Leader of the attack who prefers to take a back seat

Mark Taylor, the former Australia captain, tells a story about Glenn McGrath which, when you think about it, tells you a lot about the present leader of the attack, Mitchell Johnson. It is the story of the 1995 West Indies tour and how McGrath came to play a defining role in the series that led to Australia displacing West Indies as the world’s champion team.

At the start of that tour, Craig McDermott was the leader of the attack and McGrath was a little-heard-of first-change bowler who had been in and out of the Test team and had played with no great success. One day, Taylor went running with McDermott who, jumping off the sea wall, ruptured his ankle ligaments.

Before the opening Test, Taylor had to break the news to McGrath that he would have to take the new ball. After he had done so, McGrath stared at Taylor and said: ‘About bloody time, mate.’ McGrath grabbed that ball out of Taylor’s hand and he never looked back. He led Australia’s attack with distinction for the next dozen years.

The contrast with Johnson, a supremely talented performer – the man Dennis Lillee once called ‘a once in a generation cricketer’ – but one with a rather more reticent personality, could not be more profound. No cricketer should try to be something he is not, but it is clear that Australia are crying out for someone to lead the attack and while Johnson is the natural choice, he seems reluctant to do so.

Despite Ben Hilfenhaus having played only one Test match in Australia, and despite Peter Siddle and Doug Bollinger returning from injury and despite Johnson being a 166 Test wickets performer, he is unlikely to take the new ball when Australia get their first crack at England’s batsmen at the Gabba. After you, Claude.

Johnson comes into the first Test in decent enough form, having scored a hundred and taken five wickets for Western Australia in his final dress rehearsal before Thursday. But he did not take the new ball in that game, just as he has been reluctant to do over the past 12 months for Australia. He feels more comfortable coming on first change, he says.

Of course, there is history here. Johnson came to England in 2009 with a huge reputation but left with it deflated. He has said that watching England receive the urn at The Oval was one of the worst experiences of his life – Ricky Ponting forced his players on to the outfield so that they would remember the pain of the loss.

For Johnson, the pain was more acute because he knows that he did not fulfil his talent on that tour and his shortcomings could have been the difference between victory and defeat. When Ponting needed one final wicket in Cardiff for victory, Johnson was unable to deliver. More than that, he bowled so waywardly that it looked as though the occasion had got to him.

It appeared that way in the next match at Lord’s, too, only more so. There, he suffered from as close as it is possible to get to a dose of the dreaded yips, the ball and the cut strip at times making only a cursory acquaintance. Whereas previous Australia teams had been led by fast bowlers who were lions, Johnson gave the impression of being not so much lion as lamb, an impression underlined by his uncertain performances in front of the media.

He was on relaxed and personable form yesterday as Australia paraded all their Test players, but no matter how hard he tried, Johnson looked and sounded like a man who needed convincing of his own mental strength and abilities and that the memories of Lord’s have been banished to the farthest reaches of his mind. He talked of being delighted to ‘get through’ subsequent tours such as New Zealand, where the crowd ‘copped him plenty’. ‘Getting through’ used to be a bare minimum for an Australia Test cricketer rather than the limit of his ambition.

It did not help matters, perhaps, that Johnson spent the first few minutes answering enquiries about his newly minted tattoos. ‘It’s a Japanese-style koi with some cherry blossoms that have the meaning of luck,’ he said. ‘I had three sittings for them. The last bit was done only two weeks after I had the previous bit done. That hurt. It wasn’t as bad as the one on the side. That killed me.’ Like listening to a warrior talk us through his flower arrangements before battle.

Still, on more serious matters, he was happy to lay down the gauntlet. He talked, in the way that fast bowlers do, of targeting Andrew Strauss. ‘They really look up to Strauss and if we can get him to crumble, then their players will start thinking negatively.’ How is he going to do that? ‘We’ve had a look at him with the short ball. He’s OK with the one that’s chest height but if you get it on the money, he really does struggle with it,’ Johnson said. Of course, it may help to have a go at an opener with the new ball, too.

Kevin Pietersen was the other object of Johnson’s attention, the more so since the memories of a verbal spat between the two just prior to the start of the Cardiff Test in 2009 still linger. ‘There was a little bit going on in the Cardiff game and it got a bit heated,’ Johnson said. ‘But sometimes KP feeds off all that so I didn’t really look him in the eye and I don’t think I’ll be saying too much. It’s important to keep my emotions in check.’

Whether Johnson’s past waywardness has been mental, technical or a bit of both is a matter of speculation. Johnson thinks the former and that he is over the problem. ‘I am mentally stronger now,’ he said. ‘I struggled at Lord’s but I’ve definitely improved that side of my game. I was getting bashed in the media and I copped it left, right and centre, but I’ve come though some pretty tough series since then and showed I’ve improved.’

Yet the suspicion remains that his action is faulty and, under pressure, prone to short-circuiting. Technique is important in cricket only because it helps your game hold up under the sternest scrutiny. Johnson’s arm is so low that, to bowl accurately, there is very little margin of error on the timing of his release. Pressure, such as all the players will feel on Thursday, is likely to have an impact on that.

So there he goes, this wonderful performer, a man capable of ripping through the opposition as well as smashing the ball out of sight. There he goes, Australia’s enigmatic and potential match-winner; the man who wants to target England’s opening batsman but does not want to take the new ball; the man who wants to get under KP’s skin but does not want to engage him directly; and leader of the attack who does not want to lead. All the while muttering to himself, ‘I am mentally stronger, I am mentally stronger, I am mentally stronger.’ The Times, 23 November 2010