Strike bowler: Australia's lethal weapon Mitchell Johnson. Photo: Getty Images
Pat Cummins says Australia noticed the trepidation of South Africa's batsmen when facing Mitchell Johnson just over two years ago – even when the left-arm paceman was suffering an alarming crisis in confidence.
Cummins, who made his Test debut during the dramatic 1-1 drawn series in South Africa in late 2011, said there was a feeling within the Australian squad on that tour that Johnson was the paceman the Proteas most feared.
Australia's belief was based on Johnson's spectacular performances in the back-to-back series against the Proteas in 2008-09 when, apart from being a match-winner, he also broke bones in Graeme Smith's hand on two occasions. Johnson, however, failed to make an impact in Australia's last tour of South Africa. He finished the series a beaten man, seriously injured and with his game in disarray, rather than causing such problems for Smith's team.
Tour to remember: South Africa's Graeme Smith had to retire injured after taking a Mitchell Johnson delivery on the hand in 2011. Photo: Hamish Blair
But it will be a different Johnson facing the Proteas on Wednesday week at Centurion after his brilliant Ashes campaign during which he battered the English batsmen into submission and collected Australian cricket's highest individual honour.
As an indication of how much of a handful Johnson could be for the South Africans, he claimed six wickets in a losing cause in Perth in late 2012 when he was in the early stages of his Test comeback and yet to bed down significant changes to his game.
Johnson's Ashes heroics this summer with the ball will only strengthen Australia's belief that they have the firepower to unsettle South Africa's star-studded batting line-up.
''Even on that last tour [in 2011], he was a little bit out of form but he was the main bowler they were scared of,'' Cummins said. ''They still remember the tour before and him bowling 150s [at 150km/h] throughout this summer will reiterate that to them and I'm sure they'll be a little bit nervous.
''A couple of series ago over there was when he really rattled them. I think he broke Graeme Smith's hand and I'm sure they still remember that.
''We spoke about it in our team that they'll always be a little bit more tentative because they remember how destructive he was the tour before. I'm sure they talk about it and at least think about it.'' Cummins' comments, which come days after Peter Siddle said Australia would again target Smith, South Africa's captain, provides further insight into the confidence Michael Clarke's bowlers are taking into the eagerly awaited, three-Test series.
Last week, Proteas coach Russell Domingo said he hoped the curators would prepare pace-friendly pitches which would suit South Africa's pace aces – and also Johnson, Ryan Harris and Siddle.
Cummins noticed during his Test debut, when he worried the Proteas with his speed and captured seven wickets, that South African decks provided encouragement to the quicks, even if they were good batting pitches.
‘‘Even if the ball wasn’t swinging or moving sideways, someone like Johnson and Harris are still going to get a lot of pace and bounce out of it,’’ Cummins said. ‘‘I think you always feel like you’re in the game as a quick bowler.’’
Cummins is bullish about Australia’s chances of upsetting South Africa on their soil.
His confidence stems from the Ashes whitewash, the retirement of all-rounder Jacques Kallis and his belief Australia have a far more settled attack.
The Proteas have yet to decide who will replace Kallis, naming inexperienced all-rounders Wayne Parnell and Ryan McLaren in a 15-man squad, and after much chopping and changing have settled on left-armer Robin Peterson as their spinner instead of leggie Imram Tahir.
‘‘Their three quicks are world class [but], for them, Jacques Kallis is a big loss and not having a settled spinner is probably the big difference to where they were a couple of years ago,’’ Cummins said. ‘‘We’ve got the three quicks plus a settled spinner in Lyno [Nathan Lyon] and [Shane Watson] as a great all-rounder. It’ll be a great contest but if we play the way we did against this summer, I can’t see another team beating us.’’