Port Elizabeth - Twenty-two players will line up for the national anthems this morning prior to the start of the second Test between South Africa and Australia at St George’s Park.
The focus, though, will only be on one man, and that is the handle-bar moustachioed gun-slinger from the west, Mitchell Johnson (he plays state cricket for Western Australia).
There is no way to downplay the fact that Johnson’s performance in this Test will decide its outcome, and possibly the series.
In red-hot form, the southpaw is the singular difference between Australia and any team in world cricket at the moment.
England were the first to feel the brunt of Johnson’s resurgence, and it is now the Proteas’ chance to find out whether they have the skill and character – required in equal doses – to neutralise Australia’s weapon of mass destruction.
1 Be prepared to ‘wear it’!
Don’t be afraid. Easier said than done, you say. Of course, because we’re not the ones standing 22 yards and 0.47 seconds away from having a red piece of leather crashing into our rib-cage or head, regardless of all the protective gear.
But just like Johnson, the SA batsmen are highly-skilled professional athletes who have proved their ability countless times. Now is the time to show courage, just like Smith did at the SCG in 2009 when he was prepared to face Johnson even with a broken hand.
AB de Villiers left his teammates with these words of advice after the Centurion Test. “You can’t show weakness … you’ve got to be prepared to get hurt. Once you don’t have that fear of getting hurt, then I feel you play a lot better.”
2 Formulate a gameplan
Ian Chappell, former Australian Test batsman who encountered the hostile pace of the West Indian arsenal during the Kerry Packer rebel series in the 1970s, believes: “You need to be well organised to be able to deal with it – like batting against any bowler, you’ve got to have a plan.
“As long as you’ve got yourself a solid idea of what it is that you need to do to not only survive but prosper, it gives you a better chance than if you go out there with no idea of what your plan is,” Chappell recently said.
He also said the key to disrupting Johnson is to find a way to change the left-armer’s length because when he pitches it full and tries to swing the ball, he often sprays his deliveries.
3 Watch the ball closely
It sounds like simple advice. But aside from taking on the short ball by hooking and pulling, watching the ball and ducking under or dropping the hands out of harm’s way and then swaying back to let the ball pass by is imperative.
JP Duminy has had his share of troubles against the short ball throughout his career, but before he gifted his first-innings wicket away to off-spinner Nathan Lyon, he had actually handled Johnson fairly comfortably at SuperSport Park.
At the point of delivery he had an exaggerated eye movement, where his pupils just got bigger, so that he could play close attention to where the ball is delivered.
It did not matter whether he was playing an attacking shot – remember the pull in front of square off Johnson – or whether he was taking evasive action by swaying out of the direction of a bouncer. He never took his eyes off the ball as it passed through to wicket-keeper Brad Haddin.
4 Get into his head!
The prototype Jekyll and Hyde fast bowler. When Johnson is on form, like he is now, he is virtually unstoppable.
But just as he is awesome, he can be horrible, as the Barmy Army kept reminding him with the song “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, That Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is sh*te.”
They certainly weren’t singing it in the most recent Ashes, and Johnson’s admitted that he has seen a psychologist to help him deal with it as it had affected him mentally.
But a few choice words from the Proteas, especially when he is batting, coupled with a special song in Johnson’s “honour” from the St George’s Park band could just open up those wounds again and get the ball going to the slips instead.
5 Shave that moustache!
He seems to have the powers of Samson with that tuft of hair on his upper lip.
It was supposed to be for “Movember”, and his wife made him remove that horrible-looking thing after the Ashes. But such was the success he had with it on, he grew it back for the South African tour on the advice of his teammates. The Proteas need to find someone to force Johnson to go to a barber.
SA vs AUSSIES at St George’s park
w Mar 3-6, 1950: Australia won by an innings and 259 runs.
w Feb 28-Mar 4, 1958: Australia won by eight wickets.
w Feb 24-28, 1967: South Africa won by seven wickets.
w Mar 5-10, 1970: South Africa won by 323 runs.
w Mar 14-17, 1997: Australia won by two wickets.