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Australia's smiling assassin

Mitchell Johnson poses at the beawch in Cape Town
Despite his monumental achievements of the past year, Mitchell Johnson remains refreshingly grounded

By Pranav Soneji

Spot Mitchell Johnson out of his cricket gear and he could easily be mistaken as the lead singer of a multi-million selling emo rock band.

He has the boyish good looks, earrings, tattoos and pierced tongue - although the black eyeliner might be a step too far.

Johnson is a world away from his archetypal testosterone-fuelled fast bowler predecessors charged with intimidating England's batsmen during an Ashes summer.

Could you ever imagine Dennis Lillee, Merv Hughes or Glenn McGrath with a labret chin piercing? Let alone smiling at a batsmen after whizzing a snorter past his nose?

Verbal histrionics are not the 27-year-old's style but he shares the same instincts as his predecessors because the sight of batsmen sniffing leather really gets his blood pumping.

"That's what being a fast bowler is all about," said Johnson.

"I'm not verbal or in your face in the way that some guys are. I just try to let my bowling do the talking, with maybe a few short ones. You want them to feel uncomfortable."

Jacques Kallis is hit on the chin by a short Mitchell Johnson delivery
A Johnson bouncer cut Jacque Kallis' chin open in Durban

Which is exactly what he did during Australia's back-to-back Test series against South Africa, breaking the little finger of captain Graeme Smith's left and then right hand in the space of two months.

His first-innings 3-37 in Australia's 175-run second Test win in Durban in March - a victory which sealed the three-match series - was one of the most brutal spells of fast bowling in modern times.

After removing Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla in the first over of South Africa's innings with fast, swinging deliveries and breaking Smith's digit, he floored the robust Jacques Kallis with a savage bouncer, opening a wound on his chin which required three stitches.

All this happened without spearhead Brett Lee, recuperating from foot and ankle injuries, as Johnson led Australia's most inexperienced Test bowling attack in years alongside Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus and Andrew McDonald.

"I really wanted to get up their batsmen and let them know we were here and seriously trying to win the match and the series," said Johnson, who took 16 wickets in three Tests at an average of 25.

"If they are coming out feeling uncomfortable, then you're on top. They will have that in their minds when they come out to bat.

"That's something I'm definitely going to take into my game more often."

If the swing's not there, I generally try to hit the deck hard

Mitchell Johnson

Men in blue helmets, beware.

Johnson was born in Townsville in the tropical climes of northern Queensland, famed as a rugby league stronghold.

Cricket never figured highly on the career aspirations of the young Johnson, who expected to follow many of his childhood friends into the Australian army.

The breakthrough came when he was 17 and attended a fast bowling camp in Townsville headed by Lillee, who was scouring the country for fresh talent.

It took just three deliveries from Johnson for Lillee to realise he had seen a "once in a lifetime" prospect.

"I rang Marshie [Rod Marsh, then head of the Australian cricket academy] and said: 'you've gotta get this kid in'," Lillee revealed.

Three days later, Johnson was on his way down to join Marsh's latest recruits in Adelaide, where he first became acquainted with Troy Cooley, now Australia's fast bowling coach and credited with inspiring England's pace quartet to Ashes success in 2005.

"Troy and I have known each other since I was 17 and I'm 27 now, so we've had a lot to do with each other," he said.

"The good thing about Troy is he will let you do what you need to do in a training session. He'll give you the space and time to figure out if something is wrong. If you don't, he'll mention it."

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After spending the entire 2006/07 Ashes series as 12th man, Johnson eventually earned his first cap against Sri Lanka last November, taking a respectable 2-47 in a crushing innings and 40 runs win in Brisbane.

While Johnson possessed pace in abundance, regularly clocking 90 mph plus, his one fallibility was his inability to swing the ball back into the right hander, the left-arm seamer's calling card.

South Africa coach Micky Arthur attempted to exploit this vulnerability by advising his batsmen to shuffle across to middle and off stumps to negate Johnson's natural angle from over the wicket.

However, those plans were quickly revised when Johnson's first ball in the first Test in Johannesburg swung back alarmingly into opener McKenzie's pads.

Johnson explained this development was not a new phenomenon, but a consequence of adjusting his bowling action, standing straighter in his delivery stride at the point of release rather from than a wider, slingier angle.

"For Queensland (in state cricket), I was swinging the ball a lot," he said.

"But when I started playing for Australia I lost my swing. I was bowling first change whereas back in Queensland I was taking the new ball and swinging it.

"I got a little confused at that time and was trying to hit the deck hard and not worry about swing.

"That's probably when my arm height changed and that's something I have realised over time and worked on with Troy, although it's still a work in progress.

Johnson's fiancée Jessica Bratich in Cape Town
Johnson's fiancee Jessica Bratich is a karate champion

"But if the swing is not there, I generally try to hit the deck hard."

It's not just Johnson's bowling that has grabbed headlines in the past 12 months.

He smashed 96 in Johannesburg in March before scoring his maiden Test hundred two matches later, a brutal 123 not out from just 103 balls, including five sixes, in Cape Town.

This was not lower-order slogging - these were proper cricket strokes played with immense power off both feet on both sides of the wicket, not too dissimilar to watching a left-handed Andrew Flintoff in full flow.

"I love batting. It's something I always work on, but I don't feel pressure to score runs," he said.

Don't be surprised to see Johnson ascend the batting order in the near future, but right now he is content in his current position.

"I really enjoy batting at eight, it's a really good slot to come in," he added.

Off the field, Johnson keeps the tabloids busy as one half of Australia's most prominent couple.

His fiancée, Jessica Bratich, an Australian karate champion, was recently voted as Australia's hottest Wag by a lads' magazine, earning more column inches with her outfit for the Allan Border Medal dinner in February than the breadth of her sporting career.

But despite all the adulation, Johnson is unfazed by the attention on and off the field.

"I haven't put any pressure on myself with this leader of the attack business, I just keep doing the same things I have been doing," he said.

England have been warned.



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see also
England gear up for the Ashes
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Ashes warm-up photos
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Lee shines but Australia struggle
02 Jul 09 |  Australia
Hughes and Clarke punish Sussex
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Australia tour match photos
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Injured Watson stays with Aussies
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England omit Vaughan and Harmison
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Australia exit ICC World Twenty20
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Aussies lick their wounds
30 Dec 08 |  Cricket
Australia in England 2009
20 Sep 09 |  England


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