Rarely has one bowler so clinically dismantled and so comprehensively intimidated a Test team as Mitchell Johnson managed on perhaps the most remarkable day of his reborn Test career.
Johnson not only flattened the highly-rated South African batting line-up for the second time in three days to lead his team to a thumping 281-run win and record career-best match figures of 12-127 in the process.
The fearsome left-armer also ensured the world’s No.1 Test team now heads to the second Test in Port Elizabeth beginning next Thursday with an extra free day to contemplate their response, and the knowledge they are utterly ill-equipped to handle bowling of his calibre.
In fairness, few batsmen in world cricket – today or in the past – would know a failsafe way of dealing with bowling of a frightening speed, bloodlusting nature and totally remorseless execution.
It is fast bowling of the hostility and skill that has not been seen in the game since the murderous West Indian pace attacks of the 1970s to early 1990s terrified teams the world over.
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So emphatic has been Johnson’s return from what seemed the scrapheap of spent cricketers where he landed on his previous visit to South Africa a couple of years ago, he has now taken 49 Test wickets from his past six matches.
In routing South Africa for 200 with his 5-59 today, giving him match figures that bettered his previous career high of 11-159 against the same opposition in Perth in 2008, Johnson claimed another enduring place in Australian cricket history.
In becoming just the seventh Australian bowler to claim 250 Test wickets, he has achieved the milestone in shorter time – in terms of matches played, in his 56th Test – than all but three of that club- Dennis Lillee (48), Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne (both 55).
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As well as the wickets he collected and the fear he instilled on a pitch that became increasingly unfriendly as the game wore on, he landed some telling psychological blows on a clearly rattled and clueless opposition.
During the course of today, they included a frightful blow to the head of all-rounder Ryan McLaren who was forced to receive extensive on-field help after ducking into a bouncer that him above his right ear.
And not long after, he slammed a ball into the right hand – the bowling hand – of the world’s top-rated pace man, Vernon Philander.
South African skipper Graeme Smith conceded it was one of the most disappointing Test matches his team has been involved in for quite some time, and he acknowledged that Johnson was the difference.
“He bowled with huge intensity on a surface that suited his style of bowling, and he extracted everything out of it,” Smith said after the match.
Australia’s win, their sixth in succession and perhaps their most impressive of that streak stretching back to the first Ashes Test in Brisbane, places them in a commanding position in this three-Test series with their confidence riding high and South Africa’s in turmoil.
Indeed, the end of today’s Test came in suitably shambolic circumstances when Morne Morkel was run out at the striker’s attempting to complete a second run.
He would have been better served, though his team’s cause no more futile, had he chosen to remain safe at the non-striker’s end.
There was conjecture overnight as to whether Clarke would call a halt to Australia’s innings, a temporary reprieve for South Africa’s bowlers, before play on day four resumed.
But recent history and a measure of good sense pointed towards batting on for half an hour or so.
To get an updated gauge on the pitch’s behaviour. To push the already fanciful target out past the psychologically cruel 500 mark.
And to further annoy the South Africans by springing a change-of-innings upon them, to give their rival top-order batters the bare minimum 10 minutes to prepare and to remind them, unnecessarily, just who was calling the shots in this match.
But in just 15 minutes of batting – during which the Australians managed only two runs, neither of them from the bat – to convince Clarke there was nothing to gain from pushing on any further and that what the South Africans saw their own bowlers able to accomplish could only compound their trepidation.
Those fears were realised within Johnson’s first over, and not surprisingly it was Alviro Petersen who publicly announced them.
Petersen has shown no indication that he’s prepared to tough it out in the face of Johnson’s intimidating onslaught, and for the second time in the match gifted his wicket with a tame waft that produced nothing more productive than a thin edge.
His departure in Johnson’s first over set the scene for a reprise of the Australian wrecking ball’s battle with old rival Graeme Smith, a battle that lasted just two deliveries in the first innings and was judged emphatically in Johnson’s favour.
This one went the precise same distance, although Smith can feel slightly aggrieved and will doubtless look back on this match – which has lurched from one forgettable moment to the next from the moment he opted to bowl first – with nothing but involuntary shudders.
Having pushed tentatively forward to the first ball he received from the bloke who’s twice smashed his fingers and more recently dinged up his self-esteem, and the thick outside edge it yielded scooted through the empty fourth slip position to the boundary.
Next ball, Smith must have felt he was away as an almost half-volley length ball angled into his pads met the middle of his bat and it hurtled away behind square leg to where Alex Doolan – a novice to the bat-pad position – snared a stunning catch.
Smith stared at the ground, briefly looked to the heavens and then lumbered off knowing that when fortune turns, it can take a while to right itself.
From there, the mere sight of Johnson taking the ball and walking purposefully to the top of his mark was enough to send the South African batsmen into a resigned slump.
Hashim Amla showed some fight, standing tall on a couple of occasions and punching Johnson imperiously through the off side but it was a method that was always going to be fraught as the bounce emanating from the pitch remained as erratic as was Johnson’s bowling in a previous, long forgotten life.
Though it wasn’t Johnson who trapped him directly, rather Ryan Harris who momentarily dared to steal his new ball partner’s limelight with a gem of a ball that decked away just enough from Amla’s dangling bat to provide a simple catch to slip.
Pockets of mini-resistance followed, largely coinciding with those periods when player management and occupational health and safety regulations dictated that Johnson had to be rested.
But invariably, like the mechanical monster from the Jaws franchise, he would return and it might have the one appropriate moment for a musical interlude from the pesky in-house DJ had he cued the menacing shark theme each time Johnson reached the top of his run.