Mitch's bite worse than India's bark

Australia's most feared paceman responded in kind to the tourists' aggression

Visitors who travel to Australia carrying mortal fears about the dangers posed by the island nation’s numerous and venomous endemic arachnids and reptiles are regularly reassured “you’ll be fine … as long as you don’t provoke them”.

It would seem that the touring Indian team was not issued, or have unwisely chosen to forget, a similarly sage warning about the most dangerous cricketer of these parts, Mitchell Johnson.

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In the opening Test of the current Commonwealth Bank series, Johnson went quietly about his business, collecting a couple of wickets in each innings but not exuding the same sense of menace that England’s Kevin Pietersen later claimed had his team quaking in their dressing rooms last summer.

Then, on the opening day of the next match on a Gabba pitch that was supposed to have the world’s fastest bowler licking his lips and the unprepared Indians ducking for salvation, Johnson finished the innings wicket-less.

Just the second time that’s happened since his resurrection as a Test player 12 months ago led to him being crowned the ICC’s Cricketer of the Year.

And the only previous time it’s occurred at the venue that was for many years his home and his favourite ground was against England in the previous Ashes cycle when his fortunes – like those of his team – were on the wane.

So perhaps that’s why, when Johnson came to the crease this morning with Australia teetering on the edge of a sizeable first-innings deficit, the Indians decided it was as good a time as any to give him a working over.

A strategy that might now be held up for some retrofitting.

The cascade of bouncers that greeted him was backed up by some animated lip delivered from a variety of sources.

The slips cordon, where Virat Kohli happily chirped despite being stung 30 per cent of his captain’s match fee for getting into an unnecessary, heated discussion during the first Test in Adelaide.

From the bowlers, most noticeably Ishant Sharma who has taken on the role of attack leader in this match even though he’s packing less firepower than his fellow seamers Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav.

And most provocatively and ill-advisedly, from Rohit Sharma who seemed intent on getting under the Australian quick’s tattooed skin from the time he made it out into the middle with Australia sweating at 6-247 and more than 150 runs behind.

“I’m not too sure what it was to be honest,” Australia captain Steve Smith, who was waiting in the middle as Johnson made his way out and Sharma let loose the opening salvo, said when asked what sparked the fury that was about to erupt.

“I think Mitch and Rohit were just having a little bit of banter.”

If Johnson’s subsequent innings reflects his reaction to banter, others should make a note to keep the insults tightly locked away.

The fire that burned in the Australian was coincidentally doused within the Indians’ attack when – in scrabbling to save an early run that Johnson pushed to mid-on and with most of the fielders camped in catching positions behind the wicket – Aaron hurt his left shoulder and left the field.

But the temporary loss of their sole express bowler didn’t tempt India to rethink their short-pitched assault on Johnson, who ducked nonchalantly under the high ones and swung hard and mostly with success at the hittable ones.

Which just kept coming, with increasing frequency.

His half-century arrived with the eighth boundary of his 37-ball stay, a crisp straight swing off a rare full delivery from Aaron who had returned to the fray just as his team’s bowling, fielding and demeanour was beginning to do likewise.

Instead of acknowledging his milestone, Johnson simply leaned on his bat and stared into the middle distance, his left hand resting on his hip and exuding the air of a peeved golfer waiting at the tee for a chance to play through a gaggle of annoying weekend hackers.

By this stage MS Dhoni was similarly losing patience with his bowlers, ordering the field to scatter.

Although if he issued concurrent orders to them to land the ball more regularly in the batsman’s half of the pitch, they were being flagrantly flouted.

And clouted.


“He (Johnson) came out and he was positive from ball one, that was his mindset,” Smith said at day’s end with India poised at 1-71 in their second innings and 26 runs short of the overall lead that seemed destined to be theirs until Johnson and Smith’s joint resistance.

“They tried to be quite aggressive with him bowling short and getting stuck into him, and I think that played into his favour.

“He took them on and they didn’t really have an answer for him to be honest.

“It’s always tough in this heat – we faced the same thing in our bowling innings with a couple of our bowlers going down and it really gets to you out in the middle with the humidity.

“And when your tail bats like that it’s always a nightmare for the opposition.”

Johnson effectively silenced Ishant when, on 77, he aimed a hefty leg-side swing at Yadav, skied a top edge over the slips and turned to see the ball pitch safely in the 10 metres or so that Ishant had errantly allowed to open up between his fielding position and the boundary rope.

By this stage, the Indians had become distinctly less chirpy. And decidedly more irritiable.

It was only the arrival of the second new ball that convinced them pitching it up and trying to lure a false stroke rather than banging it in to potentially land a sucker punch was likely to be the most successful blueprint.

As was shown when Ishant put four in a row past the outside edge of the left-hander’s bat, a moral victory that yielded a patronising round of applause but no words from the Indian spearhead when the over was done.

But two overs later Ishant ended the battle, another extravagant drive from Johnson delivering nothing but a thin edge to Dhoni.

As the Australian turned to make the walk back to the dressing room with 88 from 93 balls flashing from the giant screen behind him, Ishant simply offered up a silent prayer.

Which is likely to be the way the strategy the Indians employ for Johnson through the remainder of the series, lest he bite them again.