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As England discovered in the Ashes, knowing what to expect from Mitchell Johnson is a different matter to countering it
February 13, 2014
'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 hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Plays of the day from the fourth ODI between Australia and South Africa at the MCG