Mitchell Johnson's phoney war
Ahead of his third Ashes series, Mitchell Johnson is saying all the things an Australian fast bowler is expected to. He speaks provocatively about bouncer wars, unsettling Jonathan Trott and breathing fire at 155 kph, foreshadowing tomorrow's tabloid headlines at the same moment he is making them.
But there is a key difference this time that suggests Johnson's Ashes fortunes may be rosier in 2013-14 than the decidedly mixed returns of 2009 and 2010-11. Where once Johnson was caught up in the hype and emotion of the battles with England, now he is self-aware enough to know he is playing a role. This is not to say he does not mean what he says about Trott or bouncers. Instead, Johnson knows such thoughts are only useful so long as they are channeled effectively on the field.
"I guess there's been a lot of talk that we're going to just bowl 155 clicks, bowling bouncers every ball. That's all just media hype," Johnson said. "I know what I need to do, we all know our roles in the team, we're all different bowlers, I can't give too much away in terms of plan, but it's not going to be all-out bouncers, it's picking the right times and being smart.
"I'm not worried about the speed gun anymore. When you first come in you're trying to really rip it in there and you'll check it out. Occasionally you'll see what it is. During the one-day series in England I glanced up a couple times, see the pace and think 'it didn't feel like that'. So it's really irrelevant to me, it's all about my run-up, my feel, how the ball is going through. If I'm swinging the ball late and getting good carry, if it's not swinging conditions and I'm getting that good bounce then that's all that really matters to me, seeing it go through to the keeper."
Things will be less vexing for Johnson this time around in any case, for he has been freed from the burdens of leading the attack. The pace ringleader's role has passed jointly to Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris, allowing Johnson to simply concentrate on bowling fast, swinging the ball and aiming his occasional bouncers at a batsman's armpit.
"We've definitely got the experience in this attack now where we can all compliment each other, and if someone isn't going well at the time I think we can back each other up at certain times," Johnson said. "Just in the nets today Ryan said he was struggling a little at the start, our purpose of the session was to really get into game mode, so we just helped each other out through that. That's what we're going to do throughout this series."
Johnson's even-tempered demeanour has been aided greatly by a settled personal life. He and his wife Jessica are now parents, and the memories of family problems unsettling Johnson ahead of the 2009 Lord's Test have now receded well into the distance.
"It's a great moment to have a child. Really exciting," he said. "You can have those bad days, but I've got a photo album I just flip through and it just puts a smile on your face. That's been a big factor for me having my personal life in order, and really enjoying life. In the end it's just a game of cricket.
"We build these Ashes series up, but I've learned from that in the past you can build it up too much and get too involved and too emotional. For me it's another game of cricket and at the end of the day I can ring back home to my daughter or get back home and see my daughter. It's all in good balance."
Australia will hope that balance extends to the middle, where Johnson said he was also braced for whatever the Barmy Army had in store. In keeping with his newfound sense of what does not need worrying about, he even admitted to finding himself humming along to the tunes, whatever their lyrical content.
"In the recent one-day series it wasn't the full Barmy Army but I copped a bit of stick there and I just gave it back to them when it was the right time," he said, smiling. "In the end if I'm getting wickets and playing well I don't think I'm going to cop as much. If I do I've heard it all, experienced it all and I've learned how to block it out. But it is hard at times because the songs are catchy …"
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here