James Lawton: Johnson suffers lonely torment trying to replace departed legends

The hardening word here is that the taker of 166 Test wickets will not make it to the start against England on Friday. Psychologically, he looks to be in pieces
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The Independent Online

How do you travel across a sizeable chunk of Australia sitting next to an extremely beautiful girl who also happens to be a former karate champion and yet still feel utterly alone?

You become Mitchell Johnson, who not so long ago was considered the Baggy Green's nearest thing to a new Glenn McGrath or Brett Lee, leaving a first Ashes Test in Brisbane which as far as you are concerned could not have been any more cruel had it been scripted by the Marquis de Sade.

Johnson had his girlfriend, with him on the plane to Adelaide but if this might have been cause for celebration in more normal circumstances now it seemed only to accentuate his role as a cricketer suddenly on his own.

His captain, Ricky Ponting, sat two rows back and mostly had a demeanour of thunder. The vice-captain, Michael Clarke, sat next to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin and did not have a lot to say.

If anyone had made the kind of joke common among travelling professional sportsmen you imagined it would have carried all the lightness of a high-calibre rifle shot.

Mitchell and Jessica have been described as Australia's dream couple, a kind of Antipodean "Becks and Posh" in training, but if he earns millions of dollars a year and might double as a matinee idol with his new moustache – one being grown for charity reasons, his people are quick to say – and she has a wardrobe that has been described as a paparazzi's fantasy, this was surely a day to survive rather than enjoy.

The hardening word here is that Johnson, the taker of 166 Test wickets, will not make it to the start against England on Friday morning. Psychologically, he looks to be in pieces and it can hardly be a surprise in the wake of his experiences at The Gabba.

Australia's selectors responded to the disaster in the most direct way by calling in rival seam bowlers Doug Bollinger and Ryan Harris, and yesterday the head coach Tim Nielsen, a London-born wicketkeeper-batsman who played more than a hundred times for South Australia, made it clear he was preparing what could well be the mother of all bowling inquests. Inevitably, Johnson is under a scrutiny that he may not survive – at least not for the second Test.

He had at The Gabba not so much a bad match as a Greek tragedy. Before the action, he said: "I feel very good after scoring a hundred and taking five wickets in my last state game and I've come here feeling more confident than maybe at any other time in my career. I've put aside a lot of bowling theory and decided just to bowl fast."

Unfortunately, he forgot to feed in a modicum of fire and accuracy; or rather, the suspicion has to be that the sheer pressure of expectation disabled him.

Whatever the cause, the mere listing of the details of his ordeal constitutes an act of cruelty. For the first time in a first-class match, Johnson did not take a wicket, was hit for 170 runs, made a duck and then dropped England's captain, Andrew Strauss, as he was changing up a gear on his way to a 19th Test century.

Nielsen, perhaps understandably, tried to skirt Johnson's cricket version of a high-speed car crash, suggesting that he was just one of the guilty men after his team-mate Peter Siddle had produced a brilliant hat-trick breakthrough on the first day.

It was, however, a heavy chore for him kicking aside the Johnson debris and under persistent questioning he conceded: "Mitchell didn't have his best game but I don't think he was on his own there.

"He did not bowl as well as he would like, so it is our job to get him back up and going. At times there have been players who haven't performed in one Test and then upped the ante in the next. Throughout his career he's had his ups and downs and he understands that this is one of the downs. We have to address this and find a way of taking 20 wickets.

"I very much believe Mitchell is one of those guys who can bounce back from one game to the next. We have to make sure Mitchell is relaxed. He's thinking well and thinking clearly about the things that have worked for him in the past.

"He is good at this game and we have to make sure he is in as good a place as he can be, so we can start well on Friday morning. He has the scoreboard on his mind, it is the first thing a player thinks of when he's having a bad time, and we have to do something about that."

As England settled in across the street, their coach Andy Flower was talking about something of a bad time of his own. Flower's problem was a melanoma on his cheek, something that demanded swift surgery in a Brisbane hospital.

Such a perspective might, who knows, have been some value to the fast bowler who got on a plane yesterday with everything a man might want, except for the rather vital ability to feel good about himself.

Jessica gave him a cuddle and he responded with a smile that was somewhat wan. Of course there is only one solution.

It is for him to pick up a cricket ball and bowl it as quickly and as uncomplicatedly as he did when making his name.

This may just happen here some time over the next few days. If it does, maybe Nielsen and the Australian selectors will decide that a little faith at a critical is the best answer. It may just save the man who, despite at least one impressive discouragement, couldn't shake that feeling of being alone.

It is still perhaps the most viable option for the coach who always knew it was going to be hard in the wake of such bowling giants as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. He said coming into this series: "You can't replace superstars. You just have to try to do it in bits and pieces." That, certainly, and also making Mitchell Johnson feel whole again.