Australia, who are still giving the impression of deep wisdom bestowed by years of domination, were forced to summon an emergency batsman to their squad last night. The uncapped Usman Khawaja flew to Brisbane from his home in Sydney as cover for the team's vice-captain Michael Clarke. Whether Clarke – who has an Ashes batting average of 55 – plays must be doubtful but it was indicative of a disturbed squad.
Clarke suffered his back injury last week and has been struggling since. Khawaja, who is claimed to be the most exciting batsman in Australia and made 13 and 0 for Australia A against England last week, was originally overlooked. The selectors preferred the veteran Mike Hussey. Clarke thinks he will be fit to play, but the summons of Khawaja suggested that there was not unanimous agreement on the subject.
The important last-minute ceremonial trappings of the series were, meanwhile, perfectly executed. As visitors to Australia quickly discover the place is regulated to within an inch of its life. Don't do this, do that, don't do that, do this, the country is a poster boy for controlled activity, from smoking within 10 metres of restaurants to not walking across roads should a bicycle be approaching.
While it has yet to be officially enshrined on the statute books, another of the country's hard and fast rules was rigidly enforced yesterday. In the nick of time Australia's premier fast bowler said he had a plan to knock the England captain's block off in the Ashes series. When doesn't he?
Mitchell Johnson, the former world cricketer of the year who rather mucked up his last Ashes series in England, put it like this: "England have been doing well for the past 18 months. They really look up to their captain, Andrew Strauss, and that is someone we need to target as their captain. If we can get him to crumble, then their players start thinking the same thing and thinking negatively and so that is someone we will definitely be going after.
"We had a look at a bit of footage of him under the short ball. He can play one that is about chest height but if you get it right on the money, he really does struggle a bit. You have got to get your bouncer high to him. Just be an aggressive bowler at him."
Johnson's plan may be undermined by his own deep-seated difficulties. Fast and ferocious yet wild and woolly. Australia have stuck with him and he is an integral member of their team now. It seems he has been given the freedom to do with Strauss what he will. If physical intimidation fails then he will try sledging.
He said: "If verbals work, it's something we will keep discussing. I am sure Ricky [Ponting] will probably want us to as well, try to get into his mind a bit. They have got a few players in their side that love a bit of chat."
Johnson said the way to make Strauss crumble was to put fear into him and get him out cheaply so he would worry about his own game and not the team. England may suppose that Johnson, himself, may crumble as he did last year at Lord's where he struggled to release the ball or land it on the cut strip.
"I am mentally stronger than the last Ashes series," he said. "It all comes back to that Lord's Test for me that time. I struggled big-time through that and it was probably more of a mental thing. I have definitely improved that side of things and I think I've shown that. I guess I just put a lot of pressure on myself as well. I am probably my worst critic to be honest. I am always trying to bowl a perfect ball. The crowds [will be a factor] as well – that's why I'm looking forward to playing here in Australia because we'll have the fans behind us. We'll have that support. I've forgotten about all that from Lord's. I've moved on from that. I think I have improved since that last series."
Johnson's appearance has altered slightly since he was in England when he still managed to take 20 Test wickets at 32 runs each. He now sports a tattoo covering most of his right arm as well as one unseen on his left side. It makes him look a bizarre sight as he delivers the ball.
"The tattoos signify a few things," he said. "Obviously, it's a Japanese style koi, some cherry blossoms that have a meaning of luck and a lot of design. I had three sittings, including two six-and-a-half hour sittings. The last bit was only two weeks after I had the previous bit done. That hurt because I was still a bit tender. It wasn't as bad as the side. That killed me. I don't know it if has brought me good luck, I hope so."
What sportsmen will do for their art is obviously boundless. While he was prepared to target Strauss, he may also have a bash at unsettling Kevin Pietersen. The pair had a spat in the nets at Cardiff before the first Test last year and there is no love lost now.
"I didn't say anything during that game out in the middle, I didn't look him in the eye or anything," said Johnson. "Sometimes he really wants you to go hard at him and give him a little bit. I think that's what he feeds off. Who knows, we'll see what happens in this Test series."
Depending on which Johnson turns up could decide the fate of the Ashes. He really is that enigmatic but he really can be that potent.
"I am not going to be at my best all the time," he said. "Sometimes there is too big a difference between my best and my worst. Glenn McGrath said to me, I need to minimise that to make it closer. I would like to be able to bridge that gap a little better."
If the gap stays wide it will be good news for England.
Countdown to the Ashes
2 The number of runs by which England won the second Ashes Test match at Edgbaston in 2005 after fast bowler Steve Harmison had Michael Kasprowicz caught behind. The result is the tightest ever by a runs margin in the history of the Ashes.Reuse content