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The bowling of Mitchell Johnson has made many people sit up and take notice, leading to comparisons with the very best. South Africa have now had their first-hand experience and it has been a chastening affair
Firdose Moonda at Centurion Park
February 15, 2014
Cullinan: SA's batting looked out of depth
The closest Ali Bacher came to Sylvester Clarke's bowling was watching it, but the thought of the West Indian quick still makes him shudder. Clarke collected four five wicket-hauls on 1983-84 rebel tour and Bacher regarded him as the deadliest paceman around.
At tea time on Saturday, as Bacher contemplated the mess the South African line-up was in, largely at the hands of Mitchell Johnson, he made a confession. "I haven't seen bowling like that - I am talking real, lethal fast bowling - since Sylvester Clarke," he said.
Neither have South Africa, in a very long time. The last time a bowler claimed 12 wickets in a match against them was eight years ago when Muttiah Muralitharan did it in Sri Lanka which was the last series South Africa lost away from home. The only other bowlers to inflict the same damage on them since readmission are Matthew Hoggard, whose haul came in the 2004-05 series which South Africa also lost, and Shane Warne in 1994.
If you are the superstitious type, you may read something into Johnson's 12 at Centurion Park. Even if you are not, his performance will have an impact beyond statistics and you only needed to see the look in Bacher's eye to know that.
Johnson sliced through South Africa the way a blade goes through a perfect fillet steak. He cut through the quivering hunk of meat, showing no mercy to the tendons and muscle fibres that once held it together and exposed sparsely cooked flesh. If inflicted some serious bruises and whether those heal in the next five days will determine how well South Africa come back in this series.
They are not even sure how bad the eventual black and blue marks will be. It will take a few days for the scarring to really show, as it always does. So for now, it is brave faces, disappointment and the intention not to turn one defeat into a crisis. As Graeme Smith said, "we've lost a game of cricket." But it is how they lost that may give South Africa some sleepless nights.
Their top order, a quartet of strength, was decimated. Smith has been a Johnson-bunny before so he would have expected to be targeted and like he did against Zaheer Khan last year, he will have to find a way to get around Johnson. He only needs to think of how he combated Zaheer, by not closing the face of the bat too early, to realise it can be possible. Johnson is a vastly different bowler to Zaheer so the technical aspects will be different but if Smith consults with the right people they may be able to come up with something.
Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis showed signs of being able to adjust and both have the record to suggest their lapses will not extend into runs of poor form. Amla's mental strength has been tested since the day he started playing Test cricket. He has shown impenetrable qualities, proving doubters wrong all along and establishing himself as a figure of calm. That will come through again. Du Plessis' experience is far less but his two marathon innings to save games remain fresh in the mind. Hopefully his mind as well.
The concerns then are over Alviro Petersen and lower down, where JP Duminy has also struggled. Petersen was out to Johnson twice, the second time playing a less poor shot than the first but his tentativeness was still evident. When he endured a bad run against Pakistan it was a struggle to turn it around. He needs to make sure it does not this time. Duminy's talent is there for all to see but he fails to translate it time and time again. He has to work on not giving it away, something that is difficult when you know what is coming from the other end.
|They are not even sure how bad the eventual black and blue marks will be. It will take a few days for the scarring to really show, as it always does|
For that, the whole line-up only needs to look at Ryan McLaren. Felled by a delivery from Johnson, McLaren was bleeding from behind the ear and Smith said he looked "like he had been in a scrum with Victor and Bakkies," referring to the two South African lock forwards. That is the damage Johnson can do. No matter how much South Africa want to ignore it, they will not be able to. The image will be in the newspaper, the replays will be on television and YouTube and the memory will be in the mind.
The most important thing for them to do before they get to Port Elizabeth is develop what AB de Villiers said was an ability to "get over the fear of being hit." Maybe that will be scheduling a few sparring session with the Hekkie "The Hexecutioner," Budler, the home-grown WBA strawweight champion of the world. Maybe it means watching replays of the time Johnson struck Jacques Kallis in Durban 2008 until they no longer squirm at the visuals and realise that if this country's best cricketer could wear it, so can they. Maybe it is just about more time to prepare for the inevitable.
And the batsmen are not the only people Johnson will have left his mark on. The bowlers, particularly Dale Steyn, will be watching him in envy. Before this series the battle between Steyn and Johnson was seen as the one which would headline the contest. After one round, Johnson is well ahead of Steyn. South Africa's spearhead did not bowl badly - far from it - but he was not the main attraction and that is something he will not be used to.
His supporting acts, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, were also backstage characters. Morkel is used to that, having being South Africa's unheralded hero on many an occasion but Philander may not like it.
He has not reached No. 1 by accident, and could be back to the fore as soon as next week. He will be desperate to lift, if only to show that he is still the top ranked bowler in the world, despite what Johnson did to South Africa over the last four days and not, as one Australian smirked "as much of a No.1 as South Africa's team is at the moment."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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