Left-armer starts ahead of state team-mate Noffke May 9, 2008

Johnson holds the upper hand in pace race


Mitchell Johnson will return to the Caribbean expecting a bigger workload than he received during the 2007 World Cup © Getty Images
 

In theory Mitchell Johnson and Ashley Noffke are competing for a fast-bowling place in the West Indies. The reality is different for the Queensland team-mates.

Johnson would be devastated if he wasn't picked for the opening Test from May 22 after being a fixture over the summer. When thinking about the tour he is as relaxed as any bowler can be when there are persistent threats from further down the queue.

"It was a big summer, my first playing Tests, one-dayers and Twenty20," Johnson said as the pre-tour camp wound up in Brisbane. "I wouldn't say I'd nailed a spot there, but it's given me a bit more confidence playing out the summer. I feel pretty confident that I can keep continuing my form."

For Noffke, who is going on his third senior tour, the initial aim is to play a game. Any game. Johnson, Brett Lee and Stuart Clark, who is a menace on the wearing surfaces expected in the Caribbean, are ahead of Noffke and there is only one practice match before the three Tests. Noffke is not in the one-day squad, so he may fill a sideline role like the one Johnson performed during the World Cup.

While Australia eased to a third consecutive global triumph last year, Johnson was camped in the nets throughout the Caribbean. Only occasionally in the West Indies do the practice facilities mirror those in the middle so when he lands he will start with a conversation with Brett Lee.

"Hopefully he can point me in the right direction because he's toured there before," Johnson said. "I'll just take it day by day." His main memory of the conditions was it was very hot.

His recollections of the past summer, when he made his debut against Sri Lanka and held his spot throughout the India series, are more cohesive. Ricky Ponting is impressed with Johnson's left-arm attributes and he gave him an average of 42 overs a game during his opening six Tests. He captured 24 wickets to finish behind Lee's 40 and ahead of Clark's more economical 21.

"It's pretty hard to get the ball out of my hand," Johnson said. "I probably don't want to do it [bowl long spells] all the time, but if Ricky needs me I'll bowl."

One of the most memorable aspects of Johnson's performances was his tendency to deliver a wide, full offering outside off stump early in his spell. For much of the summer he was trying to correct a faulty wrist position that prevented the ball from swinging in to the right-handers. It is something he is continuing to monitor, but insists is not a problem.

"I have been working on it, but I'm not going to go out in games and be too worried about it," he said. "If it's swinging, it's swinging. If it's not swinging, I will still be trying to hit the deck hard."

The thought of bowling to West Indies' main weapons, Chris Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, is also enticing. Johnson thinks the alteration in angle to the left-handers, a group which also includes Sewnarine Chattergoon, Ryan Hinds and Devon Smith, will help him achieve more movement through the air.

At the moment Noffke has much more simple aims. "I'd love to play a game, but that's out of my control a bit," he said. "It can be fairly difficult on a set tour like this. There's only one tour game at the start and I'm not sure what the set-up is going to be there."

It will be Noffke's second time in the West Indies after he went with the side in 2003, but a series of injuries followed the trip. He swept back into national calculations with an amazing season of 741 first-class runs and 51 wickets, a convincing haul that could tempt the selectors into using him as an allrounder at some stage.

"I hope I give them that option," he said. "My first-class statistics last year prove that. Whether or not their perception of me is the same, I don't know. I haven't had any sit-down chats with them yet. I hope I provide some different options."

Noffke's improvement over the past two seasons has led to him feeling reborn as a batsman and finding a niche with his right-arm fast bowling. "There's nothing more pleasing than to see your name with the guys I am travelling with," he said. "The reason I am there is because of top-quality performances for Queensland." Unfortunately for Noffke, the same applies to Johnson.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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