SA v Australia, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 4th day March 4, 2014

Warner, Johnson at peak of powers

Australia's success against England and South Africa is down to the arresting form of their most talented players - David Warner and Mitchell Johnson

In examining Australia's resurgence against England and South Africa, many possible catalysts can be tossed up for consideration. The arrival of Darren Lehmann as coach stands as one signal moment, and the collective hunger for success that had built up in Australian cricket over some years lurching between mediocrity and ineptitude offers another explanation. So too does the fact that in Australia and South Africa, Michael Clarke's team have largely found fertile conditions for their preferred approach to the game, favouring velocity with the ball, initiative with the bat and high energy in the field.

Yet the most fundamental marker of the team's success can be found in contrasting personal narratives for a handful of cricketers in each of the three countries. Australia's two most outsized talents, David Warner and Mitchell Johnson, are at a peak of fitness, motivation, skill and mentality that has allowed Clarke to unleash them at their very best. In contrast, England and South Africa have grappled with the reality of pivotal figures beyond their peak as players, leaders or team-men, time and tide having caught up with them.

It is quite a list, of those senior men reaching a moment of personal crisis or retirement realisation when confronted by Clarke's team. Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and now Graeme Smith have all passed from Test match view across these two series. Andy Flower, England's erstwhile team director, also slid from his role in that time. Australia, grown increasingly bold in their outlook as they witnessed the feats of Johnson and Warner, have meanwhile remained happily settled, all team members equally focused on the task at hand and not feeling any need to think beyond it.

This is not to say that Australia's show of strength has been the deciding factor in any of the decisions made. In Smith's case it was just one of many, from a young family with roots in two nations and a career now 12 years old, to the labyrinthine politics and distractions of leading a cricket nation of such diversity. Trott was overwhelmed by stress and dark thoughts he had largely been able to manage over his time in an England cap, Swann felt the increasing effects of a chronic elbow problem, Pietersen exhausted his state of détente with team management, and Kallis recognised the dulling of his reflexes even before battle was joined, leaving an enormous hole in his team.

Yet the sight of a hungry horde rushing headlong into one's path has the tendency to crystallise any encroaching desire for the quiet life. It has been Johnson and Warner leading that charge for Australia, playing a kind of muscular, intimidating cricket that is thrilling to watch and disheartening for an opponent unable to summon the resources to match it. On day four at Newlands, both men offered up passages of their most brazen play, no doubt providing Smith with a certain reassurance that he had made the right decision - so swift and sure were Warner and Johnson that only the most alert and committed of combatants could be expected to hold them.

Warner's finest batting of this match and series had already been and gone when he walked out to bat in the morning, his first-innings hundred the best and most complete since he compiled a first, against New Zealand on a seaming Bellerive Oval wicket in 2011. But the disdain he exhibited in crashing the hosts to all parts of a ground they had been accustomed to dominate on was still breathtaking. Among the most compelling qualities Warner can offer a team is the confidence he inspires in other batsmen. Morne Morkel has been terrifying at times in this series, but his treatment by Warner has made every other batsman think him a little more mortal.

For Smith, setting a plan to claim Warner's wicket has been perhaps the most maddening on-field exercise of his entire captaincy. The more Warner has matured, the more adept he has become at manipulating a field and a bowler to his advantage. Morkel is often criticised for dropping too short - against Warner the bouncer has often seemed his only option to prevent a boundary or a single. Similarly Smith has not been able to win through either attack or defence. The lopsided battle between captain and batsman reached its climax when Smith sent all nine fielders to the Newlands fence, only to watch Warner squirt a boundary fine of third man.

The only time Warner did not crash through Smith's fields was when JP Duminy pursued a line wide of the stumps into the footmarks with his part-time spin. This seemed more a matter of Warner stubbornly unprepared to fall for such a stratagem than a sudden aversion to scoring; after lunch normal service resumed, and the opener's familiar leap toasted his second century of the match. Instances of batsmen cracking more than 500 runs in a three-Test series are few. To do the trick in this series, on foreign territory, is an achievement Warner may never quite top.

Johnson has of course had a previous peak on South African shores, his 2009 series the ideal he was striving to return to when taking an extended break from the game in 2011-12. On both occasions his furious speed has been allied to accuracy, leaving batsmen with nothing loose on which to feed, and nowhere to hide. His command over Smith in this series has been near total, and it was fitting that the captain's final innings ended with a short ball, a fend and a catch at short leg - grateful no doubt to have avoided another broken hand from a Johnson bullet. Dean Elgar was then no match for a facsimile of the ball that castled Alastair Cook in Adelaide, pace and just enough movement to beat a groping blade before dismantling the stumps.

At 32, Johnson is older than many fast bowlers at their peak. But as Michael Holding has previously observed, the earlier break from the game and a wayward career before it leaves Johnson fresher than he might otherwise have been, and the better to accompany Warner on further ransackings of international opposition. Pondering how he and Johnson had met England and South Africa at an opportune moment, Warner recognised now was their time, a fruitful phase that will eventually meet its end.

"It's always handy when someone bowls 150kph, but I just think where we're both at in our stage of our careers, we don't go out there and think these guys are going to retire," he said. "Whether it was form that might have brought that down with Graeme Swann or Graeme Smith, we'll never know, all we can do is keep playing to the best of our ability. It's going to happen in time as well, India with Dravid and Laxman retired as well. We're coming to the age where the older guys are starting to push on a little bit and look for other careers after cricket."

Australia have numerous key components far nearer to the end than the beginning; Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris and Chris Rogers to name three. Yet Warner and Johnson were both followed up on day four by cameos from others who can ensure a continuity of success from one generation to the next. Steven Smith's impish talent took him to 36 runs from 20 balls as the declaration ticked near, before James Pattinson's pace and reverse swing accounted for Hashim Amla in lengthening evening shadows. For Johnson and Warner the moment is now, but there is enough around them to suggest the sun can shine on Australia's cricketers for some time yet.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • naeem on March 5, 2014, 11:46 GMT

    He should be tested first with spin bowling before declaring him a great.

  • Wesley on March 5, 2014, 10:31 GMT

    @Rich000 I don't think we should dampen the 78 legacy, the team that would have conquered the cricket world but for exile, a generation lost so maybe its a good thing not to tarnish that.

    Anywho there is still a test to win or draw here. Brigadier Block at the station.

  • richard on March 5, 2014, 9:48 GMT

    @ Protears......Yes we were mauled by India in India just like we mauled India at Home.Did you enjoy the Ashes series just finished in Australia.Just in case you missed the scoreline 5-0 to Australia.For you i would be more concerned about actually winning a series against Australia in South Africa.How long has it been.I cannot remember either

  • David on March 5, 2014, 9:41 GMT

    Some impressive shock and awe/blitzkrieg cricket from Johnson and Warner. Both men have been seriously maligned publically - Johnson with the tendency to bowl to the left and right, and Warner with all his 'despicable' behavior- and current form is partly a reaction to that. It will be interesting to see if their motivation goes beyond point-proving.

  • Wesley on March 5, 2014, 8:51 GMT

    @Rich000 like the snide remarks, and congratulations as I said earlier Australia played the better team cricket this series.

    Mitch is on form, Steyn came into the series with rib injuries and ended with a hamstring strain Managed to get 13-14 wickets never being fit. I guess you can say that Mitch is the better bowler being at similar career points one is measured with greats the other is a "what if" story. Morne has close to 200 career wickets but needs to perhaps go play in Australia to adapt his game. Vern has 120 wickets in 23 tests, that is being out of his league, to go with a batting average close to Duminy's but yeah he is out of his depth.

    I really honestly hope the Aussie bubble doesn't burst for your sake, it would be a travesty to watch the Mauling in India all over again or the past Ashes hidings, lets hope they can play well forever.

  • rob on March 5, 2014, 8:32 GMT

    @ Jason Bray: I've got a very tentative theory that Australian players are maturing later and playing longer than they used to. I think these days 32 is the new 28.

  • rob on March 5, 2014, 8:28 GMT

    @ Chris_Howard: Fair enough, but you can only play what's in front of you. It's not our fault Dale is struggling and you can't blame us for taking advantage of it either. These things happen. Having said that, I think I know what you mean. .. Still, I'll take it if we get it.

  • rob on March 5, 2014, 8:21 GMT

    @ HarrowXI: The very last line of your post has some very dark and serious under-tones. I'm scared. Really, really scared. I've got no doubt all our bowlers will be just as scared about that prospect as I am.

  • richard on March 5, 2014, 8:11 GMT

    @Protears.....a box of tissues heading your way.Morne such as great bowler.Has he got any wickets in the should be competitive against Windies, NZ and Sri Lanka .A tough call for who will win though.Phillander is certainly out of his league here.Would get a game for D Grade maybe.Johnson has outperformed Steyne so you are lucky that you were not facing Ahktar.Now that would have been a bloodbath....get over yourself and face facts that you were outplayed.....

  • Dummy4 on March 5, 2014, 7:45 GMT

    The article there mentions 3 of Aust older heads - Rogers, Harris and Haddin. None of these 3 have played the non stop international cricket over the years due to injuries, non selection etc. They are all mentally fresh and thus playing some of the best cricket of their lives. Aust over did the rotation policy with its quicks 12 months ago but watching players like Trott, Swan and Smith retire/ burn out reasonably young shows that giving players time off at some stage is definitely got some merit.