It was almost after two decades when South Africa entered a Test series without Jacques Kallis. The legend’s absence led to several changes in the team and Graeme Smith had to replace him with two all-rounders – Robin Peterson and Ryan McLaren.
McLaren had a forgettable first Test against Australia. While he was expected to fill the massive shoes of Jacques Kallis, he had bigger challenges ahead of him - like facing Mitchell Johnson.
While batting on the fourth day, the left-handed batsman was lucky on two occasions, as snorters from Johnson whistled past his helmet. But the kind of form he is in, Johnson wouldn’t have taken long to hit the helmet. And then came a cracker off a delivery, which exploded after hitting the pitch, and as McLaren successfully protected his face by turning it towards the keeper, the ball hit him hard on the right ear. The sound was evident of the fact that one would immediately see someone from the medical staff running into the ground.
While Michael Clarke rushed towards the batsman to check if he was conscious, McLaren sat on the ground with blood dripping from his right earlobe. It was a touching gesture from Johnson too, who gave a pat on the back of the batsman, but that didn’t mean he would stop bowling bouncers. Over the last few months, it has been his job to intimidate batsmen of all shape and sizes.
Watching Johnson bowl against the Proteas, one could not stop praising his spot-on line and length. The batsmen were so threatened of being physically hurt, that even when he bowled a normal delivery, they were dismissed playing a loose stroke, as if they expected it to bounce above their chests. Hashim Amla, who is currently the No. 4 ranked batsman in Tests, was hit off the first ball which crashed into the middle of his helmet. And since then, despite playing a flurry of strokes on the off-side, it wasn’t the Amla we have seen over the years.
No matter which team you support, you have to sympathise with the batsman facing Johnson these days. The Australian speedster seems to be taking a wicket off every delivery. AB de Villiers recently said that the batsmen should be ready to take a few blows on their body, to combat pace bowling. But not everybody is as technically sound, as AB, who is the No. 1 batsman in Tests. Just one nasty blow from Johnson could change the mindset of a batsman for the entire series. We saw it happen against England, and South Africa seem to be on a similar track.
Johnson`s ferocious spells have also given the other Australians enough time to get back into their groove. When Australia toured India last year, Clarke seemed to be the only man in form and veteran Chris Rogers chipped in with a few significant knocks. But since the Ashes – the series from where Johnson`s carnage began, players like Warner, Smith and Watson have all found form and slowly, Australia are once again reaching the pinnacle of Test cricket.
South Africa have a lot to think before the start of the second Test at St. George`s Park, Port Elizabeth. Changes are likely to be made in the playing eleven. Skipper Graeme Smith will have to play a special knock, if he doesn’t want his career to end with the Test series. Whether to go for an extra pacer, whether to promote AB de Villiers in the batting order, there would be several questions being discussed in the South African camp.
But no matter what combination the Proteas come up with, they would still have to bat against Mitchell Johnson`s ferocious pace.