Ashes 2015: Mitchell Johnson lacks old rhythm as Australia struggle to revive former hits

The most dangerous missile he aimed all day was the water bottle he chucked into the crowd

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The Independent Online

They have put a soundtrack to the video of what Mitchell Johnson did to Englishmen at the Gabba in 2013. It was chin music – Michael Carberry dancing and ducking around a crease as hard as concrete, Kevin Pietersen trying to smile, Johnson scowling with menace. These are the images that the Australians have been trying to conjure up in the last few days with stories of their man putting the fear of God in them in their recent net sessions.

There was no rocking and rolling this time. A featherbed pitch – not a means of derailing a 90mph express entirely in keeping with valiant British traditions of battle – made sure that the bouncer Johnson tried to inject into Gary Ballance’s ribs in mid-morning hit him barely a foot above his waist. The shoulder of the bat took the blow and sent the ball ricocheting into his body, creating pain in moderation: a couple of hops around the crease.

Yet bowlers are not the only casualties on a pitch with the characteristics of the waking dead. England should have found runs hard to find but scored at a rate of four an over against a swinging ball as Joe Root wrapped up the fastest century in the first Test of an Ashes series. The bowling turned the screw only fleetingly. The bad balls flowed all day in the pursuit of wickets. That, almost as much as the evidence that the spirit of the new England also belongs in the Test arena, is cause for early encouragement.

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Australia’s Mitchell Starc shushes towards Ben Stokes after taking his wicket (Reuters)

The day’s first open sign of naked hostility – Mitchell Starc’s shushing gesture to a departing Ben Stokes – came at precisely seven minutes to six. The pre-Ashes bubble seemed to have obscured the fact that the 25-year-old is here because of his World Cup performance, rather than a Test pedigree to speak of. The memory of what preceded Australia’s triumph in Melbourne in March – such an indifferent Test performance against India that Shane Warne said he looked “a bit soft”– has been largely obscured. Starc and coach Darren Lehmann did not take well to Warne’s suggestion but there was little sense of a hard man and plenty to explain why he has been in and out of Australia’s Test team for several years, with 16 matches to his name since 2011.

The best of Starc came long before the clouds cleared; an accurate little spell that had Ian Bell trapped before his wicket in his big swinging start. It developed into an absorbing initial contest with Root that ought to have added that name to his wickets column, too, when some late swing found both edges of his bat in consecutive balls. It was the outside brush which may haunt wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, who spilled the chance. The shake of Starc’s head when, through good luck not judgement, he invited a tired Root to chase a wide ball which Shane Watson collected, was the measure of how he had not imagined the first day of the summer this way.

There was pace – 90mph – but nowhere among Starc’s intermittent reintroductions – seven spells in all – was there evidence that he is going to dominate this series. Some perspective for the discussion of whether he will apply his one-day success across five days:  his Test strike rate is 58.3; for ODIs it is 23.3.

 

The moments of imposition on the game by the great new Australian hope, Josh Hazlewood, were equally fleeting. There was the early ball that turned around Adam Lyth and invited an edge to gully which set the tourists on their way. After that, some attempts to bang in a short ball were akin to seeking bouncers out of a mud bath.

Johnson provided more than this, despite the swinging full toss gratefully accepted by Alastair Cook, when we looked for immediate signs of nearly two months of attrition to come. He did what he could with a surface which on initial evidence suggested someone had broken the roller by releasing the ball full and fast, though what left his hand at 87mph reached the bat at a fraction of the pace. After lunch, there was an effective spell around the wicket, spearing the ball across Ballance with pace and bounce into his body, looking for the perceived weakness of a man who does not look at that ball. He also drew most of the false shots which punctuated Root’s climb to 50. But there were buffet balls, too: little of the nagging, probing wicket-to-wicket length which must serve to do the damage on a lifeless pitch.

The most dangerous missile Johnson aimed all day was the water bottle he chucked into the section of the Cardiff crowd taunting him as he walked down in front of them. They told him he could neither catch nor bowl. His suggestion that they try his drinking vessel for size was delivered with a grin, not menace.

In one of those twists served up by these series, it was Nathan Lyon, the spinner smashed the length and breadth of Essex by Ravi Bopara last week, who had most to take away. His frustration of – and dismissal of – Cook was the day’s most substantial piece of guile. The captain had been tied down by each of Lyon’s first 14 balls of the series before his over-spin generated extra bounce and Cook perished seeking to cut a  ball that lacked the width for the shot.

Rarely has an Australia captain made as many bowling changes as he seeks to create through intelligence what his side could not deliver with a ball. Michael Clarke chopped and changed all day and, as he did so, his talk of how hard he had taken the loss through injury of his bowler Ryan Harris – whose effortless fusion of attack, defence and sheer dependability could always be drawn on – rang true. Early pronouncements can come back to bite you, but this does not feel like McGrath-Lee-Gillespie-Warne, that elite and imperious quartet that started the 2005 Ashes.

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