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Johnson has lifted it up a notch, or three

Australia's Mitchell Johnson (centre) celebrates. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)
Roar Rookie
11th December, 2013
1

He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, he is Mitchell Johnson… and the former plumbing van driver is setting this Ashes alight.

And as he has captured the imagination of the Australian public with his incredible resurgence, it seems only fitting that I share my thoughts on the resurgence of Mitchell Johnson.

In the summer of 2011-12 I was the Communications Assistant at the WACA. While my role was very much a junior position, on some occasions I was tasked with some responsibilities that far outweighed my pay grade.

One of these was the opportunity to facilitate a press conference at the airport on behalf of Cricket Australia for Mitchell Johnson, who had just returned from South Africa nursing a mystery foot injury.

While the six months there were some of my most memorable, that opportunity to briefly rub shoulders with Australian cricket’s greatest enigma certainly stands out.

As was procedure, I contacted Johnson about an hour before the presser to firstly introduce myself and to brief him on the presser, before then arranging a meeting spot.

“I’ll get [my wife] Jess to drop me off at the gate. I can’t walk too well, mate,” Johnson told me.

As I met him at the gate, the menacing spearhead cut a forlorn figure, hobbling on his crutches, his left foot encased in a moon boot.

Johnson had returned from South Africa having been at the non-striker’s end to watch Pat Cummins hit the winning runs to secure a memorable victory in Johannesburg.

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It was soon discovered that he had a floating piece of metal in his foot, and his career was hanging in the balance. He had shortened his run up in an attempt to retain some of his rhythm yet he was still quite erratic, and despite some useful runs in the lower order, his injury was serious.

It would see him miss the majority of the summer, and for a man tipping over the wrong side of 30, there was talk among the media that his career could be over.

As I handed him a Cricket Australia shirt to wear (which he politely declined – “Can’t stand the sports bra look,” he said), we briefly chatted about how he was feeling, and what the future would hold.

In what was nothing more than idle conversation, he said while he was hopeful of getting back out there, he simply didn’t know what was in store for the next six months and he would wait on the surgeon’s advice.

As the presser got underway, the topic was obvious. How serious was the injury? What would the next few months hold? Would this be the end of a player Dennis Lillee once dubbed a ‘once in a generation bowler’ at the age of 17?

As I left him to check in and board his flight, I couldn’t help but harboring the same thoughts.

Surely it was too far a stretch to see Johnson again become the absolute world-beater that he had been, albeit for a fleeting moment in his career.

I had watched him rip apart a star-studded South African side at the WACA on his way to 8-61 in 2008, in some of the most awe-inspiring fast bowling I have ever seen live.

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I also watched on in despair as his radar – and simultaneously his mental state – disintegrated at Lord’s in 2009.

But with arguably the greatest paceman produced in this country as his tutor, Johnson showed serious character on his way back.

With Dennis Lillee on speed dial, Johnson made his comeback against South Africa at the WACA, snaring two wickets in the first innings and a wayward 4-110 in the second, despite Australia suffering a heavy loss. And on Boxing Day against Sri Lanka last year he was back to his best, shattering stumps and bones while scoring a composed 92 not out.

His renaissance in this Ashes series has been nothing short of phenomenal, yet the rebirth can be traced to those two Test matches last year.

He managed his 200th wicket on Boxing Day, which puts him in exalted company. He is currently ensconced in the top 10 Australian wicket-takers of all time, which for me signals his place in Australian cricket.

By no means forget the doldrums of 2009-2011, for that is just part of Johnson’s composition. It is now embedded in his character.

As I remember my encounter with the spearhead, I was taken aback at how shy he was. His off-field persona is light years away from the snarling quick, spitting venom and epithets in equal measure, intent on maiming his natural enemy, the batsman.

Those who witnessed his performances in India saw that his pace had returned, but surely no one anticipated his magnificent renaissance in the past three weeks.

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But in saying that, who are we to write him off? Here is a man with over 400 international wickets, who has a century and two unbeaten 90s to his name. He has experience on his side, as well as the rare skill of raw pace.

You cannot overlook the importance of a settled personal life, and as a new father, it has given Johnson new perspective.

It is fitting that he is also known as ‘Notch’, for he has lifted his game to a new level.

Let’s hope it is a renaissance that hands Australia a small urn.