Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane, 4th day November 28, 2010

Struggles continue for demoralised Johnson

Great teams have bowlers who can wrench a handful of breakthroughs on extremely tough days, but "Johnson's attack" is not at that level

If you want to know how Mitchell Johnson is feeling look at him after he's let the ball go. He's in good shape if his eyes sparkle when he peers at the batsman, and his bowling is on the rise if he's confident enough for follow-up words in his follow-through.

When his head drops as he turns silently to return to his mark, he's in the early stages of serious torment. After four days in Brisbane his only extended period of relief came when he wasn't required to do anything on Friday.

Australia now understand the traditional experience of touring teams in Brisbane after they managed only one wicket in three sessions - and it went to the part-timer Marcus North. Johnson was a key contributor to the group malaise in a worrying contribution for this Test and beyond.

The Gabba used to be Johnson's full-time home and it was on a flat surface like this in a Sheffield Shield final that he claimed 10 victims for the match and started heading towards the Test team. Now it is a foreign field, like the ones in Mohali and Bangalore on which he struggled for long periods last month.

In this incarnation Johnson is the attack's front man who can't lead. He has no wickets for the game while giving away 131 runs in 33 overs. The lack of faith in Johnson's bowling, and himself in his action, even seems to be seeping slowly into Ricky Ponting's mind.

Ponting has been a huge supporter of Johnson but gave him only eight overs in the first 69 of the second innings when Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook were chipping off the deficit. Australia were desperate for wickets but Johnson, and also Shane Watson, were used mostly as fielders.

As the new ball approached Johnson was given a decent spell without delivering anything particularly menacing. His best moments came with a couple of scary bouncers to Strauss in the morning, but by the afternoon he was being pulled without fear by Cook. The speed gun said he was operating around 140kph, but he was being treated like a medium-pacer.

Johnson scored a century and captured a five-wicket haul for Western Australia last week, but has shown no semblance of serious form this week. He hasn't been awful, like he was at Lord's last year, just consistently below par. There is always the threat of a sudden turnaround for Johnson, but the stage that was most reflective of his mood arrived before tea.

After Jonathan Trott cut him over gully, Johnson kicked the ground in frustration. In his next over it was Cook's cut for three that sent Johnson's hands to his hips before his right hand rested on his forehead like the first tingles of a migraine. When Trott drove through cover Johnson waved his arm away and turned around without a mutter.

Every bowler loses their way, but at the moment Johnson doesn't even know how to return to solid ground. And when Johnson is suffering with the ball, his other skills down tools in sympathy. He dropped a tough chance off Strauss on 69, which followed an 18-ball duck yesterday.

The Australian cordon, in which Ponting stands, tried to lift him, clapping loudly when he delivered three balls outside off for Trott to leave. Johnson is a man who needs support and there were was little else to cheer. He knows Doug Bollinger wants a Test spot and that his place is vulnerable. Johnson has never been dropped from the five-day side and the days before Friday's start in Adelaide will go slowly.

These are different times for the Australians, who are used to flicking away challengers at the Gabba. It has been seven years since they drew a Test here and 22 since they lost one. They began the day with a massive advantage but will face some testing hours on the final day, most probably to save a match they have been in charge of.

Australia have been unable to finish off games over the past two years, which is a sign of a moderate team. The bowlers' performance in the first innings increased expectations for the second, but there were no similarities. Peter Siddle remained energetic but didn't add to his six wickets on the opening day and hurt his arm attempting a difficult catch at fine leg.

Ben Hilfenhaus' shoulders had started to sag even before he bowled an offside wide with the new ball after tea, and Watson was loose at times in his eight overs. Xavier Doherty, the debutant spinner, was only dangerous when the left-handers attempted to sweep, and they were mostly happy to wait for him to drop short and be cut.

Doherty was picked instead of Nathan Hauritz because of the right-handers in England's middle order, but he is still waiting to see the No.4 Kevin Pietersen. In Hauritz's absence, North was given more work and his offspin was responsible for the stumping of Strauss. And that was it. Great teams have bowlers who can wrench a handful of breakthroughs on extremely tough days, but "Johnson's attack" is not at that level.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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