Johnson is mired in the mother of all troughs

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The Independent Online

For the greater part of what had to be his most miserable day as a Test cricketer until quite recently thought to have at least some measure of an elusive, some say disappearing quality known as aura, Mitchell Johnson could only reflect that at least in one respect he was the envy of most men.

He still, after all, had several continents separating him from a full scale war between his mother, who sounds like a formidable lady indeed and his girlfriend, a model, karate black belt and a businesswoman with an online jewellery business, who is not considered to suffer too oppressively from any problem of shyness.

However even that seemed the last word in slim pickings when he was given the chance to repair some of the psychological damage that has piled up almost from the moment he landed here after a vital contribution to Australia's dramatic series victory over South Africa. The day's accumulation was already considerable when he came racing in to Ian Bell, who had a little earlier just loosened his shoulders with a massive six off another misfiring Aussie bowler, Shane Warne's successor Nathan Hauritz.

Johnson, a better than useful tailend batsman with a Test century, and a 90, to his credit, had been a first-ball victim of Jimmy Anderson before producing a four-over spell of bowling that scarcely achieved the mark of profound mediocrity.

What it was, it can only be reported with some sympathy for a young man who seemed to have the world sprawled beneath his feet so recently, was the desperate fling of something perilously close to the end of his resolve. England, who were not exactly rampant at the time, were able to calmly proceed to 116 for 2 as Johnson repeatedly failed to challenge either captain Andrew Strauss or the returning Bell. This, though, was only true until the third ball of the second over of his second session.

Then, he produced a stunning delivery. Well, certainly it was quick and straight. It would be very nice to think that suddenly Johnson had the sympathy of even the most one-eyed England supporter. When the ball thudded against Bell's pads nobody, except umpire Rudi Koertzen, that is, needed the help of Hawkeye to know that he was out, as out as a batsman has probably ever been when the call is for lbw. Maybe that is not quite right on reflection, however. When Hawkeye was consulted it showed that Johnson's delivery would, marginally, have missed middle stump. For the Australians, still nursing deep wounds from Koertzen's befuddling at Lord's, when he gave three calls against them that most fair-minded observers judged to range from harsh to utterly egregious, it was a quite devastating blow. For Johnson it must have seemed pretty much the suspension of a world in which you could believe, even faintly, in a fair crack.

At some later date he may raise a smile, along with his team-mates, when a story of the great WG Grace is recalled. The legendary batsman, long pampered by indulgent umpires, had one particularly hazard-free day when no amount of nicks behind and other developments which would have cost the innings of a lesser mortal, endangered his existence. However, eventually one toiling bowler produce a beautiful delivery, a veritable jaffa, and the Doctor's off and middle stumps were uprooted. Grumpily, WG turned and headed for the pavilion. His assassin then called after him, "Surely you're not leaving us, Doctor, you still have one stump in the ground."

It is a story to tell Mitchell Johnson at some later date, not least for the reason that none of his team-mates are likely to rise above their own gloom for some time. This is surely true of captain Ricky Ponting, who after the opening onslaught of England's Graham Onions seemed to be re-exerting Australia's grip on the game established so brilliantly by Shane Watson and Simon Katich on Thursday.

Ponting, quite untypically, seemed to be lapsing into a mood of hubris when he attempted to hook a good delivery from Onions and edged it to Matt Prior. That signalled not only the end of the man who had just passed former skipper Allan Border's all-time Australian run record, but any lingering merit in the decision to reshape the team after removing the crisis-ridden batting prodigy Phillip Hughes.

This elaborate move involved the gamble of playing Shane Watson, who had a Test average of just over four as an opener, which seemed a lot less like a stroke of genius when Onions had him lbw off the first ball of the day.

This was all to do with preserving what was left of Johnson's strike "aura", as was the exclusion of the reliable Stuart Clark. The veteran from New South Wales might not be the last word in hell-bent aggression but he does have the useful knack of mostly delivering on target.

For the Aussie attack, who had been provided with the slender total of 263 to defend, this seemed like the last word in heavy challenges. For them the hard truth was that aura had nothing to do with anything. It never does in the sense that aura never took a wicket in its life. What takes wickets is sustained, accurate and thoughtful bowling and long before bad light, followed by rain, stopped play for the day, the Aussies must have felt such basic effectiveness had slipped quite beyond them. When it hadn't for a moment, when Johnson produced his fine and shockingly unrewarded ball to Bell, you could see the body language of despair. Bell, naturally, promptly hit a sumptuous boundary and then saw an off-drive trickle through Australian fingers.

The Ashes seemed to be in within touching distance of England at that psychologically important moment. Back in the Australian dressing room it probably didn't help the mood too much that the word from home was that Johnson's mother had apologised to his girlfriend. It came, though, with a crushing rider. "I hope they're not blaming me for losing the Test match," she said, unhelpfully. At this point you had to suspect Mitchell Johnson had his head in his hands.