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Blistering Johnson burst has South Africa 140-6 in reply to Australia's 397

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CENTURION, South Africa - Mitchell Johnson's breathtaking burst of fast bowling had top-ranked South Africa 140-6 and staggering in reply to Australia's first-innings 397 after the second day of the first test on Thursday.

Johnson ripped out four South Africans, with captain Graeme Smith and Faf du Plessis falling to ferocious and near-unplayable short-pitched deliveries from the left-arm quick at SuperSport Park.

South Africa was 257 behind when rain ended play early.

"I just wanted to hit the wicket as hard as I can," Johnson said. "My plan was really to bang the wicket hard and it came off."

Earlier, Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith both made centuries for Australia. Marsh's 148 was a career-best, Smith's 100 his fourth hundred in seven tests, and their 233-run stand led the Aussies out of trouble and toward early control of the match.

But Johnson completely turned the screw with the ball at one of the home team's favourite grounds with his blistering first spell of 3-10 in four overs, carrying his red-hot Ashes form to South Africa's pace-friendly tracks.

"The role that I've taken in this team is to be the aggressive bowler," Johnson said. "That was my role in Australia and that's my role here. I've enjoyed it, and when the wicket suits ..."

Centurion's surface certainly did. The fourth delivery of the series from Johnson was fast and bounced head-high at Smith, who hit a looping catch up in the air for slip Shaun Marsh to take at a dive after running back.

Johnson's delivery to send back new No. 4 Du Plessis for 3 was even better. Clocked at around 150 kph, it reared at the batsman's throat and Du Plessis could only defend himself and edge to Aussie captain Michael Clarke in the slips.

"It took off. It did surprise me as well," Johnson said of the delivery.

Asked if the Du Plessis ball was one of the most "intimidating" deliveries he'd bowled, he said: "You'll have to ask him that."

Johnson finished with 4-51, living up to pre-series predictions that he would be the biggest weapon in Australia's quest to follow up on its 5-0 whitewash of England by ending South Africa's five-year unbeaten run in test series.

"We're just getting him on a hot streak at the moment," South Africa coach Russell Domingo said. "He's bowled really well and he's put us under a lot of pressure."

Between the wickets of Smith and Du Plessis, Johnson forced another edge off a careless shot from Alviro Petersen who went for 2 and South Africa was 15-2. Hashim Amla briefly thwarted the attack before a successful review by the Australians sent him back lbw for 17 off Peter Siddle for 43-4.

Johnson also took a diving one-handed catch running backward to give spinner Nathan Lyon his wicket and break South Africa's one meaningful partnership, of 67 between AB de Villiers and JP Duminy, out for 25. Returning to bowling, he was simply too fast for Ryan McLaren with a full, straight delivery that sent the off stump tumbling on 8.

"There's nothing that can prepare you for the kind of intensity that you're going to get when you're playing in a test match, I suppose," Domingo said of Johnson's rapid pace. "You're never going to be able to replicate that in nets."

At stumps, De Villiers was 52 not out and holding South Africa's fragile innings together, still short of avoiding the follow-on at Centurion, where the Proteas have lost just one of their 18 previous tests, a record under severe threat.

___

Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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