'll have a bowlers' meeting in the next day or so, and talk about those two players. It's going to be exciting for him in his first Test and hopefully we can make it hard for him.
"I haven't played against [Prince] and I haven't seen a hell of a lot of him but I know he's got a good record and he has been performing very well recently so you've still got to be wary of that type of player. He can probably bat anywhere. Maybe in the back of mind there's a little bit of hope that he doesn't want to be out there and maybe we can exploit it a little bit."
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo