Will England fans stop doubting Johnson now?

Australia

England cricket fans have an awkward relationship with Mitchell Johnson. For so long he was a figure of fun. While he was able to produce sporadic brilliance against others, he seemed to go missing when the Ashes were at stake.

As of November 2013 his Test bowling average against England was 35, his career average a smidge over 30. Reasonable numbers, but hardly the stuff of legend. In Australia his efforts against England was worse than his away record. When he was selected for the Down Under leg of the 2013/14 Mega-Ashes there were few that were overly concerned by his addition to the lineup.

Like any well-made feel good movie, the nerdy kid that had been picked on by the school bully got his vengeance. After years of being mocked by England’s fans he had the last laugh. The Australian leg of the endless Ashes began and England were left clueless as to how to deal with Johnson, beating them by just being too quick, a rare feat in the storied atmosphere of international cricket.

It was all a bit of a shock, with most followers of the game expecting an improved performance from Johnson, not one that suggested he had been bitten by a radioactive insect or exposed to some sort of top secret military experiment.

In truth the signs were there. In the ODI series that followed the English leg of the Ashes series, Johnson was bowling "heat", giving the hurry up to the whole of England's top order. We should have known.

There was still a refusal to accept it, those of us that watched Johnson giving the England top order the run around in those ODIs could console ourselves with the fact that it was 'white ball cricket'.

Even those that spotted the difference in Johnson, the fact that he had almost given up trying to swing the ball and was not concentrating on bowling as quickly as he could, would have needed a serious case of Green and Gold myopia to have said that Johnson would finish with 37 wickets at an average of less than 14 as Australia whitewashed England 5-0. His renaissance was nothing short of remarkable.

He followed that brilliant series performance against England with yet another one in South Africa, finishing the three match series with 22 wickets at 17. The only time he looked almost human was on a Port Elizabeth pitch that was slow and low. Any surface that gave him something to work with it was like watching a kid firing rocks through greenhouse windows with a catapult.

When Johnson arrived in England this time, it was not without a large amount of baggage. Despite the pronouncements from within the Australian camp about him bowling so fast that the ball was only visible with space age technology, he had a lot to prove.

In Cardiff he was given a pitch that had variable bounce but little to no pace and, looking a fair bit under-cooked, he found little penetration. In the first innings he went wicketless as Joe Root in particular dispatched him with ease. Even Moeen Ali, the man in the England side who is said to have the worst technique against the short stuff, eased his way to 77.

Johnson came back stronger in the second innings but the Cardiff crowd were brutal – singing the songs that England fans always sing about Johnson being wayward. When he conceded his hundredth run in that first innings the Sofia Gardens grandstand rose to their feet and applauded him.

For the second Test, Lord’s served up a flat pitch that had little pace. For all the protestations from Lord’s groundsman, Mick Hunt, that he refused to take instructions from anyone, this looked a lot like the pitch that England would have asked for.

Australia batted first and showed the flaw in England’s slow pitch policy. While it may well have negated the pace of Johnson et al, it also meant that the slower English seamers had even less to work with.

Except it didn't stop Johnson as he got the ball to fly through on the placid surface. Just like when he was eviscerating England in Australia last winter, every over looked like it would bring a wicket as a discombobulated England came and went in the blink of an eye.

That MiJo could produce this performance on that wicket was incredible. The time for doubting him is over. This is a bowler who scares opponents. International cricket has not had one of those in quite a while.

Not since Curtly Ambrose and Allan Donald were in their pomp in the early nineties have we seen the best players in the world hopping around in fear not just for their wicket but also for their safety.

For all of Dale Steyn’s undoubted brilliance, and he remains a superior bowler to Johnson, he cannot generate the panic that the Australian left-armer can send through an opposition batting line-up.

While England capitulated at Lord's, they were extremely poor and outplayed in every facet of the game, it is important to remember that the same could have been said about Australia after Cardiff. The visitors are undoubtedly favourites to retain the Ashes, but England are not out of this contest just yet.

Having said that, if they cannot find a way to combat Johnson when he does what he did in North London, it will not be long before they are no longer competing for the Ashes, rather just taking part.  

Peter Miller

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