If cricket can be characterised by the ponderous tick of a scoreboard clock, Mitchell Johnson is a player in fast forward.
Much of Test cricket’s joy is in gradual gratification: the way you wait through sessions for particular achievements to be built, and through days for what you hope will be a glorious resolution.
More than any in the game, Johnson has a proven yet unpredictable ability to take off. David Warner gets things flying, but an opener writes the premise. Johnson takes stories from their crossroad of possibility to definite conclusions.
He will suddenly arrive, snarling in the midst of decorum, a movie samurai kicking a hole through the set to crash an Ingmar Bergman film. In 60 minutes, or half that, or a quarter, he’ll impose his will on a game. It’s the Mitching hour, and in it everything can change.
At the Gabba in the second Test against India, he did it twice. “He’s just an incredible cricketer,” said The Roar editor Patrick Effeney over the phone, and that deceptively simple quote makes one perceptive distinction: that Johnson is not divided by disciplines. He can do all things on a field with the same intensity, and it is here that he trammels ground no other cricketers tread.
Beyond batting or bowling, Johnson is a supreme athlete. It’s something you only properly appreciate watching him live, as he gets close to the boundary. Television has a way of stripping perspective, but Johnson at 10 yards is a pure slab of muscle. He has a primal physical intensity that often sees him described in animal terms.
Perhaps that’s dubious in an age where players are auctioned to franchised ‘owners’, but it’s undeniable. Lean over the fence and there’s a big cat prowling the boundary line. The thing is, that feeling comes and goes. Some days there’s just a cricketer instead.
When Johnson first came out to bat in Brisbane this week you knew it was on. The pheromones were rich. The Indians were swarming, 150 runs ahead with four wickets to take. They got in his ear. He ignored them, smiling. He pushed a few ones and twos, tried a couple of shots that didn’t connect, then after 10 sighters it was game on.
His bowling technique may have been remodelled but his batting was always pure. It stays simple: drive, hook, cut. His only flaw is the excessive backlift that sees him bowled when balls move or float too full.
But in the meantime it looks so good, the bat cocked at a high angle around two o’clock, then swishing down to make contact at six and follow through to ten. He hits like a spring that’s been wound back and released, the ball flying clean as a new dart. Nothing sums it up better than that smashed commentary box window in Zimbabwe, dead straight down the ground with a laughing batsman waving from the pitch.
The Gabba on Friday saw all that clean striking, relishing the pace the faster it got. Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron all sent down fast overs, Johnson sent them all for multiple boundaries. Short balls were hooked, full ones smashed. Immediately you sensed big runs, not a tail-end cameo.
Waiting at the crease had been the aggressive captain Steve Smith in the form of his career. While Johnson scored 66, Smith got 27. They ended with a partnership of 148.
On the fourth day Johnson did it with the ball, an unstoppable roll. India were close to knocking off the deficit and setting a target on a pitch growing trickier by the hour. They were one wicket down. They had to bat through a good chunk of the day.
Johnson ripped one off the pitch to draw a loose prod from the prodigy Virat Kohli. Bowled. Then snorted Ajinkya Rahane, fending off the face to gully. Then sawed Rohit Sharma in half. Eleven balls, ten runs, three wickets, one match. The Mitching hour, and India under the spell.
For me, one moment symbolised Johnson’s magic better than anything. A while after his three quick wickets, Shikhar Dhawan aimed a powerful drive down the pitch. Johnson bent, picked it up, and in one movement hurled at the striker’s stumps. Dhawan leapt for his crease in an undignified spasm, but would have been out by an inch had Johnson not missed by the same. As in last year’s Ashes, there are times when he can’t be kept quiet. In his groove he’s a boulder chasing Indiana Jones. But this boulder ain’t coming in second.
We hadn’t seen this momentum in a while. Through Tests in Dubai, Sharjah and Adelaide, and even in his wicketless first innings in Brisbane, he had returned to mortality. Those first three pitches are less supportive of the fast bowler’s art, but the intensity was absent in all facets. He played well, but as an ordinary cricketer playing well.
Then came Rohit Sharma. “How many wickets have you got?” he asked as Johnson arrived at the crease to bat. Others were chirping. There was something in the air. Whether or not that was the trigger, Johnson went off. You get the feeling it’s what he needed.
As a person Johnson is relatively quiet, restrained, even shy. My speculation is that he needs a way to get dragged out of his own head. If opponents leave him alone with his thoughts then self doubt can creep in. When they get him angry they give him something to push against. Anger bridges reticence, while a way past self-doubt is to show yourself that you can influence the world around you.
That’s why the last Australian Ashes were the perfect moment for the perfect cricketer. Mitchell Johnson had a massive point to prove. Previous Ashes series had humiliated him, broken him and sent him into the wilderness. He’d been mocked and pilloried. He’d been written off before he’d even bowled a ball. He was really bloody angry, and England had to pay. They heavily underestimated the bill.
This summer may have begun with a bit of a hangover for Johnson. The crowds have been smaller, the noise quieter, the stakes less personal. What has been personal has involved off-field grief with all its distractions. It may also have taken time to shake off a residual hesitance about serious short-pitched bowling.
But this Brisbane confrontation let Johnson find his anger, and suddenly he could get back to hitting blokes and hitting out. The stage was set for another supernatural intervention. In the steadfast procession of Test cricket, the Mitching hour was about to begin.
This article was first published on Wisden India.