Hands up if you thought Australia had an easy time against a poorly organised England side and that South Africa would put them back their place… This hand is raised. Not only are Michael Clarke and his side talking the talk, they are very much walking the walk.
‘No problem, we’ve got the best bowling attack in the world,’ asserted Clarke and coach Darren Lehamnn on the eve of the side’s three Test series in South Africa. ‘Don’t be silly,’ came the riposte from a side containing Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.
Whilst it was to prove that Steyn, Morkel and Philander are indeed canny operators, they lacked the outright violence of Mitchell Johnson. Of the fact that Johnson possesses great pace, there has never been any doubt. A wonky radar stalled his international career before a spate of injuries ahead of the Ashes meant Australia had to return to their then eighth choice seamer. That he’s now their first choice is also in no doubt.
South Africa’s record at Centurion was an impressively intimidating one, the last defeat owing to a bookmaker, a leather jacket and the morally bankrupt Hansie Cronje. Australia would surely be sent packing when their fragile top order faced the world’s no1 Test bowling attacking, part of the world’s no1 Test team. The South Africans wouldn’t roll over and take it like the English.
Never underestimate the threat of violence. Such a quality operator as Hashim Amla couldn’t cope with Johnson’s raw pace. His grill was clattered, Ryan McClaren’s ear was bloodied and Philander’s bat, if not his hand, was broken. Robin Petersen was left leaping around like a cat on a hot tin roof.
Australia haven’t rested on the laurels of an Ashes whitewash. George Bailey has been replaced by Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh has returned for the injured Shane Watson. Clarke is back in his comfort zone at five. Johnson has turbo charged his action and the reliable presence of Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle ensure there is no let up. No wonder, then, that Chris Rogers was sliding around like a teenager in the closing stages of South Africa’s demise – there is no room for failure as the Australian cupboard is well stocked. Rogers will be acutely aware that continued failure with the bat will not be tolerated.
Johnson was not blowing away lightweights like Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Michael Carberry and the English tail here. He twice removed Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers in his match winning 12 wicket haul. He’s gone away from the Ashes and improved. Remarkable.
He is just bowling fast and straight. His short ball is lethally disguised. It has become such a rare art that modern batsmen appear ill equipped to deal with it. The great West Indian quicks of the 1980s must be wishing that they were around now.
There are still gaps in Australia’s team. But every time they appear, someone pops up to fill them in. In the six Tests Johnson has appeared in since his return, he has won four Man of the Match awards. Steve Smith, a player we have always admired, has four centuries in his last seven Tests as he has come of age. Where the top order fail, the middle order succeed. It rarely happens twice. If David Warner doesn’t get you first time, he will second time. Likewise with the bowlers; if Johnson hasn’t got your number, Harris or Siddle likely have.
How far Australia have come since ousting the inept Mickey Arthur is remarkable. Where he set homework and elaborate tactical plans, Lehmann opts for a beer and an arm round the shoulder in return for an unflinching work ethos. That Arthur could have got it so wrong, with hindsight, seems ludicrous. The raw materials were there.
Australia have now won six in six; the antithesis of their early 2013 form when they lost six in six (four in India, two in England). The sky now appears to be the limit. South Africa were, literally, rattled at Centurion and have a lot of ground to cover to rescue this series. Beating a limp England side in your own backyard in one thing – beating the best side in the world in theirs, quite another. Australia stand poised to become the first side in 16 months to win a Test series away from home. And what a place it would be to achieve it.
By Miles Reucroft