He means business

Fast and furious... Mitchell Johnson is now seen as the spearhead of the Aussie attack.-K. R. DEEPAK

Mitchell Johnson has added the intimidatory edge to his bowling and this was evident in the series victory in South Africa. “That’s what being a fast bowler is all about. You need to intimidate the batsmen at the other end. In South Africa that was definitely one of my plans, to really get up their batsmen and show them we were serious,” says the Aussie fast bowler in a chat with Paul Hayward.

When Mitchell Johnson became engaged to a karate champion called Jessica Bratich, his local paper, the Townsville Bulletin, ran the story in an edition that contained many evocative headlines, such as “Snakes lure deadly toads and both die” and “Bed-bound koala startles tourists”.

Ricky Ponting’s new strike bowler is a small-town Australian with a big town aura. He is the quintessential menace to English batsmen, updated to include piercings and tattoos. After his demonic displays with the ball in South Africa earlier this year, where he wounded Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, Ashes spectators will be seeing the anointed heir to Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath, the retired nemesis who inspired Johnson with his part in the 5-0 trouncing of England in 2006-07.

But the 27-year-old Queenslander is not sure he wants to be lumbered with what he calls “this leader of the attack business”. Or, at least, he wants the job, but not the label, a reluctance that England’s Kevin Pietersen has already tried to exploit. “It’s going to be difficult for him because he’s got all the pressure of being Australia’s best player, Australia’s big all-rounder. So we’ll see how that tag goes down with him,” Pietersen said in a classic pre-curtain psychological foray.

“Look, I really haven’t put a lot of pressure on myself for this leader of the attack business. I just keep doing the same things I’ve been doing, doing the hard work on the field, playing hard cricket, doing the hard work off the field with training,” Johnson says. “That’s how I try to lead, by example, so I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of it all.”

Since Thommo and Lillee, the Aussie quick has been a symbol of Antipodean machismo, a snorting riposte to Pommie smugness. “I couldn’t wait to have a crack at ’em,” Thomson said. “I thought: ‘Stuff that stiff upper lip crap. Let’s see how stiff it is when it’s split’.”

The less stereotypically combative Johnson walks the modern tightrope of interview diplomacy, yet all the lights go on in his face if you ask him about the intimidatory edge he added to his bowling in the series victory in South Africa, where he took 16 wickets in three Tests at 25.00 and averaged 85 with the bat, after resolving, last year, to spend more time on the receiving end in the nets: “Yeah, definitely, that’s what being a fast bowler is all about. You need to intimidate the batsmen at the other end. In South Africa that was definitely one of my plans, to really get up their batsmen and show them we were serious. That’s something I’m definitely going to take into my game more often, because I’m not as verbal or in your face as some guys might be. You want them to feel very uncomfortable. You want that in their mind when they come out to bat, that they’re in for a real tough time.”

With his 94 wickets in 21 Tests, Johnson ought to be more familiar to English audiences, but this is his real Ashes baptism. Picked out as “a once in a generation bowler” by Lillee, he has had to wait for the shadow of McGrath and Shane Warne to lift fully to assume seniority: “I guess it’s a confidence thing for me. I’ve really learned my game. I’ve become more comfortable with the way I bowl, the way I play my cricket, and with the group of guys we have in the team. A lot of the bowlers are of a similar age. (Stuart) Clark’s a bit older, but myself, (Peter) Siddle and (Ben) Hilfenhaus are pretty similar. That definitely can help.

“That’s been a part of it. I just remember first coming into the Australian team. It was quite daunting. You had Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, all the big names. I guess you’re not sure if you really belong in the side. Now I feel I belong in the team. I have that confidence. We were going through that patch where people were saying Australian fast-bowling stocks aren’t there anymore. We were hearing that all the time.”

The worst news for the home defence is that Johnson has been plotting with the specialist who masterminded England’s reverse-swing blitz in 2005: “I’ve known Troy Cooley since I was 17. I was swinging it when I first met him, then I lost it. It was my arm height more than anything. I’ve been working especially on swinging it back into the right-handers. I generally try to hit the deck hard and get it across the right-hander. I can go higher or I can go a little slingier. Depends on the conditions and the ball.”

A far cry from Thomson’s doctrine: “I just shuffle up and go wang.” England’s batsmen are still in peril, though. From Johnson’s mitt the ball will frequently be fired into the ribs or “the top of the badge”, which, he says, these Australian bowlers “always talk about”.

The lefties, too, can expect a peppering. “I’ve thought about their openers, (Alastair) Cook and (Andrew) Strauss, being left-handed. I’m really looking forward to that. If I can swing the ball away from those guys I’m going to be very happy. If you can break Strauss, break the captain, it definitely helps your chances.”

Johnson’s best memory of a broken man is his most chilling. It recalls the first ball of the first Ashes Test in Brisbane nearly three years ago, where Clark was picked ahead of him, and Steve Harmison sprayed the opening delivery to Andrew Flintoff at second slip. “I was in the car heading off to a State game at the time, listening to it on the radio,” Johnson remembers. “There was a bit of shock about it. I actually thought we were going to win that Test match from that ball. And I guess the guys felt that as well.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009