Debutant Cummins outshines Johnson
Pat Cummins and Mitchell Johnson began the first day at the Wanderers from opposite positions in every way. They shared the new ball, Cummins running in from the south end and Johnson from the north, Cummins seeking to prove that at 18 he was not too young for Test cricket, Johnson at 30 hoping to show that he still had something to offer.
They each took one wicket in the day, but it was Cummins' performance that was more encouraging. Johnson was one of the men who entered this match looking over his shoulder at the new national selector John Inverarity. He still should be. A tally of 34 wickets at 44.08 in the past year and a half is inadequate for Johnson, who is supposed to be Australia's spearhead.
Before the match, the captain Michael Clarke let out a Freudian slip in saying that Johnson had potential, before correcting himself: "Well, potential is not the right word, he's played for long enough". Perhaps Clarke meant nothing by it, but maybe there was a subtext. After 46 Tests, Johnson is still viewed as a man who could be so much more. But at 30, will he ever fulfil his potential?
On the first day in Johannesburg, Johnson was - again - frustratingly inconsistent. There were some fine deliveries early in the day, including the inswinger that nearly had Hashim Amla lbw, and the ball that seamed away and took the edge of Graeme Smith's bat. Equally, there were many bad balls, particularly as the day wore on. Johnson bowled too straight, targeting the pads of both right-handers and left-handers, or too wide.
If it seems churlish to criticise Johnson on a day when South Africa were bowled out for 266, it is worth noting that many of the wickets fell late in the day to poor strokes. It is also worth noting that after 12 overs, Johnson had 1 for 60; after the same amount of overs, Cummins had 1 for 26. Importantly, Cummins kept challenging the batsmen through the day, his high leap at the crease hardly flagging.
It is difficult to judge Cummins on one day, but he was full of raw pace and enthusiasm. In his opening spell he bowled full and swung the ball a fraction, and was unlucky not to have Jacques Rudolph's wicket when an inside edge rocketed past the stumps. His maiden Test wicket came with a full outswinger that Hashim Amla edged to slip where Ricky Ponting, twice Cummins' age, took the catch.
His first ball to Jacques Kallis, Test cricket's fourth-highest run scorer, was a good bumper. Later, he grazed the helmet of AB de Villiers with another well-directed short ball. The bouncer, Cummins said after play, is a good way to assert yourself. Not that he overdid it. If anything, he erred on the side of bowling too full, which for a man aiming to swing the ball is not a bad thing.
"I felt a bit nervous," Cummins said after play. "It was good that we bowled today so I didn't have another day to mull over my debut. I was a little nervous but I got over it pretty quickly."
Cummins didn't appear nervous. On the contrary, he looked like a natural at Test level. If he continues to handle Test cricket with aplomb, and assuming his body is strong, he provides the new selection panel with an interesting conundrum ahead of the Test series against New Zealand, which begins just over a week after the side returns from South Africa.
Should Ryan Harris prove his fitness, and if Peter Siddle keeps up the hard work that earned him three wickets on the first day in Johannesburg, Inverarity and Co. will have four fast men to squeeze into three positions. Combined with the other young talent in Australia, it leaves Johnson in a precarious position. The former captain Steve Waugh believes a mid-1980s approach is required from the selectors.
"We've got some really good young players coming through," Waugh said on radio in Australia on Thursday. "[James] Pattinson from Victoria looks an outstanding prospect and then you've got Mitchell Starc and a host of others out there. We've got the talent in Australia.
"It's now about the selectors rebuilding for the next couple of years and saying these are the guys we're going to stick with, much the same way they did with myself and a few others back in the mid-80s. It took a while to get some success but they showed faith in that team and that was rewarded in the long run. Once they pick a player now they've got to try and stick with those players."
Is one of those players Johnson? Is one of them Cummins? Is there room for both?
Late in the day, both men considered going for a catch when AB de Villiers miscued a pull off Siddle. The ball lobbed over the head of Johnson, at mid-on, but he was beaten to the ball by Cummins, who sprinted from mid-off and took a terrific catch. Johnson was left to look behind him and wonder what could have been. It might not be the last time he is overtaken by a younger bowler.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo