He has risen from the ashes of a career-threatening injury
Vadodara: His judgment questioned, Dennis Lillee was momentarily annoyed. “Yes, I still maintain he is a once-in-a-generation paceman,” he shot back.
Lillee was queried at a time, more than two years ago, when Mitchell Johnson was staring at a career crisis. A stress fracture of the back raised serious questions about the left-armer’s future. Would it be a brief career of unfulfilled promises?
Johnson’s problems did not deter Lillee. The pace legend stood by his prediction. “Johnson is very special, he will come back,” said Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai.
Lillee could be right. Johnson is humming again, opening up batsmen with his speed and swing. Will he follow in the footsteps of Alan Davidson?
At the Reliance ground here on Thursday, Johnson was all rhythm and skill. There was a rare flow to his bowling, his bright face reflecting his joy as he exploited a cross-wind.
Johnson will be a threat irrespective of the surface due to his air-speed and swing. He does not have to rely on the pitch. What most left-arm pacemen strive for, comes naturally to him. Johnson can swing the ball into the right-hander and take it away from the left-hander.
Yes, he can switch his line effortlessly.
However, on a distinctly sub-continental surface, Johnson also showed his versatility. He bowled cutters using the seam cleverly, brought in changes of pace, varied his length. The Indian batsmen, not allowed to settle down, were asked searching questions.
Interestingly, it was Lillee, his idol, who taught Johnson the nuances of seam and cut. The pace guru must have been grinning from ear to ear at his home in Perth.
The left-armers are in business. They can find great angles from, both, over and around the wicket. There has been much focus on this breed but bowlers of real quality are hard to come by. Johnson has to be the most promising among the younger crop.
He is quietly aggressive and is not daunted by reputations. Johnson already has a reputation for head-hunting key batsmen. The Aussie relishes the smell of competition.
Brett Lee and Johnson have immense possibilities as a new-ball combination in Test cricket as well. This right-left pair will be one of pace, moment and varying angles. Both are wicket-taking bowlers.
The post-McGrath period will not be an easy one for Australia since consistency and incisiveness are not easily achieved. Even when McGrath did not strike, the pressure created by him enabled other bowlers to be among the wickets.
But the indications are that the Aussies have the depth to gradually fill the breach. The tall Staurt Clark bowls a testing off-stump line and extracts bounce, Shaun Tait of the sling-arm action can move the ball at blinding speeds and then there are Lee and Johnson.
The Aussies should not be found lacking in both firepower and craft. In fact, the Aussies could have the problem of plenty if they are settling for a three-man pace attack in Tests. There could be furious competition for the third paceman’s slot.
What Johnson probably needs to develop more is the use of the diagonal delivery leaving the right-hander; Zaheer Khan sends down this ball with great skill. This will enhance the surprise value of the Aussie’s inward movement.
Someone with a whippy — a tad round-armish — action, Johnson bowls what batsmen describe as a heavy ball, he hits the bat hard. His short-pitched deliveries are deceptive and he does have the perfume ball. He can follow this up with a scorching yorker.
Australia has a great legacy in fast bowling. In this context it is surprising that only the great Allan Davidson and the injury prone beanpole Bruce Reid are the only left-arm pacemen to have picked up more than 100 Test wickets for Australia.
These are early days yet in Johnson’s career, but the chances are that he could have a distinguished career in both forms of the game. Importantly, he seeks his Test debut.
Johnson already has a reputation for head-hunting key batsmen
The left-armer will be a threat irrespective of the surface