Mitchell Johnson: just who Australia needs this summer
Throughout his career, Mitchell Johnson has been akin to Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates in that you never quite know what you are going to get.
On-song, he is a bona fide match-winner who can blast out the best batting orders in the world, but when things go awry they can do so in a big way.
Johnson’s polar opposites in performance were perfectly highlighted in the space of a few months in 2009.
Coming off a fine Australian summer in 2008-09 – 31 wickets at 19.2 in six Tests including 8-61 in an innings against the Proteas in Perth – he arrived in South Africa brimming with confidence.
In the space of three Tests he took his game to a whole new level.
For the first time in his career he mastered the inswinger to the right-handers which made him a devastating prospect.
Up until that point batsmen had been secure in the knowledge that Johnson simply angled the ball towards slip, albeit at genuine pace.
But in South Africa in early 2009 he had the ball going both ways, claiming 16 wickets at 25.0.
It was not only his bowling that put South Africa on the back foot but his batting as well.
After an unbeaten 96 in the opening Test at Johannesburg, he closed the series with his maiden Test hundred – a thunderous 123 not out – in Cape Town.
Having been named the ICC’s International Test Player of the Year, Johnson embarked on his first Ashes tour as one of the key men in Ricky Ponting’s arsenal.
Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan and the consistency he had displayed with the ball in the previous six months deserted him.
At times he was struggling to hit the pitch.
Just when it seemed that the bad ole days were a thing of the past, Johnson again fell to the inconsistency that had plagued his career.
At the age of 31 and with 51 Tests behind him it appears that consistency with the ball is never going to be a strong suit in his game.
Several times in recent years he has been called upon to do remedial work with his mentor Dennis Lillee and former Australian team bowling coach Troy Cooley.
Famously, during the Ashes series of 2010-11 he was dropped following the opening Test at Brisbane after returning figures of 0-170.
Rather than go back to domestic level he went with the squad to Adelaide and spent time working on his action in the nets with Cooley.
He was given the tick to return to the fold for the next Test at Perth where he won the man-of-the-match award with figures of 6-38 and 3-44 as well as a swashbuckling 62.
It wasn’t long before waywardness again reared its ugly head with the Barmy Army constantly reprising a chant that had first been heard in England in 2009 – “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right. That Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is shite.”
Johnson’s last Test was in India in March when he was recalled to the fold having been overlooked for the first two Tests and ruled out of contention for the third as one of the four players who were embroiled in ‘Homework-gate’.
Johnson failed to claim a wicket at Delhi and left India with his Test future in doubt.
He soon learnt that he was not part of the Ashes squad, a blow that had many wondering whether he would have the chance again to add to his haul of 205 Test wickets.
He did make it to England for the Champions Trophy and the T20s and one-day series against England that bracketed the Ashes Tests.
His bowling in the past few weeks has seen him again being mentioned as a Test prospect for the return Ashes series this summer.
A fortnight ago he terrorised a Scotland XI in a 50-over international, claiming 4-36 off 9.5 overs.
He then continued that form in the four one-day games he played against England.
He bowled with a combination of ferocious speed and control – two suits that have not always gone hand-in-hand for Johnson.
His pace regularly climbed above 145km/h and in doing so there appeared to be no dilution of his action.
His wrist position – so often the bane of his career – was maintained behind the ball rather than dropping off towards the offside.
Johnson has always been known for his ability to extract bounce that surprises the batsman – Graeme Smith can attest to that with two broken thumbs in the space of a few months in early-2009 and Jacques Kallis who was forced to retire hurt at Durban in 2009 after being struck on the jaw.
Nine weeks out from the opening Ashes Test at Brisbane a cloud hangs over the fitness of several of Australia’s key quicks, with James Pattinson, Ryan Harris and Jackson Bird all currently in rehab for various injuries. Pat Cummins has also been ruled out for the summer.
Michael Clarke and the selectors will be keen to make a statement in the opening Test to remind the England team that this time around it will be playing on Australian pitches, not the low and slow ones that were turned out regularly during the recent series in England.
Should Johnson hold his form through the three rounds of Sheffield Shield fixtures ahead of the Brisbane Test he may well be the shock trooper that Clarke will be looking for.
If Johnson can continue to harness both pace and control he will prove to be a handful.
In recent times he has fallen behind the pack with the likes of Siddle, Pattinson, Bird, Harris and Starc being preferred ahead of him.
The ball is firmly in Johnson’s court.
A good start to the Australian summer in domestic ranks will have him very much in the frame for the first Test at Brisbane.
And, if they come out right, who knows, he may be around in the baggy green for quite a while yet.
After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.