James Lawton: England beware if the real Mitchell Johnson turns up

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The Independent Online

For a second straight day Mitchell Johnson is asserting here a triumphant and mind-clearing conclusion to the great artistic dilemma of his professional life. For the longest time, he now admits, he could not be quite sure of his exact purpose as one of the more arresting talents in modern Test cricket.

At the start of the week he seemed to be moving towards a decision likely to win widespread approval under the perceived threat that if England do not, starting tomorrow morning, precisely reverse the degree of slaughter they fell victim to in the 5-0 whitewash of four years ago, they still have a passably good chance of keeping hold of the Ashes.

Johnson suggested strongly at the weekend that his No 1 desire was to make England captain Andrew Strauss's life at the batting crease something of a living hell.

Yesterday he widened his ambition and made it official, reporting that every time he ran in at the nets he saw not only the head of Strauss but all of his front-line batsmen.

"For quite a while I wasn't quite sure what to do for the best," said Johnson. "I was working on movement and swing and it wasn't going well, particularly in a one-dayer against Sri Lanka. After two overs [wicketkeeper] Brad Haddin said, 'Mitch, just bowl fast'."

This may, all of Australia is hoping, have been the vital point in the 29-year-old Queenslander's road to Damascus. Certainly, he is emphatic that he has never felt more confident in a 38-Test career that has yielded 166 wickets. "I've worked hard and am looking forward to enjoying some of the results that come when you do that," he adds.

One workable translation: 'I've done my time trying to develop my bowling weapons. Now I'm just going to concentrate on knocking people's heads off.'

Such sweet simplicity, which has so often been elusive for this agreeable, complex and – England's batsmen have a great investment in believing – rather psychologically vulnerable character has, overall, brought Australia's most concrete encouragement in a build-up which has widely been seen as much less impressive than England's.

Johnson was particularly impressive in the recent destruction of the reigning Sheffield Shield champions Victoria at their Melbourne Cricket Ground fortress. His sustained hostility brought five wickets in an innings, to go along with a typically bold century. His Western Australian captain and Ashes team-mate Marcus North talked enthusiastically about his man's optimum timing. "He's going to be just cherry-ripe when the action starts at The Gabba," declared North.

Cherry-ripe, his opponents might ask, or, as he was at times in England last year, a little slushy inside?

He came into that series as a potential reincarnation, at least to some extent, of the old legendary flame-thrower Jeff Thomson. It never happened then and some, despite his impressive showing in the recent series against the No 1 Test nation India, are sceptical about the possibilities here. For the moment, though, he is serene about the doubts. He says they apply only to a Mitchell Johnson who has come and gone.

"Sometimes you have enough of your own doubts," he was saying at The Gabba yesterday, "but I can honestly say that I have never felt so sure about what I'm doing. Sometimes you start thinking about too many things and you just have to go back and keep it simple. I think I'm finally happy with where I am with my bowling. I'm just running in and bowling fast. That will be my role – I will be the aggressive type. I know what it's like to be in the Ashes series.

"Today I was really excited. It's about harnessing energy. In the series against South Africa I was bowling really well and there was a lot of talk about me. Maybe I thought it was just going to happen. This time I've worked really hard from the word go. I also had a good series for myself in India, a couple of times trying to knock Virender Sehwag's head off. In the nets today I remembered some of that when I kept seeing English batsmen in front of me."

If Australia have a worry about their most menacing striking arm, it is maybe that he protests a little too much about his classification as a bowler of immense potential but too easily wavering resolve. Amiable, intense but plainly edgy was the verdict of one English veteran of Test cricket on yesterday's performance. "The whole series could depend on one simple question on Thursday morning," said the old soldier, "which Johnson has turned up? The one who bowls at his most natural – or the one who lets too many things get in the way?"

Perhaps the most acute arbiter of the difference between the best of intentions and the most genuine of performance in this place for the next few days is Johnson's captain, Ricky Ponting.

With Johnson at the forefront of the question, he was asked about the possibility of his team producing again the extraordinary resolve that so engulfed England here in 2006. "It's hard to create the intensity, hard just to flick a switch to make that happen," said Ponting. "But if you look into the guys' eyes you see the intensity with which they have trained over the last few days, and even the way they have played their cricket. The intensity was certainly in the series against India for all but a couple of sessions.

"It's all about how we start here in Brisbane. We know that we have to start well. That's the hard thing that excites confidence in a group. It cannot be manufactured. It all comes down to how well you execute, how well you play under pressure."

He didn't mention Johnson by name but, then, he didn't have to. As the enigmatic, maybe refound star of Australian cricket poured himself into the nets, a small wager was made. It harked back to the moment when England's Steve Harmison, a pace bowler of great talent but, like Johnson, someone whose nerves were not always perfectly in place, bowled his catastrophic first delivery directly into the slips four years ago.

The bet, for 10 Australian dollars, concerns whether Mitchell Johnson's first targeted Englishman is obliged to play his first ball. It is a small punt, of course, but it may just have the answer to the million-dollar question.

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