South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 2nd day February 13, 2014

Johnson preys on fresh victims

As England discovered in the Ashes, knowing what to expect from Mitchell Johnson is a different matter to countering it

'Enjoying my role as the aggressive bowler' - Johnson

"I knew what was coming, but could do nothing about it."

With these words, Ian Botham described facing Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in the fractious English summer of 1992. Well after it was established that Pakistan's pace duo were masterful at moving the old ball, England continued to collapse to it. If anything, the slides became more dramatic as the series went on, the knowledge of previous implosions fixed in the minds of both hunter and hunted, and culminating in a hiding at The Oval.

Mitchell Johnson's thrilling, terrifying and utterly compelling burst at Centurion carried a similar whiff of the familiar. He had done all this before, in full public view, against England in the Ashes. He was bowling to South Africa, the best team in the world, packed with players who had faced Johnson plenty of times before. And there was nothing subtle or secretive about his method, all furious pace, sharp bounce and plenty of menace from that powerful, slingy action.

But for all that was known about Johnson, and Australia, and for all they had boasted of claims to being the best attack in the world, the moment of collision still hit South Africa's batsmen with shocking and unexpected force. The bowling coach Craig McDermott had threatened that Johnson was capable of improving upon the torment he inflicted upon England, an outlandish claim considering the 37 wickets he had plucked. Yet by the close of play McDermott's words rang true - not once during the Ashes had Johnson dismembered the England top order in quite the manner he did so here.

Much of Johnson's value against England had been in how he completely unnerved the tail, after disciplined work by Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon and Shane Watson to winkle out the top order. This time, however, Johnson cut through the world's most-vaunted batting line-up almost on his own, opening up a wound that not even the singular talent of AB de Villiers could adequately dress. South African pride in their Test team is considerable, but the usually boisterous gathering at Centurion was reduced to stunned, awed silence.

Johnson did have some helpful history to call upon. His efforts in 2008-09 against Graeme Smith and company had first announced him as a potentially irresistible force, breaking hands and faces as well as wickets. Certainly Smith took on a haunted, fidgety visage when preparing to face up to Johnson, fully aware of the pummelling his digits had taken in the past. The captain, Michael Clarke, capitalised on this, posting a backward short leg and a packed cordon, while exhorting Johnson to whir in at his fastest.

What followed was the kind of brief exchange that Johnson had previously with Jonathan Trott in Brisbane. His first ball thudded into Smith's thigh and looped to Alex Doolan under the helmet, too quick for the captain's bat. His second was shorter, straighter and, unless the speed gun is to be believed, faster, angling sickeningly towards Smith's head well before he was ready. Initially, Smith shaped to hook, then to defend but succeeded in neither. His feet were off the ground as the ball looped off the bat handle, and his head soon bowed as Shaun Marsh took a decent catch.

Such ugly dismissals stay in the minds of batsmen, whether they be the one dismissed or his team-mates who watched it. Alviro Petersen was a witness at the other end and there was something involuntary about the panicked swish he offered in Johnson's third over, offering a simple edge to Brad Haddin. Around this time, Kevin Pietersen tweeted from his couch in London: "When you facing someone as quick as Mitchell, your instinct occasionally makes you do things you shouldn't.. PACE causes indecision!" It was the first thing Pietersen has said in months that Alastair Cook would have to agree with.

A finer delivery was still to follow. Faf du Plessis may have scored few runs in recent times but to Australians he is still the unflappable debutant who confounded them with his dead bat and calm countenance in Adelaide and Perth in 2012. Johnson duly conjured a shortish ball that spat and seamed, catching the shoulder of du Plessis' bat before he knew it had arrived and skewering to Clarke at second slip. An exultant "F*** off Faf" was heard through the stump microphone, as Johnson's brutality brought Australian blood-lust to the surface, much as it had done in Brisbane.

Three for 23 then, and South Africa shattered. Peter Siddle chipped in with an excellent spell to subdue Hashim Amla, who was struck a painful blow on the arm by Johnson before he succumbed lbw - another nod to McDermott's desire for a fuller length. Though de Villiers fought, with momentary help from JP Duminy, these early incisions were deep ones. Johnson's hold on proceedings would be enhanced by a magnificent running catch to reward Nathan Lyon for tempting Duminy and then a ball rather wasted on the porous forward defence of Ryan McLaren.

It is too early to know exactly how this battering will play on South African minds. They may be capable of moving past it, and summoning an effective method against Johnson. But like Botham, they knew what was coming and could do nothing about it. Johnson now knows this too, as he did against England. He will kill again.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 15, 2014, 17:18 GMT

    I may have said this on another Johnson story during the ashes, but as a West Indian, I LOVE good fast bowling. I've always respected Steyn, he is as wily as they come, but there is something about the fear and terror that Mitch brings to the table that is unparalleled. I watched all 5 matches in the Ashes, and the highlights of this one, and you left with a breathless awe at the powers being wielded by Johnson. Take nothing away from the rest of the team, but his perfomances in the last few matches have shown how much difference one person makes.

  • Andrew on February 15, 2014, 1:21 GMT

    This was an amazing performance from MJ - even though after the last Ashes, it shouldn't be. I could understand England wilting under an MJ led attack - they had played on docile pitches for most of the last 2 or 3 years & had very few encounters with sustained hostile & accurate fast bowling. They finally encounter it on pitches that gave some help to pacers & it was a recipe for disaster. So i get that. What I don't get - is what happenned here. This pitch ended up being a bit more docile than everyone first thought - yet MJ made it look like a minefield. Yes the Saffas have a great batting line up (even minus Kallis), but importantly these guys grow up on fairly fast bouncy pitches - so should of been able to cope. The Poms top order showed far more spine than the Saffas top 7 (tail was way better than Poms). The only time the Poms were worse than this was @ Adelaide Oval. Plenty of time for the Saffas to adjust - but either way, was still a massive shock to me!

  • Dummy4 on February 15, 2014, 0:37 GMT

    MJ is one helluva fast bowler. Rippling muscles, brawny mustache and aggressive one-liners rubbing salt into his wounded victims. But the fact that he has become such a menace needs a bit more explanation than carrying over his momentum of ashes triumphs. He has developed into a matured, fearsome fast bowler. As the greats always say, there comes a time in the lives of a great sportsperson when the game/match (be it tennis or cricket) is won in the minds before its won in from of the crowds. For MJ, the opposition team are outwitted and scared in their minds that dulls their otherwise professional ability and experience to play pace or fast bowling. One cannot forget that SA has the best fast bowlers currently in their den and their batsmen should be benefactors of having steyns and morkels, yet their inability to counter MJ's pace is baffling. Well its not baffling because its not a fast bowler they are playing against but its the personality of MJ and that dimension is unmeasurable.

  • Dummy on February 14, 2014, 14:48 GMT

    SA hire Sunil Gavaskar or Sir Vic as Batting consultant....

  • Leon on February 14, 2014, 14:34 GMT

    MJ in career best form and ATM is the most frightening bowler to face in world. His form will obviously trough & peak over time & I'm interested to see where his extended performance level will be. Remember also his earlier form plummet coincided with much publicised problems in his personal life.

    I still think Wasim Akram was the best left-arm quick ever, vividly remember how his pace, control & late swing had Michael Slater in all sorts. Plus, for nearly half his career he also unknowingly had Diabetes.

    Shoab Akhtar was very quick & sorted out Hayden early on 1 tour of Oz & he was a class opener. But he had the problem of needing a very long run-up to maintain good rythm & he tired badly over a day in the field.

    Steyn's figures despite illness are impressive. From experience, illness makes it a real struggle to hit the delivery stride with energy. Plus the past has shown he works his way into a series.

    Im an Aussie btw so no bias :)

  • Andrew on February 14, 2014, 13:57 GMT

    It is interesting how the reinvention of 1 player can change a team who were smashed in India and beaten well in England into the form side in the world in a matter of a few months. I have read how Australia are not a 1 man team but, aside from a new coach, I believe that they are just that. If Pattinson or whoever played instead of Johnson there would simply be no fear factor and the opposition would just wait for the loose balls. Johnson doesn't allow you to do that. He has made players simply survive and then try to attack the others. Take Nathan Lyon - this time last year he couldn't buy a wicket and now, often bowling a negative line around the wicket, he is taking wickets regularly. Johnson is blowing sides away in double-quick time as well which means that the usually susceptible Harris has been able to play every test without breaking down. The Aussie batting is also only a cut above average and I cannot comprehend how Smith has scored 3 hundreds in 4 Tests - underestimation?

  • Reagan on February 14, 2014, 12:18 GMT

    One of my all-time favourite Australian cricketers is Adam Gilchrist. Superb player and personality. Within recent years I started following Mitchell Johnson closely. He too has become a marvellous player. I wish him nothing but extended success. I know he will destroy my West Indies batting line up, but I do enjoy seeing greatness like him play.

  • IFTIKHAR on February 14, 2014, 10:57 GMT

    It is too early to say how the SA batsmen will respond the next time around but i don't think they will surrender so easily.De Villiers showed Johnson was not unplayable and i expect Smith,Amla to step forward..These Proteas are a fighting unit,far braver than England and even if they lose here they will put up a fight to remember.

  • Paul on February 14, 2014, 10:47 GMT

    Superb article, thank you. Just shows you England were not quite as bad as made out down under.

  • Merv on February 14, 2014, 9:51 GMT

    Extreme pace is such a delight - denied to many of us around the world for long periods, with low, slow wickets. Thanks God Australia and SA still produce such bowlers. Legends are written around such truly fast bowlers, Larwood, Lillie, Thompson, Holding, Garner, Ambrose, Tyson, Akram and so on. They are not only respected, but actually feared by the acknowledged best batsmen in the world. As said, the difference between 140 km/hr and 150 is HUGE. There is nothing like it.

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