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February 15, 2014
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 hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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