He was meant to be one of the most dramatic sights of the Ashes. As it has turned out thus far, Mitchell Johnson has indeed created a stir on every occasion he has bowled. But it is not the threat of his rapid late inswinger, much vaunted before proceedings began, or the ball whizzing across the right-hander that have caused the fuss.
It is whether the Queensland fast bowler could get it near enough the batsman for him to have to play. So inaccurate has he been, so woefully short of the necessary components to bowl in Test cricket, with an arm lower than the government's popularity, that it has been possible to feel his pain.
The continued encouragement of Johnson has been a task undertaken by the whole Australian squad – they want the Johnson back of six months ago – but it is the captain, Ricky Ponting, who is above all charged with restoring his prowess. It is perhaps the biggest single test of Ponting's captaincy. He is seeing before his very eyes the disintegration of his main weapon and if he can change things round it will be incontrovertible evidence of what a cricket captain can offer a team.
"It is a big part of any leadership role, I think, to identify and understand individual personalities as well as you can," said Ponting yesterday. "You can never communicate properly with guys unless you know them well and inside out. That has been one of the roles for me and the senior guys over the past couple of weeks, to do the best we can and be there to offer the right advice. With Mitchell it has been about giving him a pat on the back and letting him know that you're all there helping him and supporting him."
Johnson is bowling like such a drain at present that dropping him should be the only recourse. There can be no room for sentiment with the Ashes going down the pan. But that is to forget not only the eight wickets he has still managed to take in the first two matches of this Ashes series but also, more pertinently, the 35 he took in two series against South Africa before that when he at last began to fulfil great expectations.
On arrival in England, Johnson was being openly touted as the bowler of the summer. England might, just, have the better rounded attack but they did not have anybody with such serious wheel and movement. Unfamiliar pitches and ball have conspired against him as have stories about the breakdown in his relationship with his mother.
"Everyone I've played with whether they are superstars or young players, they go through periods where they feel they're not on top of things," said Ponting. "What I've tried to do with Mitchell is not give too much information, but when I've felt it appropriate just give him a pat on the back and let him know that he's got my support and it is all going OK. I think there has been some special encouragement for Mitchell from a lot of the senior players around him and Troy Cooley, the bowling coach, has had his input with him over the past few weeks."
There will come a point where this cannot be allowed to continue. Arguably, England allowed Stephen Harmison to stay in the team for too long, dreaming of what he could supply rather than clinically assessing what was being delivered. So far, Johnson is only two games into a lean spell but England will unquestionably try to target him in the third Test if the gremlins are still in the system.
Ponting became close to Johnson during an Australian boot camp. It is clearly helping him now to understand what is going through Johnson's mind.
"That camp was really beneficial to understanding personalities," said Australia's captain. "It was the first time that we'd had all 25 contracted players together and we were taken out of our comfort zone to see how guys reacted in certain situations."
Ponting had a chat with Johnson before the recent tour game in Northampton and told him to focus on the basics. "As the game progressed he did get a little bit better. It is a confidence thing and we hope we'll see some good things from him over the next few days." If not, Australia and Johnson will be in real trouble.
Running machines: Leading scorers
Leading Test run scorers:
1. S R Tendulkar (Ind) 12,773 runs
2. B C Lara (WI) 11,953
3. A R Border (Aus) 11,174
4. R T Ponting (Aus) 11,150
5. S R Waugh (Aus) 10,927
Leading Australian Test run scorers:
1. A R Border 11,174
2. R T Ponting 11,150
3. S R Waugh 10,927
4. M L Hayden 8,625
5. M E Waugh 8,029Reuse content