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Smith, Johnson and the birth of a rivalry

07 January 2018
Our voices

The Sydney Cricket Ground played hosts to a classic modern-day drama in 2009, with two legendary adversaries taking centre stage

About the Writer:
 @AdamBurnett09

Adam Burnett previously wrote for and edited at Inside Cricket magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and The Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK.

Mitchell Johnson could just about pinpoint the location of each voice echoing out from the SCG concourse.

Hit the stumps, bowl it straight.

The 2009 Sydney Test had come down to the final session of the final day, and the historic old venue was a vacuum of eerie tension.

Just thirty minutes earlier, the crowd had been in full voice.

Australia had claimed a ninth South African wicket, and for an uncertain 60 seconds, players and patrons suspected it was game over; in the first innings, a searing Johnson delivery had broken a bone in Graeme Smith's left hand, and it appeared unlikely in the extreme the Proteas skipper would bat again.

And while the Sydney crowd had come to life with the wicket of Dale Steyn, which ended a 90-minute stand that had brought the South Africans within touching distance of a draw, the roar that followed sooner after was positively deafening.

"Wait a minute," said Mark Nicholas in the commentary box with suitably scene-setting drama. "Wait a minute, what's happening?"

An injured Greame Smith walks out to bat at the SCG // Getty
An injured Greame Smith walks out to bat at the SCG // Getty

Making his way to the middle, his team needing to block out another 50 balls to survive, was Smith.

"We couldn't believe it," recalls Johnson. "We saw him walking out – and we weren't sure what was going to happen."

For the briefest of moments, the Australians even suspected Smith might have been walking out to acknowledge defeat and shake hands.

In fact, he was doing precisely the opposite.

"Deep inside," Smith said afterward, "I didn't really want to get out there."

***

Johnson actually broke Smith's hand twice during that home-and-away summer of 2008-09.

The Australian had just turned 27, had a dozen Tests behind him, and was still something of an unknown quantity on the international scene. South Africa, particularly, had seen precious little of him; a rain-affected ODI almost three years earlier, in which he'd bowled three overs for 28, was the sum of his action against them.

But three Tests in Australia, followed by three in South Africa, and Smith's side had seen more than enough of the express paceman, who tallied 33 wickets and 401 runs across a high-impact 10-week period.

Johnson celebrates dismissing Smith for a duck at the Wanderers in 2009 // Getty
Johnson celebrates dismissing Smith for a duck at the Wanderers in 2009 // Getty

It was on the back of those performances that Johnson went on to be named the ICC Cricketer of the Year for 2009.

While the Proteas became the first team in a generation to win a Test series in Australia, the men in Baggy Green had reversed the result on the other side of the Indian Ocean, and Smith had the scars to prove just how damaging Johnson had been.

So too did Jacques Kallis, whose blood had been spilled by the left-arm tearaway during a particularly savage spell in the second Test in Durban – the same burst in which he broke Smith's hand for a second time in the space of two months.

Smith retires hurt after being struck by Mitch Johnson during the second Test in Durban // Getty
Smith retires hurt after being struck by Mitch Johnson during the second Test in Durban // Getty

"I did enjoy playing against them," Johnson says of the Proteas. "Throughout most of my career they were probably the number one, number two team – we were back and forth with them.

"Kallis and Smith and those guys, you're coming up against great players, so I think that always made me lift."

***

No-one really knew it at the time, but the Sydney Test of January 2009 was also an unofficial passing of the baton from one Australian spearhead to the next.

In the Boxing Day clash that had concluded days earlier, Brett Lee had suffered a broken foot, meaning the 'leader of the attack' mantle had to fall onto someone else's shoulders.

The timing fit for Johnson, who had taken 14 wickets against the Black Caps in the first two Tests of the summer, before blowing the Proteas away with 11 in Perth.

Johnson celebrates dismissing Smith at the WACA // Getty
Johnson celebrates dismissing Smith at the WACA // Getty

As a kid, he had worshipped Lee, for whom the Melbourne match would prove an undeserved farewell to the Test arena.

There was little doubt Johnson had the pace and pugnaciousness to follow in Lee's footsteps, while he was also quickly swaying those who questioned his ability to maintain a consistent line and length.

And so 2009 began with the Townsville tearaway leading the line.

"I definitely felt things were clicking," Johnson says of that period. "I was more comfortable in the team and I felt that I was becoming more of a spearhead at that stage."

***

Johnson was on song in Sydney. He made 64 in Australia's first innings 445, before pinging Smith on the top hand an hour into South Africa's reply. The left-hander had looked in fine fettle, racing to 30 from as many balls, so the sight of him trudging off the ground, broken left hand dangling limply by his side, was a significant one.

Australia's new spearhead then had Kallis edging to first slip, ran out AB de Villiers with a direct hit from midwicket, and trapped JP Duminy lbw.

A lower-order stand helped the Proteas muster up 327, but when Ricky Ponting declared at 4-257 in Australia's second innings, a target of 376 meant there was only ever likely to be one winner.

***


The voices from the outer hit Johnson.

Hit the stumps, bowl it straight.

"And I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm bloody trying – it's not that easy'," he remembers. "I definitely felt the pressure."

Typically, despite having already won the series, the South Africans had refused to yield on the final day in Sydney.

Wickets had fallen at regular intervals – 1-2, 2-68, 3-91, 4-110, 5-166 – but four batsmen had soaked up more than 90 balls each to ensure the possibility of a draw remained.

No-one, not even Smith, knew if he would actually come out to bat with a broken hand if the tourists found themselves nine down in the closing stages; truth be told, he'd come to the ground without his playing whites.

An injured Smith plays a one-handed defensive shot // Getty
An injured Smith plays a one-handed defensive shot // Getty

But as the hours ticked by and his teammates' resilience refused to wane, Smith found himself seeking out a spare pair of pants, and borrowed a shirt from Kallis and a pullover from Paul Harris. With the prospect of batting becoming a reality, he opted for injections in his troublesome right elbow.

Meanwhile, the wicket was breaking up badly, and balls were darting about and keeping low. South Africa gradually succumbed; they lost wickets six and seven before tea, and eight and nine after.

Fifty balls remained in the day.

Smith headed out to a rousing ovation.

"He showed great courage," recalls Johnson. "Great commitment for his team and for his country – he wanted to save that Test."

***

For Johnson, in his first Test as Australia's spearhead, there was no room for niceties.

"I thought about maybe trying to get him on the hand again, but he had a fair bit of padding on and the game was quite tight … we felt like we couldn’t waste too many balls."

Smith stood unconquered for 16 balls, tailender Makhaya Ntini his partner in defiance. Coach Mickey Arthur could barely watch as the minutes – and deliveries – ticked past.

Johnson had been bowling from the Randwick End but Ponting opted to swing him around to the Paddington End in order to target the cracks outside the left-handed Smith's off stump.

The winning moment // Getty
The winning moment // Getty

The five-day contest had been whittled down to 11 balls when Johnson finally hit his target, delivering a searing 145.7kph inswinger that cut dramatically off the pitch and clattered into the stumps.

"It probably would have got me if I had both arms available," Smith conceded afterward.

Johnson remembers the aftermath, during which the Australians simply had to acknowledge their opponent's bravery.

"Ricky went straight up to him and congratulated him, and said, 'Mate, that’s an awesome effort'," he says. "It shows how courageous he is and what kind of person he is. How many people would do that for their team?"

Respect // Getty
Respect: captains Ponting and Smith // Getty

Over the ensuing five years, the pair built their exchanges into a storied rivalry. No player took Smith's wicket more in Test cricket than Johnson, who had his measure nine times across 11 matches.

Fittingly, the final time Smith walked off the field in Test cricket was at the hands of the Australian.

Graeme Smith leaves the field after being dismissed by Mitchell Johnson in Cape Town // Getty
Graeme Smith leaves the field after being dismissed by Mitchell Johnson in Cape Town // Getty

It was in the famous Cape Town Test of March 2014, when a short ball dug into the ribs did for the batsman, who inside-edged onto his body, the ball popping up to short leg for a simple catch.

Not for the first time in his career, Smith walked off to a standing ovation, Johnson and the Australians joining the crowd in saluting one of modern cricket's most courageous characters.

Visit cricket.com.au/travel for more information

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