Is Mitch the difference between teams?

2009-08-12 00:00

THERE was much speculation before the Ashes got under way as to the role Mitchell Johnson would play in this much anticipated series. Based on his impressive performance in South Africa at the beginning of the year, many of us believed that he could well be the difference between the two sides on English soil. However, by the third Test match, Johnson had us all scratching our heads, wondering how it was possible for him to go off the boil in such dramatic fashion.

A few months before, Johnson had indeed been the difference between Australia and South Africa in the series here. Despite being relatively inexperienced, Johnson shouldered nearly the entire Australian attack, which had been seriously depleted due to injuries and retirements.

The collective experience of Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus was a mere handful of Test matches and yet they dominated the South African batsmen with Johnson leading from the front.

Johnson was quick to make his mark, showing just what an aggressive bowler he is with impressive pace and swing to boot.

As a left-hander, Johnson has the advantage of being able to move the ball across the right-hander and also back into them at significant pace. We saw how this created indecision for the South African batsmen, who were unsure whether to play the ball or to leave it. With deliveries up to 150 kilometres an hour, there was little time for them to decide and many of our players, in two minds, induced edges to the keeper.

Despite the fact that Johnson arrived in England with relatively little Test experience, he still came with an enormous reputation as Australia’s bowling trump card. He battled in the warm-up games, but the Australian selectors appeared unconcerned and confident in his ability to lead the attack in the Test matches.

As the first Test match unfolded, however, Johnson appeared to have lost it completely. He had no control over his swing, and his line and length, so disciplined in the past, deserted him. The English batsmen laid into him and carved him to all areas of the ground.

Johnson, who should have been Ponting’s destroyer in chief, looked in tatters and his captain appeared understandably concerned. Ponting, to his credit, did everything to help him. He tried to give him more protection in the field and more overs in the hope that he would regain his rhythm, but in vain. The runs kept flowing for England and Ponting was a worried man. With just two Test matches to go, and England one up in the series, Johnson must have been sure he would be dropped.

But Ponting and the selectors took a brave decision, persisting with Johnson for the fourth Test at Headingley. I believe by keeping faith in him, despite his dismal performances, Johnson’s confidence received a much-needed boost. His impressive display at Headingley gave him the chance to repay the (no doubt very relieved) selectors for the faith they had shown in him.

Johnson’s performance at Headingley reminded us that he is a classy bowler. The Australian support bowlers rallied round him and produced an emphatic victory.

Now Andrew Strauss will be the concerned captain. Mitchell Johnson back in form, bowling with renewed confidence and vigour and finally with wickets under his belt, will be a formidable challenge for his batsmen at the Oval.

It’s been a roller-coaster ride for Johnson in the series so far, but he might have what it takes to be the difference between the two sides. Will he prove it in the final Test match? It’s an enthralling prospect.

 

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