Johnson claimed four wickets, three of them in a sensational opening burst of four overs, to send South Africa limping to stumps on 140 for six, still needing 57 just to avoid the follow-on.
How to play Johnson is probably the most common question in international changerooms these days as the left-armer took his record in his last six Tests to a phenomenal 38 wickets at an average of just 14.15.
While one should praise the South African batsmen’s efforts to get into line against the most fearsome fast bowler in the game, technically they were far too eager to get bat to ball when Johnson dug the ball in short.
Barry Richards, Peter Kirsten and Kepler Wessels were all prolific run-scorers in county cricket, where they faced the best generation of fast bowlers – the West Indians – day in and day out. Wessels also played eight Tests against the Caribbean dominators (seven for Australia) and averaged a highly-creditable 44.66 against them. So that trio of great South African batsmen certainly know a thing or two about playing fast bowling and their advice had a common theme of either getting out of the way or making sure you drop the hands.
“It’s about handling the intimidation and the pace, around 147km/h, and you’ve also got to look out for the in-swinger. The key is keeping your balance, keeping your head still and don’t get your right foot too far across.
“The batsmen also need to get their hands down quicker and bob and weave more. You’ve got to choose the right time to pull, but they were good balls to Smith and Du Plessis,” Kirsten, a diminutive batsman but high-quality player of pace, said yesterday.
Richards said the key was not getting yourself in a bad position.
“There wasn’t a lot of swing out there, so it was all about the bounce, the short ball. You need to get out of the way, make sure you don’t get caught in a bad position. Like Graeme Smith did – he’s a tall and imposing batsmen and he tried to ride with the bounce, but it got big on him and he had nowhere to go.
“It’s not easy, but if the ball is short, you’ve got to sway or duck out of the way,” Richards said.
The former Hampshire opening batsman had many epic tussles with fellow South African Mike Procter, another awkward fast bowler with an unusual action.
“Proccie had this big in-swinging bouncer that used to follow you. So you had to go the other way, but it’s not easy to duck your head towards where the ball is coming from!” Richards said.
Wessels, who has served as a batting consultant for the South Africans in the past, said accepting that getting hit was likely was an important part of successfully playing fast bowling.
“You have to get in line and drop the hands and if you’re going to take it on the body then just accept that you’re going to get hit,” Wessels said.
It takes bundles of courage to face truly fast bowling like Johnson’s, but Wessels said it was important to still remain positive.
“You need to have one back-foot scoring stroke and just evade the other balls. The West Indies had four guys of Johnson’s pace and initially I just tried to survive. But then after two hours you’d just have 15, so I decided to attack them.”
The South African batsmen have also obviously not faced someone as fast as Johnson for some time, which Wessels said meant they would need some time to adjust.
Proteas coach Russell Domingo said no matter how well prepared they were, “you can never replicate the pressure and intensity of Test cricket like that”.
“It’s what we expected of him, but the challenge is with his action, you don’t know which ones to leave. He’s skiddy, which makes him so dangerous, whereas someone like Morne Morkel has a high arm action and gets more consistent bounce,” Domingo said.
Johnson admitted that the inconsistent bounce of the Centurion pitch had him licking his lips.
“There are a few cracks and I felt when I was batting that there was something there, just back-of-a-length. Smith’s dismissal was one of those good balls that took off and the ball to Faf took off a bit as well. It surprised him and it surprised me too. I do enjoy bowling on these sort of pitches,” Johnson said.
Spectators enjoy watching Johnson in action and the way he went about his business on Thursday was much like a lion kill. The South African batsmen were probably feeling a bit like the unfortunate impala last night.