South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 4th day February 15, 2014

Red-hot Johnson wants to get even better


On his way to the dressing room to celebrate a performance that will be remembered as much for its sheer terror as its 12 wickets, Mitchell Johnson was stopped by a man who understood his achievement better than most. Michael Holding, the great West Indian fast man, offered his warm congratulations. Having now collected 49 wickets at little more than 10 runs per victim in his past six Tests, Johnson is now very worthy of such company.

No-one is better placed to appreciate that than Australia's captain Michael Clarke, who has been a major beneficiary of Johnson's destructive power. Before Johnson returned to the Test team, Clarke was a leader with a record trending sharply down in 2013 and a man having to contend with critiques from his highly respected predecessor Ricky Ponting. Now he is sitting happily at the vanguard of what is quickly becoming the world's most feared team.

Asked about the effect Johnson was having on South Africa, Clarke broadened his response to include every follower of the game. Johnson's demolition of Graeme Smith's side at Centurion was a shot heard around the world, and a match to rank highly with anything achieved by teams away from home in living memory.

"I don't know what South Africa are feeling at the moment. I do know there is not one cricket lover around the world that doesn't know Mitchell Johnson is bowling at 150ks and executing his skills better than any other bowler in the world," Clarke said. "Whether you play the game or watch the game, you know. They have seen it against England. He showed it here again in different conditions. He's bowling fast.

"He's the fastest bowler in the world at the moment, there's no doubt about it, but his execution and his skills. It's amazing skill to be able to bowl fast but it's being able to hit that mark as often as Mitchell is. That's class, that's world class. Mitch has got the right attitude. He wants to get better, he thinks he can improve."

The hunger to seek constant improvement can be summed up neatly by Johnson's own recollection of his thoughts at the end of the first innings. Having scooped 7 for 68 and totally unnerved South Africa in the process, he turned to Clarke and reckoned he could get better second time around. True story.

"I said to Michael after the first innings that there was definitely room for improvement in that second innings," Johnson said. "You're always trying to improve as a player, trying to always get better. That's what I'm still going to be trying to do throughout the series. Playing away from home that's where you really can test yourself.

"We're up against the number-one side so I think that's good motivation for us to just keep getting better. I don't think you ever play a perfect game, but it felt pretty good out there today. It is something that I will look back on at the end of my career and be proud of that moment but for now it is only one Test match and we have two to come.

"We said during the summer back home that we want to get better as a team and for me personally I just want to keep that consistency going, keep bowling those short spells and keep that pace up. We bowled really well as a bowling attack today, I was really excited about how we bowled today and thought we stopped them in their tracks. When you have got someone like AB [de Villiers], who comes in when the ball is a bit softer and he really is a class player, I thought we tied him down really well and did a great job."

Central to Johnson's potency of course is the fear generated by his slingy action, capacity to generate variable bounce as well as high speed, and a left-armer's angle which always seems to follow the batsman when pitching short. "It's been a fairly big part especially on wickets that have suited that kind of bowling like it did out here," Johnson said. "I think that's why Michael declared early this morning, he saw there was enough there.

"When you have a look through summer I guess the Gabba wicket was nice and bouncy but when you take that away the Adelaide wicket wasn't at all, but what I have learnt over time I do have that belief and confidence in myself and I know what works for me. Credit to Michael as well for bowling me in those short spells and I am really enjoying that at the moment."

Among 12 wickets there were plenty of hellish deliveries beyond the capacity of any batsman to counter, yet it was one ball that did not claim a batsman that may stay in the memory longer than most. Having defeated Alviro Petersen, Johnson's first offering to Hashim Amla was short, perfectly directed and onto the world's most cultured batsman before he realised. The result was a clatter of grille and beard - without a helmet Amla may not have survived it. Queried on whether such a sight was as satisfying as off stump tilting back, Johnson held even his captain in awed suspense.

Said Clarke: "I'm actually interested in this answer."

Replied Johnson: "Yeah, so am I. It's a plan that I've come over here with, it worked in Australia and conditions like this suit. It's nice to be able to do that first ball when someone's coming in, the way he plays the game. You saw after that he smacked me for a couple of fours off the back foot, so it obviously didn't affect him too much.

"It's a nice feeling, from my point of view as a fast bowler. But it didn't get him out, so it didn't end up affecting him at all."

Amla, Holding and the rest of the world might beg to differ.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Richard on February 20, 2014, 16:12 GMT

    @ akshaykatyura - you are too soft for this level of cricket, mate. Its better you take up playing dollies.

    @ Sauron_Of_Middle_Earth - pleasant surprise to see a decent question from a decent fellow. I saw the 70's in person. I don't rate Holding as highly as others do. When judging your best, remember that many bowlers suffered debilitating injuries. Like Shane Warne's flipper, probably the deadliest delivery of all, Thommo was a much better bowler before he injured his bowling arm. Good judges in Ian Chappell and Ashley Mallett played with Thommo before his injury and they say he was close to 180km/h. Imagine that.

    The two best fast bowlers I have ever seen are DK Lillee and Malcolm Marshall by a long way. Many of them have been unplayable at their peak - Ambrose, Garner, Hadlee, Akram, Bond, Johnson - but to watch Marshall and Lillee at their best was a just a different level altogether. They were geniuses with the heart of a lion and I can't split them.

  • pete on February 19, 2014, 20:46 GMT

    "I think its partly down to England's pathetic batting that his stock has gone up that much"

    I think this is far from the truth. MJ in his current purple patch (hopefully sustainable) is drawing out the difference between the current generation of "great" batsmen and the truly great. Now we can see that amongst the current crop of SAF batsmen, that only AB and Amla are contenders, would Kallis have faired better? No doubt he was a magnificent player amongst the truly great, but age catches up with everyones reflexes, and although his experience would have helped, along with his natural ability, the fact that he was a little suspect in latter years against for example akhtar, leads one to doubt that he would have had the profound impact that he once would have. Bigger bats, shorter boundaries, excessive scheduling demands, and better prepared pitches has strongly favoured the batsmen. So we have had a ridiculous number of modern day "great" batsmen. Enter MJ the great exposer .

  • nalin on February 17, 2014, 15:10 GMT

    Johnson will attain greatness if he can play another 20-30 test matches and this is only if he manages the enormous repetitive stress on his body by playing all sorts of cricket such as t20. this also applies to Watson as well.

  • Lester on February 17, 2014, 9:29 GMT

    hang on @jimmyvida!! that's a bit of a mismatch...compareing those two with Johnson is a bit unfair on them!! they are decent but nowhere near the class of Johnson - for a start their max is about 142 compared to 155.... Johnson is the best pace bowler in the world currently - and they are a fair way down the list....good nonetheless but you get my point....

  • Channan on February 16, 2014, 18:45 GMT

    NZ wants to have Johnson go head to head with Boult and Wagner. I hope they prepare nice green,bouncy tracks like they are doing for India, and have paramedics standing by. Australia must get used to almost 'wides' all day as soon as new ball through.

  • ESPN on February 16, 2014, 15:47 GMT

    MJ has really an improved blower .. He is an terror on cricket field .. Players are getting intimated by his new look and aggressive approach I like the change in him it's good for cricket !!

  • James on February 16, 2014, 14:20 GMT

    That's some chip there old son, @stueyh1.

  • Dummy4 on February 16, 2014, 14:13 GMT

    johnson is on fire .. i like the way he bowled superbly done .. smith is realy worried about him

  • Muhammad on February 16, 2014, 12:57 GMT

    The thing about Johnson is his control is so brilliant...its almost a new frontier in fast bowling,an express left arm quick...sure Wasim was quick,very quick in 92 and before that as well as tough to pick up.His mode though was to use "brutality" to add to his art...Johnson though adds art to his brutality! Both methods require extreme skill and both are equally effective.It just might be the case that batsmen would rather face the great Was than the current Mitch..To scone Amla before he could react is going to have an effect on a fair few players in other countries not to mention possibly destroying Mclaren's test career.I have to admit as a Proteas fan that im loving every second of Johnson's performance...its great for cricket! Its also a chance for truly great players to shine.

  • Dummy4 on February 16, 2014, 11:27 GMT

    Special shout out to a great question from a younger Sauron_Of_Middle_Earth and some great answers from a more experienced kepler22b, David Buttle, CM1000, swells64, blah_blah, Biggus, Gerry_the_Merry, Meety, Pottering and others.

    Take a bow!

    This is why I read this forum. Not to hear smug and asinine remarks from biased supporters about which team is best, but to hear questions and opinions from those who can always be a home team fan but who just love cricket, and have valuable opinions to share.

    More of this please, and less of: "My team is best because it beat your team <insert scoreline here> in <insert year here> with <insert cherry-picked factor here>"

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