Monday 23 October 2017

Johnson back in full Ashes swing

Mike Atherton

Whether Mitchell Johnson ever thought it would happen again so quickly, having been dropped for the first time in his Test career in Adelaide, only he knows. But at 3.0 Perth time, with the sun beating down unrelentingly and a gentle easterly blowing across the ground, he held up a 62-overs-old Kookaburra ball to every corner of his home ground and soaked in the applause of the crowd.

He had just taken his fifth wicket for the seventh time in Tests, that of Chris Tremlett, who had his off stump flattened by a ball that was fast, full and swinging, the final confirmation that Johnson's career, which had threatened to unravel during this series, was back on track, and with it Australia's Ashes challenge.

Moments later, the bowler had his sixth, that of James Anderson, a wicket that pleased him doubly because the two had engaged in "pleasantries" the day before. He led his team off then, the king of the Waca ring once more.

Breezed

Ryan Harris picked up three wickets and Peter Siddle one, but it was Johnson who answered Ricky Ponting's call at this, the most desperate of times. When, in the opening thrusts of the day, Andrew Strauss edged Harris on 16 and watched the ball sail between wicketkeeper and first slip, then when England's openers breezed to an opening partnership of 78 within the hour, it was clear to everyone at the Waca that Ponting's captaincy was on the line.

But that his players play for him has never been in doubt and Johnson's stirring response at least gave the Australia captain some breathing space -- an 81-run first-innings lead that was precious indeed after the recent drought.

It was another rousing day's play of cut-and-thrust cricket, occasionally bad-tempered but always on the right side of that, as we have come to expect in the Ashes. There was a hint of desperation, too, about Australia's batting in the final session, as they played frenetically to stretch their lead against a keen England attack that sensed the moment.

Australia's batting has never looked more vulnerable, with a technically suspect opener, one great player on the decline, another key middle-order player out of sorts and a rookie No 6 who is one place, maybe two, too high in the order. England sense this, which is why the deficit did not faze them and why Australia rarely gave the impression in the final two hours of a team out in front.

Phillip Hughes got past Tremlett's new-ball spell this time, but not much farther, as Steven Finn ran one across his edge; Ponting, too far across his stumps as he was in Brisbane, gloved down the leg side for a solitary run, waited for the review and left the stage to near silence; and Michael Clarke, never more frenetic and unsettled by pace, chopped an attempted cut on to his stumps.

It was left to Australia's firefighter-in-chief, Mike Hussey, and Shane Watson, characters and cricketers as different as chalk and cheddar, to take Australia to the close, their partnership a purposeful 55. Hussey owes Australia nothing this series, not that such sentiments will temper his ambition, but Watson owes his captain and his team something substantial and when he passed 50 late in the day, his cursory acknowledgement suggested that he was well aware of the fact. He knows the pitch is still playing well and recent fourth-innings scores here have been high, the past four of 300 and more.

Still, this was Australia's day, the more so after the stinging criticism of their efforts the day before and that of the selectors in fielding an unbalanced team.

It was a day that Australian cricket needed badly. They got it through Johnson, a cricketer who had looked recently not so much a "once a generation bowler" -- as he was described by Dennis Lillee -- as a ten-a-penny performer.

Left-arm speedsters who cannot swing the ball back at right-handers are fundamentally handicapped; no matter how quick, they rarely succeed at the highest level in the game, especially if batsmen are disciplined enough not to go chasing the ball, as England were with Johnson in Brisbane.

But any hint of swing immediately puts doubts in the batsman's mind and awakens the interest of the umpires. Suddenly, the possibilities are endless: the stumps become genuine targets, as are the batsman's pads, and even the harmless balls outside the off stump are tempting, given the dangers of leaving a ball that may swing back. Swing, then, to a left-armer is essential and until yesterday morning for Johnson, it had been infuriatingly elusive.

Thank goodness for Australia that it finally arrived, for with it came the first stirrings of life since England's batsmen had smothered their attack so effectively in Brisbane and beyond.

There were other factors, possibly. The breezy half-century he scored in Australia's first innings may have been important for a man whose confidence levels seem to rise and fall as quickly as the FTSE. As could the mini-spats with Anderson and Strauss, which helped to raise his hackles and which may have put him squarely in the match situation and the moment rather than thinking esoterically about his technique.

Who knows; whatever the reason, the Johnson that England have never seen before bowled Australia back into the match.

signs

Not that there had been many signs of what was to come in the first two overs of his morning spell, but in the next there were stirrings, as two balls moved fractionally away from England's left-handed openers. In Johnson's fourth over Alastair Cook was the first to go, pushing half-heartedly at a ball that started two stumps wide and curved the width of another, the thick edge just carrying to Hussey at gully.

Johnson was staring at England's in-form right-handed middle order now, a far less daunting prospect once the ball started responding to the messages sent from brain to arm to fingertip. Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood succumbed in similar fashion, leg-before to full, fast inswingers, Trott to the eighth ball he faced, Pietersen to his third and Collingwood to his 17th.

A ship that had been sailing along in a gentle breeze at 78 for no wicket suddenly found itself taking water on board in the middle of a violent storm at 98-5, once Strauss pushed at Harris and was caught behind. Johnson is a game-changing cricketer and this was a game-changing spell. (© The Times, London)

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