Australian angle: Plumber's mate runs hot and cold

Peter Roebuck of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age writes from Lord's

Australia made a woeful start to the Lord's Test yesterday and it took a resilient fightback and batting lapses to restore hope. Losing the toss on a sunny morning and with the pitch as bland as beetroot was bad luck but did not excuse an erratic display by everyone except Ben Hilfenhaus. It was the worst first two sessions seen from an Australia side for ages. At times it was almost embarrassing.

Mitchell Johnson's trials and tribulations were the main problem. Seldom has a man been as relieved to take a wicket as the genial Queenslander when finally he dismissed Alastair Cook. Till then it was painful to see a fine bowler try so hard and achieve so little. Throughout last year he gave the Australia attack the leadership it needed and as a result the side was able to retain its high position. He was fast and accurate, and his angle, cut and variations stretched batsmen. Since the start of last autumn's Indian tour he has taken twice as many wickets as anyone else (62 to Peter Siddle's 29). In the space of a few months he had gone from being a handy prospect to a finished product.

Or so it seemed. Now he fell apart before our eyes. Watching him, it was hard for admirers, let alone sceptics, to remember how he claimed all those scalps. His approach to the crease lacked conviction and he seemed uncertain whether to bowl fast or to rely on movement. Doubtless the slope affected his balance at delivery, making him push the ball wide of the stumps. Lord's is not the easiest ground for nervous operators or newcomers, and the Queenslander is both. Inevitably the batsmen sensed his hesitation and pounced upon it.

Alas, the left-armer could not even keep a tidy line and length. In trouble, experienced bowlers focus on accuracy until rhythm returns. Their economy allows them to work through bad patches. But the banana-bender repeatedly gave batsmen easy deliveries on their pads or else soft offerings wide of the poles. It was meat and drink to England's grateful openers. They must have had many harder outings in county cricket.

Switching ends did not help. Dropping his head at release, Johnson went from bad to worse. Batsmen out of sorts can lick their wounds in the privacy of the dressing room. A bowler's agony is public. By the end of his seventh over he had already conceded 47 runs. Patently he had little idea how to fix his action. He did not play much cricket in his formative years and does not have much to fall back on. Learning the inswinger last winter may not have helped because a change of action was required. In South Africa he tended to bowl spells of swingers and spells of cutters. Everyone says keep it simple, but simplicity is a complicated business. Mechanics can fix cars because they understand how they work.

Johnson's insecurity was also revealed. As a boy he relied on pals and clubmates to take him to matches. Suddenly he was spotted and pushed along. Recoiling from the spotlight, he went walkabout and ended up driving a plumber's van in Townsville, his way of keeping the world at bay. Eventually his mates knocked some sense into him and he set about fulfilling his promise. In a trice he became his country's leading bowler. But the past is not so easily thwarted.

Johnson needed the inswinger that did for Matt Prior later on. Maybe he had tried too hard to make things happen in Cardiff. And he's always been a slow starter. The inswinger reminded him of his powers. It was not hard, but he ended better than he began. He had been hurt but not broken.

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