The national debate as to whether it would be the potent or the profligate Mitchell Johnson that returned to Test cricket has been definitively settled with the all-rounder dominating the first two days of the Ashes summer with bat then ball.
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Honouring his observation from the first evening that scoring runs boosts his confidence when he takes the ball, Johnson unsettled and then dismantled England’s batting with old fashioned, hostile fast bowling that yielded him 4-46 and skittled the tourists for 136.
By stumps on day two, Australia’s 159-run first innings advantage had been stretched to 224 with all 10 second innings wickets intact and three days remaining.
But perhaps more significantly from the series’ perspective, the shortcomings he and new-ball partner Ryan Harris exposed in England’s top, middle and lower orders has spiked the home nation’s sudden hopes of wresting back the urn.
Johnson regularly clocked speeds above 146km/h and, on a ‘Gabba pitch that steadily quickened as the day progressed, he confirmed Australian suspicions founded during the final Tests of the previous Ashes series, that many England batsmen struggle against genuine fast bowling aimed at shoulder and head height.
Should empirical evidence be needed to validate this theory, the 6-9 that England lost in less than 10 overs at the height of the day’s carnage can be safely cited in peer-reviewed journals.
Far beyond the immediate impact wrought by this pre-tea pandemonium, the confidence it has instilled in the Australians’ plans to tame their recent masters and the ability of their front-line bowlers to carry them out has increased exponentially.
And Johnson, so often maligned for his wayward execution and nagging self-doubt, has been the architect of the revival.
While the collapse was technically triggered by Harris’s dismissal of Kevin Pietersen against the run of play, it was Johnson’s removal of Jonathan Trott on the last ball before lunch that set the Australians abuzz.
That’s because Trott, so regularly an embedded thorn in the hide of opposition bowlers, fell cheaply to a plan that was as carefully hatched as it was clinically delivered.
Zeroing in on Trott’s clear discomfort for chin music as well as his propensity to lurch towards off stump, Johnson aimed a well-directed lifter at the batsman’s rib cage and he obliged with a thin edge through to ‘keeper Brad Haddin.
The sight of Trott ducking, weaving and ultimately succumbing doubtless gave the Australian brains trust food for thought over lunch, in the knowledge that the ‘Gabba wicket was starting to offer steepling bounce.
Having also been thwarted by England opener Michael Carberry’s unwillingness to play unnecessary shots, which evolved into a refusal to play any shots at all, the Australians switched their attack to around the wicket and the match turned on its head.
The removal of Pietersen provided as much a reward for patient planning as it did relief for Peter Siddle who had grassed a caught and bowled offering when Pietersen was on eight.
And from there, the England innings unfolded as if scripted by Australia’s bowling strategists.
Johnson set up Carberry, who managed a solitary run from the last 37 balls he faced, with a couple of searing short balls followed by one that angled across the left hander and caught the bat shoulder en route to slip.
Ian Bell, regarded as England’s key wicket on the strength of his 2013 Ashes return as well as their best player of spin, tamely turned a bouncing delivery from off-spinner Nathan Lyon (also operating around the wicket) to short leg.
Next ball Matt Prior provided an instant replay albeit via an inside edge on to thigh pad and a decision reversal from the third umpire, and it was left to Stuart Broad – the hero of England’s bowling effort with 6-81 – to defy Lyon’s hat-trick.
But the reprieve was short-lived and the tourists’ final four wickets fell for 47 with only Broad (32) able to wage a meaningful counter-attack.
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cricket Australia
First Posted 22 November, 2013 8:35PM AEST