Those in the know fell hard for Mitchell Johnson. Dennis Lillee was the first.
Up in Townsville in the late 90s holding a fast-bowling camp, Lillee was quickly onto his great mate Rod Marsh after watching this young man deliver the ball with some serious pace – and with his left hand to boot.
Marsh was next to fall. In an Inside Cricket article back in 2000 the Australian Cricket Academy coach told Kerry O’Keefe:
“It was the way the ball came out which impressed us most – like Dennis and Wasim Akram, Mitchell was genuinely quick off two paces… In my opinion, he is better than Brett Lee was at the same age.”
Queensland selectors seemed to agree, giving Johnson his first class debut against the touring New Zealanders 12 months later. While this was six years before his Test debut, Johnson gave a small glimpse into what would come.
His maiden first class wicket was opener Mark Richardson spooning a half-volley to midwicket, while his opening (and only) runs came from his fifth ball, a hit over the boundary.
After his fourth set of stress fractures in his back, Johnson came back and it was the Australian selectors turn to fall hard. He was selected for his first game in Australian colours – a one day international against New Zealand – but wasn’t ready for the big time.
Coming in as the Australian replacement for Simon Katich, Johnson went for 64 runs in nine overs. This convinced the selectors to let Johnson incubate at state level for a little longer; hardly surprising given he’d played 12 first class games up to that point.
A ten-wicket haul on a flat wicket in the 2005/06 Pura Cup final, a shockingly poor ODI against South Africa and a few moderate games against Bangladesh followed before he suddenly found international form in the unlikely setting of Kuala Lumpur.
Four Indian wickets in just eight balls – Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar among them – suddenly had the world sitting up and watching closely. Soon after in India a 10-over spell of 3/40 against England had pundits like The Times’ Simon Wilde purring about how this young man with a pierced tongue and lip could be the key for Australia in that year’s Ashes series.
By 2008/09 we’d all fallen hard. Eleven wickets against South Africa in Perth – in a losing cause no less – preceded his personal vendetta against Graeme Smith’s fingers, breaking one on his left hand in the win in Sydney before breaking another on the right in Durban.
That second injury came as Johnson recorded some of the most fearsome spells in Test cricket, dismissing Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla in his first over, breaking Smith’s finger in his second before coming back and forcing Jacques Kallis off after hitting him on the chin.
Just to emphasise his point he then bowled Mark Boucher with the last ball before tea, then hit his maiden Test century in the next Test.
Here was the man Australian cricket could settle down with, raising a tribe of Australian quicks before retiring to the commentary box of choice next to other legends of the game.
Except, from a cricketing perspective, Johnson wasn’t the settling type. Come the 2009 Ashes it turned out he really wasn’t up to raising a tribe of quicks on his own; hell, he was barely able to raise anything apart from English scoring rates.
When Australia took Johnson around to meet the parents at Lord’s he didn’t deliberately trash the place, but rather found himself unable to turn without disturbing the fine china.
Three wickets for 200 runs at over five runs an over is ugly reading for any cricketer, let alone one who was supposed to lead Australia to new glories.
So we’d fallen out of love, and damned if we were going to let him back into our hearts without some evidence he wasn’t going to embarrass us again. And he tried. Truly he did.
Consistent hauls against West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand convinced us all he’d turned a corner, that he’d come good – only for England to return and with it our feelings of disillusionment. Despite his nine-wicket haul in Perth, Johnson drifted out of contention, a foot injury after a South African series confirming he wasn’t ‘the one’ we were looking for.
Which brings us to Johnson’s latest Test incarnation. There were certainly many who took the news badly when Johnson was named against South Africa as Australia completely revamped their fast-bowling attack between Adelaide and Perth.
While he performed credibly, and again in two Tests against Sri Lanka later that summer, only the most hopeless romantics believe he will lead Australia to future glory.
Instead Johnson’s become that rarest of beasts – the ex you keep in contact with, with whom you still get along.
Seems as though everyone’s much happier with the result.