Mitchell Johnson – still a force to reckon with

Chaitan Papnai

When Mitchell Johnson started his career in 2005/06, many cricket pundits were of the view that he can be the next Dennis Lillee. The left-arm bowler has that extra bit of pace and accuracy to make the best of the batsmen dance to his tunes.

His ability to generate pace even from dead pitches made him the spearhead of Australian bowling for quite some time. But inconsistency plagued his career and on top of it, injuries took their toll as well, which forced him many times in the past to make way for bowlers less talented than him.

When the Australian team was announced for the Indian sojourn for one off T-20 and seven-match ODI series, Shane Watson and Mitchell Johnson were the only cricketers who had the experience of more than 100 ODI matches – after Michael Clarke, who withdrew from the series due to prolonged back-problem.

Stand-in skipper George Bailey knew that Johnson could deliver even in the batting paradise tracks of sub-continent. And more often than not, the left-arm speedster has delivered for the Kangaroos and result is that a team that looked mediocre before the series, is now leading 2-1 after the first four matches.

To deliver against the batting line up that has players like Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni, that too on featherbed tracks, is always a difficult task for any bowler. Still on these pitches, the 31-year-old is giving a tough time to the Indian batsmen with his fearsome pace and well directed short-pitched deliveries.

He is consistently clocking the speed of 140 plus and bending his back to generate some extra bounce from the placid Indian tracks. In the third match of the series, when Bailey chose to bowl first after winning the toss at Mohali, which was full of runs, Johnson had some different plans against solid Indian batting line-up, that had chased down the mammoth second-highest target of 360 runs quite comfortably to level the series 1-1 in the previous game.

In the third ODI, Sharma and Dhawan, who guided their team to a thumping victory over the Australians, got out cheaply and India were 37 for 2 in seven overs. While in-form Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina were at the crease, other formidable batsmen like Yuvraj, Dhoni and Ravinder Jadeja were waiting for their turn in the pavilion.

In the 13th over of the innings, when Bailey re-introduced his spearhead bowler Johnson into the attack, he didn’t disappoint his skipper. In his second over of that spell, Johnson tried a quick short ball against Raina – who is often criticized for not playing the short ball well, and the southpaw once again went for a half-hearted pull and the ball flew off after kissing the toe of his bat and went towards slips where Watson completed a sharp catch.

In-form Yuvraj was the next batsman to walk in, and the crowd cheered the arrival of their local hero who had been in splendid form. Johnson bowled a cracker of a delivery first up at a speed of 148.8 km/h. A slightly back-of-length delivery at off stump and it nicked the bat of the southpaw and went safely into the gloves of wicketkeeper Brad Haddin. Yuvi was out for a golden duck and Johnson had given double blow to India off his two consecutive deliveries.

Though he failed to claim a hat-trick, but when his skipper introduced him for his third spell to bowl the 32nd over, he once again tried a short ball to sent Jadeja back in the hut and almost broke the backbone of Indian middle-order.

Later in the Indian innings, when the partnership between Ashwin and Dhoni was looking dangerous, Australian skipper once again used his trump card, and Johnson broke the partnership by taking the wicket of Ashwin. He finished his spell with staggering figures of 4-46 in his ten-over quota.

Johnson used his rich experience of playing against India in India and so far this ageing bowler has exploited it wonderfully in the series.

No one ever doubted his abilities as a fast bowler; it was always his inconsistency and injuries that forced him to sacrifice his place in the Australian squad. Now he is running hard, generating a good pace and more importantly, showing consistency and that’s the reason he has been the talking point before the selection of the Australian team for the return Ashes series.

Recently, legendary former Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath stated that Johnson is vital to the nation`s Ashes chances this summer, and that the left-armer must play in the first Test against England. McGrath, who took 563 Test wickets, believes Johnson is the ideal like-for-like replacement for the injured Mitchell Starc, with his performances in the limited-overs series in England and lately India screaming out for a recall.

If Mitchell Johnson gets the selectors call for the return Ashes, then it would surely give the depleted Australian team a bowler that can change the fortunes of the side while playing Down Under.