Thursday, 13 February 2014

Johnson breaks the pattern

It's no surprise to see South Africa start poorly on the first day of a series. They did that on their number one sealing tour of England, and here again. Then they ended the first day with England on 267-3. In this Test they had Australia on 297-4. Back in 2012 they picked up 7-114 on the second day to pull themselves back in to it. This time they did just as well to pick up 6-66. A familiar pattern, continuing.

All through the morning session on the second day, South Africa fought back steadily, getting the two overnight batsmen out before they could fully bed in again, running through the tail quickly enough to keep Australia under 400. It wasn’t an incredible fightback, but a quietly confident one.

Then Ryan Harris’ first over was milked for ten runs by Graeme Smith. The first ball went for four, imperiously pulled through mid-wicket, another went through the slips for the same again, then he managed a comfortable two. The familiar pattern being stitched; South Africa playing below par on the first day of the series, then upping it on the second.

At that point, South Africa would have been anticipating putting together a partnership pushing towards towards first innings parity. In England in 2012, Smith and Hashim Amla put on 259, before Amla and Kallis put on 377. There’s one big difference between England’s bowling attack of 2012, and Australia’s one now: Mitchell Johnson. He changed the whole direction of the game with his fourth ball. Slung into the pitch at 89.2 mph, it took off and flew up at Smith’s forehead. The only thing stopping it hitting the badge on his helmet was his bat handle, off which it looped to Shaun Marsh running backwards in the slips. Pure pace; a different game.

The bouncer was great, but just as great was the setup, reminiscent of Andy Roberts’ two bouncer trick. Firstly the slower one, barely slower, at 87 mph, but fended uncomfortably as it rose into Smith’s chest. Then the quicker one, detonated a foot shorter, bouncing a two feet higher, 2 mph quicker and much more deadly.

Then came the lull, South Africa in the eye of the storm as Amla and Petersen tried to rebuild. It didn’t last long, Johnson’s pace and a few back of a length balls got Petersen leaning back, and he nicked a slash outside off stump through to the keeper. He wouldn’t have played that shot to Harris or Siddle. Extreme pace scrambles the brain. That ball was 93.5 mph.

Next into to the abattoir was Faf du Plessis. He edged his first ball short of slip, then next Johnson over a vicious ball angling across him caught the edge at armpit height, and looped to Clarke at second slip. That first four over spell brought Johnson 3-10. South Africa could relax for a while as he was withdrawn.

In nine more overs spread over two more spells, Johnson only picked up one more wicket, McLaren, an all-rounder perhaps batting a place too high at seven, not really good enough for a quick full ball, nipping in a touch, clean bowled.

It remains to be seen whether South Africa react like England to Johnson. Whether he scrambles their brains into mush, or whether they realise that if you get through his initial four over spell with the new ball, it does get marginally easier later on, Mitchell Johnson has four wickets and a chance to come back next morning to terrorise the tail. South Africa’s pattern is gone, can they stitch it back together?

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