Tongue-pierced surf dude aims to wipe out England

Mitchell Johnson is leading the march of the new quicks and his Champions Trophy form will worry England. By Stephen Brenkley in Ahmedabad
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The Independent Online

When Mitchell Johnson trumped Kevin Pietersen last Saturday it was possible to envisage the changing of the guard. A few hours later as Sajid Mahmood pierced Adam Gilchrist's defences the conviction grew that the new warriors were about to annex the parade ground.

Nothing in cricket stirs the passions like the emergence of a speed merchant. And here were two, raising the prospect in the beleaguered Champions Trophy that they could influence the destiny of the Ashes. If England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, went into what passes for raptures, by his measured standards, about Mahmood, the whole of Australia seems suddenly transfixed by Johnson.

Fletcher said of Mahmood: "He shows a flair that's needed in both forms of the game. People on other sides are impressed and if he gets a bit more consistency he will be a very dangerous and difficult bowler to face." That description could equally apply to Johnson, whose 3 for 40 and especially his ensnarement of Pietersen, persuaded observers that his time was nigh. He undoubtedly possesses exciting talent and there are probably three things that excite Australians most about him.

Johnson is a left-arm fast bowler, a breed that often seems rarer than big crowds at a Champions Trophy match. Only three left-arm Australian seamers, Bill Johnston, Alan Davidson and Bruce Reid have taken 100 wickets in Tests.

Secondly, he wears facial jewellery in the form of gold rings through his lip and his tongue and off duty looks like a surf dude. Thirdly (and most optimistically) they want him to be shoved into the Ashes, which would be his Test debut, as a potential saviour because it is feared that the veteran Glenn McGrath is sliding too far down the other side of the mountain.

Johnson will be 25 by the time the Ashes series begins and to reach this point has been a trial. A multi-talented athlete from Townsville in northern Queensland, he was almost lost to tennis. When he was 17, however, he was spotted by Dennis Lillee who knows a thing or two about fast bowling and called him a "once in a generation fast bowler." This has acted as both burden and entrée.

If the compliment meant he had to perform like the chosen one it also ensured he continued to be chosen. It hardly helped that his career has been blighted by a series of stress fractures to his back - which might curtail his aspirations to be truly quick. He made his debut in 2001 but has still played only 17 first-class matches. There have been times when he felt like giving it up and going back to Townsville. Once, he did and returned to Brisbane with the pierced face.

Appearances can be deceptive. Not only is he reserved, Johnson is felt to lack the commodity that Australians like to see in their fast bowlers and refer to as "mongrel". "When I first started in this team, I wasn't very confident and my confidence has definitely grown," he said. "If I get that chance to play in the Ashes or another series later in the year, hopefully my confidence will be there."

It has been bolstered by three significant performances. In the Pura Cup, last March, Johnson took 10 wickets in a match for Queensland. This return was particularly laudable because Queensland had made 900 for 6 on a flat belter and Johnson (4 for 55 and 6 for 51) was instrumental in dismissing Victoria for 344 and 202.

His one-day international career began somewhat timidly with one wicket in its first four matches. But in the DFL Cup in Kuala Lumpur last month he dismissed Brian Lara against West Indies and then undermined India by taking 4 for 11 (including Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid).

Then came England last Saturday in Jaipur. He lured Pietersen with the fast bowler's old one-two. First, he softened up the batsman with a bouncer which he barely fended away. The next ball was full, slanting across and Pietersen edged it behind.

"That one probably zipped through a bit more," Johnson said. "My plan to him was to get in a short one early and then try to get that nick. Against Pietersen the short ball is maybe something we'll try because he likes to get forward early from the footage I've seen."

Before it becomes accepted that Johnson is the complete article and that England have reason to be quaking in their boots it is important to add a caveat or two. When he was a teenager Johnson expressed a wish to be the fastest bowler in the world. Last Sunday after his deeds of the day before he said: "It would be great to be able to bowl faster and swing the ball. That's something I'm working hard at. I want to try to get to that 150kph mark."

There has not been sustained evidence that he can achieve that sort of speed (93.2mph) and while he is a handful he is not that much of a handful. As he alluded, he may also need to swing it in more consistently to disturb top batsman.

But he has something. His case for the Ashes is not quite irresistible but such matters tend to have a force of their own. There is a month to go but the smart money suggests Mahmood and Johnson will be the new guard at the Gabba.

Australia's Watson hit by gastritis

Shane Watson, the Australian all-rounder, was diagnosed as suffering from gastritis after being taken to hospital yesterday suffering from stomach and chest pains.

"Shane experienced severe chest pain this morning and we decided to take him to hospital to investigate and manage the problem," Alex Kountouris, the team physiotherpaist, said. "He had a range of tests, the results of which indicate that he has gastritis, which commonly causes heartburn and chest pain. Shane will be reassessed later with a view to bringing him back to the team hotel tonight."

The 25-year-old, who scored 21 runs as an opener and grabbed three wickets in Saturday's six-wicket Champions Trophy victory over England in Jaipur, is pushing for a starting place in the Ashes series starting in Brisbane on 23 November.

Australia have a win and a defeat from their two Group A Champions Trophy matches and meet India in Sunday's final league contest in Mohali. The team coach, John Buchanan, said it was too early to decide whether Watson would play on Sunday.