As good as Mitchell Johnson was during the Ashes, he was never this good. South Africa are the world’s No.1-ranked side, by a distance. They entered this match having lost only one of their past 19 Tests. Johnson not only dismantled them as a team, he almost dismembered them as individuals. He took a career-best 12 wickets as Australia cruised to a 281-run victory but just as important were the physical blows he landed. South Africa will not forget how intimidated they felt.
As in the first innings, AB de Villiers was the only South Africa batsman who looked truly comfortable against Johnson. The rest were ill-equipped to handle his speed and bounce. He smashed Hashim Amla on the grille of the helmet first ball. He made Ryan McLaren bleed from the side of the head with an accurate bouncer. He jarred Vernon Philander on the fingers, then broke his bat. Those South Africans who merely lost their wickets were lucky.
Johnson claimed 12 of them throughout the match, for 127 runs. He was the first Australia fast bowler since Bruce Reid in 1991 to take that many in a Test. Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle chipped in with two wickets each in the second innings and their contributions were valuable. But this was about Johnson. His pace was matched only by the speed of Alex Doolan’s reactions at short leg, where he took two of the most remarkable, reflex catches under the helmet.
South Africa’s target of 482 never really looked anything more than a theoretical goal. Michael Clarke declared after 3.2 overs on the fourth morning because he had seen enough from the pitch to know that batting on it would be difficult. There were cracks, there was variable bounce, there was movement, there was danger. South Africa did not manage to see out the day; Australia’s sixth consecutive Test victory was secured when Morne Morkel was run out an hour into the final session.
Graeme Smith was left to ponder his decision at the toss, when he sent Australia in and, in doing so, consigned his own men to batting last on a seriously tricky surface. Not that the pitch accounted for all the batsmen. Alviro Petersen edged behind in Johnson’s first over of the innings because he had to play at a well-directed ball angling across him. Smith himself departed in Johnson’s second over to the first of Doolan’s two outstanding takes.
Clarke had placed Doolan in close, but slightly behind square and a touch deeper than usual, and Smith obligingly flicked the ball straight in that direction. Doolan’s reflexes kicked in and he grasped the catch with the kind of split-second reaction that was the trademark of another short-leg from Launceston, David Boon. Smith had middled the ball but could only shake his head as he walked off with the score at 12 for 2.
That brought Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis together and they steadied somewhat during a 37-run partnership. Amla had done well to compose himself after being greeted first ball with a searing Johnson bumper that smashed into the grille of his helmet as he failed to get his bat up in time. Perhaps du Plessis should have been grateful that he was done by a ball that stayed low, not one that rose sharply. Siddle came wide of the crease and angled the ball in, hitting a crack just outside off and skidding into the shins of du Plessis, who was lbw for 18.
Amla and de Villiers looked reasonable for a while but Amla’s solid resistance ended on 35 from 71 deliveries when he drove at a Harris delivery that just straightened enough to take the edge through to Shaun Marsh at first slip. JP Duminy stuck around for a while before he became the second of Doolan’s victims, this catch even better than the first. Duminy flicked Johnson off the middle of the bat and Doolan, in a more regular short-leg position, did not flinch. Instead, he moved his hands just enough to his left to parry the ball up and clutch it on the second or third grab.
That left de Villiers with only the allrounders and bowlers to accompany him, and the end seemed nigh. Two balls before tea, McLaren was struck a vicious blow on the side of the helmet when he ducked into a 148kph Johnson bouncer. He bled but survived, although when he returned after the break he did not last long, tickling a catch through to Brad Haddin off another searingly fast short ball from Johnson, who at times was unplayable.
The resistance shown by de Villiers ended on 48 when he was sharply taken by Steven Smith at cover off Johnson and from there the rest fell quickly. Robin Peterson was bowled by a Siddle ball that stayed so low it was almost a grubber, and Dale Steyn was taken at slip off Harris. Johnson broke Philander’s bat and nearly his hand but did not claim his wicket as Philander remained unbeaten on 26 when the final run-out occurred.
Along the way, Johnson had become the seventh Australian to claim 250 Test wickets and not surprisingly picked up his fourth Man of the Match award from the past six Tests. South Africa might take solace from the fact that the next Test is in Port Elizabeth, where the pitch is generally slower. But they should note that Johnson’s finest Ashes Test of this summer was in Adelaide, on a sluggish surface. They have four days to work out how in the world to play him.