By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A rejuvenated Mitchell Johnson needs only one victim to become Australia’s third-highest test wicket-taker but will hope for a bigger haul at his home ground in Perth, where New Zealand will be fighting to keep the three-match series alive.
The mercurial left-armer’s four wickets in the 208-run thrashing in Brisbane took him level with fellow paceman Brett Lee on 310 wickets and behind only fast bowling great Glenn McGrath (563) and inimitable legspinner Shane Warne (708).
The exalted company Johnson now keeps is testament to the Queenslander’s determination as much as his talent, having battled self-doubt and long periods in the wilderness before barging his way back into the side two years ago.
Johnson revealed during the Gabba test he had come through another period of introspection in the wake of Australia’s 3-2 Ashes series loss this year as he approached his 34th birthday.
Johnson, who had almost singlehandedly destroyed England during the 2013/14 home series, was to have been rested for the Bangladesh tour that was ultimately scrapped and sat out most of the domestic one-day Matador Cup tournament.
“The six-week period I had at home was quite difficult, to be honest,” Johnson told state radio broadcaster ABC during the Gabba test.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play or not. I played the Matador Cup games and the Shield game and I started to get a bit of fire in the belly.”
Late on day two of the opening test, that fire had become an inferno as Johnson and fellow left-armer Mitchell Starc unleashed a lethal 20-minute spell that tore through New Zealand’s top order and took the match away from the tourists.
“I feel like getting out there and bowling. I am committed and raring,” Johnson said.
Though he was born and raised in steamy northern Queensland, the WACA has been Johnson’s spiritual home for most of his career and the scene of some of his greatest triumphs.
A paceman’s paradise, an afternoon sea-breeze known locally as the ‘Fremantle Doctor’ adds a devilish element to Johnson’s express pace and swing, bringing the ball into right-handed batsmen who can then be bamboozled by a straighter delivery.
New Zealand’s own left-armer Trent Boult will be keen to return fire after a tough outing in Brisbane but his swing bowling team mate Tim Southee remains a doubt after injuring his back at the Gabba.
Australia are unlikely to change the winning side from the Gabba but New Zealand have been forced into at least one change, with allrounder James Neesham ruled out for the series.
Fast bowler Neil Wagner has been named as cover if Southee fails to prove his fitness.
New Zealand have beaten Australia only once in six tests at the WACA, the last time in 1985/86 when all-rounder Richard Hadlee torched the hosts with 11 wickets. Three of the matches have been drawn.
The odds would appear stacked against the tourists but they showed in the tied series in England their ability to hit back after defeat and should improve from the Gabba drubbing.
“I think our attack is up there with the best in the world,” Wagner said. “If we can be more consistent for long periods of time, we’ll definitely show that.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)