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February 13, 2014
#politeenquiries: 'Australia are coming for your babies'
Mitchell Johnson stopped short of invoking David Warner's infamous "scared eyes" line about England at the Gabba, but he could not disguise a sense of delight at wreaking havoc in South Africa once more, on a variable pitch he compared to that of Durban in 2009.
That of course was the scene of Johnson's most intimidatory spell previously in this country, but the impact of his first four overs at Centurion was every bit as sobering for South Africa, thrilling for Australia and exciting for any spectator who loves the sort of cricket that sets pulses racing. Behind the moustache, a mischievous, even childlike grin can pass across Johnson's face, the sort reflected by the growing number of youngsters who will now want to emulate his speed.
"I'm not trying to bowl 150km, but wickets like that and the ones we got in Australia, you're trying to bang it through there and be intimidating at certain times," Johnson said. "Hopefully youngsters coming through see it and want to do it as well ... there are less out there now. I think it's a great part of the game to have guys who can intimidate like that. Morne [Morkel] does it for them, I do it for Australia. You see the smiles on the kids' faces when you walk up the stairs. They really love it and so do I."
This day Johnson loved nothing more than to add another episode of pain to his long-running battle with Graeme Smith. Where in 2009 Smith twice suffered a broken hand courtesy of Johnson's speed, this time it was his ego that was fractured by a short ball he could neither play nor avoid, looping a catch to the slips. Not for the first time, Johnson suggested he had exhumed old doubts in Smith's mind.
"It's nice when a plan like that comes off and like I said earlier when I got here [in South Africa] it definitely is in the back of his mind what's happened previously," Johnson said. "He's done so well for his country and you just never know, but it was just one of those balls that took off. The wicket when I was batting felt like Morne was really getting the ball to go through, so it was just one of those good balls.
"It is something I will keep trying to bowl, it was one of my plans to bowl that short ball and I didn't really get a chance to swing the ball away from him. The first ball I bowled my plan was to go wide of the crease and get that angle, so we will have to see what happens in the second innings."
Another delivery that pleased Johnson was that to Faf du Plessis, arguably an even more fiendish ball than the one to account for Smith. Not as short in length, it leapt at du Plessis, who could offer only a bat raised in self-preservation and an edge to Michael Clarke. After another over Johnson was spelled, in keeping with the bowling coach Craig McDermott's preference for shorter bursts.
"It took off - it did surprise me as well," Johnson said. "I just felt like there was something going on with that wicket. It was a little bit like Durban a few years ago where it was just really skipping off. It did fly to Michael Clarke in the slips and he took it really well. If I can keep producing balls like that I'll be pretty happy.
"I'm not unhappy that I didn't bowl, he brought me back on pretty early afterward. Short spells have worked for me in the past, if you look back at the summer that's what worked for me, I don't think now I am going to bowl seven-over spells. Even if things are going well, we've still got to be smart about it and keep me fresh so I can keep bowling fast."
While the reactions of younger watchers stayed with Johnson, he was also regaled at times by familiar heckling from the boundary's edge. He admitted to offering the occasional retort, all part of the intimidator's role he has taken up with such relish in recent times, a considerable departure from the introspective and gentle soul he can be off the field.
"I can't really say what they were saying, nothing different to any other times I've been here," he said. "I did give a little bit back, I did say to a few of the guys out in the pool maybe they should use the toilet, they'd been sitting in there for a while.
"The role I've taken in this team is to be the aggressive bowler. That was my role in Australia and that's my role here. I think I've enjoyed it definitely, and when the wicket suits just like that ... I didn't think it would swing that much so I bowled a few more shorter balls. So it's just weighing up what the wicket's doing and what the opposition's doing as well."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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