For the rest of Mitchell Johnson’s life, the defining moment of his career will, of course, be the 2013-14 Ashes, with the early 2014 tour to South Africa to follow.
Taking wickets like a scythe takes wheat: 37 of them in five matches against England, another dozen on the first stop of his African tour at Centurion, ten more in the next two Tests, plus breaking the captain Graeme Smith’s hand for the umpteenth time in their respective careers.
It was that glorious summer where Johnson became an object of pure menace, a dream demon who crossed into batsmen’s waking hours.
From side-on, his run-up looked comical, hands curled up and bouncing in front of his chest, like a cartoon cat sneaking up on a mouse. But from the front the cat became the man-eating jungle variety, prowling to the crease with animal suppleness, bending into a delivery stride that bent his back low, hid ball and arm behind that back, then saw the combination of it all unleash with whip-speed and ferocity.
Down the ball came in an almost flat trajectory, one that would skid through and leap at its target, leaving no part of anatomy unthreatened. Batsmen all but handed in their resignations.
“Your mind’s very clear and it just happens. You feel free, and the ball comes out easy,” he told me in an interview last year.
“It comes out fast, too, because your whole body is relaxed. Cricket bowling is like a catapult. Your front leg plants and that front arm pulls everything through. Your bowling arm needs to be really loose. It’s a great feeling when you get it, you just feel free in your mind.”
Standing at the top of his mark with some feeling of destiny whistling through him like the wind. A moment of pure freedom in a career that had its difficulties.
Of course, Johnson’s career shouldn’t be just about that summer. He finished with 313 Test wickets, fifth of all time for Australia behind a handy few names that run Lyon, Lillee, McGrath, Warne. But it’s worth a note that Johnson beats them all for strike rate. In fact, he beats everyone bar four bowlers in Australia’s top fifty.
But still. Without that 2013-14 season, his career would likely be remembered as one that didn’t deliver on its promise. Some would still make that claim, but that career’s brightest point was so blazing it casts the rest into shade. And when he ascended to that pinnacle, he came from nowhere. Or it seemed that way at the time.
Really, though, it all started a year earlier. It was a brief, oft-forgotten Test where Johnson’s journey from the valley to the summit really began. It was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, on Boxing Day, when Sri Lanka came to town.
In the year before his Ashes triumph, all through 2013, Johnson had barely played for Australia. He had a brief patch in December 2012, but before that, it was again more than a year with barely an appearance in national colours.
Johnson’s time as a team fixture wrapped up in Johannesburg, 2011. Actually, his problem was that he’d been a fixture. With such talent and speed in his bowling, plus his athleticism in the field and his damaging ability with the bat, selectors couldn’t bear to leave him out. These were the years after Glenn McGrath, with Brett Lee often injured, and a new spearhead was sought. Johnson had been spearhead and workhorse combined for years, in every format.
In November 2011, Johnson made 40 not out to finish off a massive run-chase of 310 in Johannesburg. It was one of Australia’s best Test wins, but Johnson had broken his toe while turning for a run in his partnership with the teenage debutant Pat Cummins.
The senior bowler hadn’t really noticed at the time, but tellingly his reaction to the diagnosis was relief. “It felt like a blessing in disguise,” he said. “When I had that toe injury, I was looking forward to something breaking at the time.”
That sounds bizarre, given sportsmen are usually devastated by being injured. But this sportsman was spent.
“I did fall out of love with cricket. You are playing for your country, but it becomes like a job,” was his explanation. “I was able to get away from the game, and I didn’t miss it at first”.
All those years of touring had left him unable to fix problems that had crept into his bowling, or with his strength and conditioning – there was no time when there was always another plane to catch and another game to play. Whenever he struggled, his lines would become erratic and his pace meant that he got tanned. People would bag him as no good. He was exhausted.
Finally, he got a rest. But it started to look as though it might become permanent.
Tellingly, Johnson’s reaction to being diagnosed with a broken toe was relief.
At The Oval in the middle of 2012, Johnson re-entered international cricket in a one-day game for Australia, replacing Cummins, who got sent home with a side strain. Johnson had a dirty day. His first two overs got slapped for 20 and he got dragged from the attack. He bowled four no-balls and two wides in being dispatched for 43 in seven overs. He wasn’t allowed to finish his allotment.
“You need to be able to control the ball,” said his captain, Michael Clarke, pointedly after the game.
“I think our bowling, in general, we didn’t control the ball enough against good opposition, good batters, on a pretty good wicket. We bowled too many wides and no-balls as well – they’re so costly, not only is it a no-ball but you get a free-hit afterwards. So we’ve got areas we need to improve very quickly, not only with the bat but also with the ball.”
The third match was abandoned without a ball bowled, so Johnson was spared the indignity of being dropped per se, but the fourth match of that series featured every other seamer in Australia’s squad: with Cummins missing, the four-man attack was Lee, James Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Clint McKay. Lee got injured in that game, but that wasn’t enough to get Johnson a spot for the fifth and final match.
The home summer of 2012-13 only reinforced the idea of him as yesterday’s man. Selectors settled on a new combination: Pattinson was the new firebrand, Mitchell Starc offered the left-arm variety, while Hilfenhaus swung the ball prodigiously and Peter Siddle offered right-arm reliability with a bit of venom. Collectively they made a good set of quicks.
Johnson’s road back only began when Siddle, Hilfenhaus, and Pattinson were broken by South Africa when the visitors batted out a million overs for a draw at Adelaide. Pattinson had gone down injured 9.1 overs in the first innings, so Siddle bowled 65 overs for the match and Hilfenhaus 54.
The next Test at Perth needed an entirely new bowling attack. In came Starc, who had been waiting for a chance, along with John Hastings, a reliable sort who would never be in the frame for another Test. Finally came Johnson, probably last man picked, getting a gig for the sake of experience to balance the other two, which showed how far down the pecking order he’d slid.
He and Starc each picked up two wickets in the first innings, then shared them in the second as Johnson took four and Starc six. The good news ended there. South Africa dominated Ricky Ponting’s farewell Test, racking up a fourth-innings lead of 632. Starc went at 5.5 an over and leaked 154 runs. In fact, each of Australia’s four frontline bowlers conceded over a hundred. Eight bowlers were used in all, including the retiring Ponting.
But Starc had wickets, and didn’t hurt his case with a freewheeling 68 in Australia’s doomed fourth innings. Siddle and Hilfenhaus came back for the first Test of a new series against Sri Lanka in Hobart. Johnson was out again. And would have stayed out, as Siddle took nine wickets in the match and Starc recovered from a first-innings clobbering to take 5 for 63 in the second.
Hilfenhaus, though, was injured early, bowling only 12.2 overs in the first dig. Changing fortunes would eventually ensure that remained the Tasmanian’s last Test.
Jackson Bird was the replacement Tasmanian, a seamer who hit the deck hard. But then another twist. Starc had taken wickets, but had bowled 53 overs in the match after 45 in Perth. He was told he had to rest for Boxing Day.
So the revolving door of fortune gave Johnson a go again. A left-armer, someone quick, in the same mould. Against a team not known for handling pace and bounce on Australian decks.
But this time, after his preceding shanked attempts, Mitchell Johnson teed off.
As we discussed about Shane Warne at Adelaide in 2006, figures don’t always tell the story. Warne’s four wickets in the second innings there didn’t. Johnson’s four wickets in the first at the MCG don’t either.
He overwhelmed Sri Lanka that day and returned 4 for 64. Kumar Sangakkara was one, the great left-handed stylist who looked like the only one capable of handling that bowling. Until Sangakkara reached 58, at which point Johnson rushed him on the pull shot, and the top edge was taken by wicketkeeper Matthew Wade running back. Johnson didn’t just dismiss Sri Lanka’s keeper Prasanna Jayawardene, but took care of him for the second innings as well by fracturing his thumb.
Sri Lanka got rolled for 156, so the pressure wasn’t exactly on. But an Australian reply of 6 for 315 could still have been sub-par. In came Johnson. As so often tended to happen with his confidence game, success in one discipline bred success in the other.
Out of the 145 runs Australia added from the moment he arrived, Johnson carted 92 of them, eventually left high and dry the team was unable to keep a Bird in hand. It was the second time Johnson had been stranded in the 90s, after Hilfenhaus couldn’t stick around in Johannesburg in 2009. (Luckily that near-miss didn’t haunt Johnson, who went on to slam an unbeaten 123 that same tour.)
In Sri Lanka’s second innings at the MCG, with Jayawardene already absent, Johnson dished out another broken hand. This time Sangakkara was the unlucky recipient. Chanaka Welegedera was also out with a hamstring tear. So after Johnson ran out opening batsman Dimuth Karunaratne in the first over, Australia’s bowlers had six wickets to take between them. Johnson didn’t have to bowl more than eight overs, taking 2 for 16.
“Impersonating [Jeff] Thomson was Mitch Johnson, so often a haunted figure as an international cricketer, now seemingly exorcised,” wrote Greg Baum for The Age. “On bouncy pitches, Johnson at his worst is more frightening for wicketkeepers than batsmen. Here, he locked onto a length from which the Sri Lankan batsmen could find no refuge.”
The Test was over barely halfway through its allotted time.
It may not have been the stiffest opposition, but it was the first time in years that Johnson had reached that whirlwind level that made him so hard to face. The fast bounce, the intimidation factor, the swagger, the batsmen divided between their sporting ambitions and their fear for personal safety. Then the damage he did in the field and the boundaries pinging off his bat.
It was the first time in a long time that Johnson had some mojo back, and the first time he’d rediscovered some enjoyment in the game.
In fact, he’d played so well that selectors had to retain him for Sydney, batting him at seven so they could make good on their promise that Starc would only miss one game. Sure, Johnson was back on the bench during the February and March tour of India, and only played the last of four Tests in a lost series. But he was never suited to that tour’s dustbowl pitches. He was much more suited to the IPL that followed, where bouncier T20 wickets designed for fast scoring let him extract pace and dominate that edition.
“I was swinging the ball at pace, I was one of the leading wicket-takers. That was huge for me, it was good to get out there and just bowl fast. That might have been a sign as well that bowling me in short spells was the best option,” he said.
Those three freewheeling days against Sri Lanka a year before the Ashes were where it all began for Johnson.
Similarly, he missed the 2013 Ashes tour to England – given their softer and spongier decks, a tactical decision was made to hold him back as a surprise weapon for home conditions. He played a couple of ODIs at the end of that English summer, roughing up Jonathan Trott in one particular spell that made Australian selectors raise their eyebrows.
Then a few one-day games in India that October where every bowler got smashed in a series of 350-plus scores, but Johnson was the pick of the bunch looking fast and fluid again.
It was getting late in 2013. Selectors pulled him from the finals of that one-day series so he could come home to play Sheffield Shield ahead of the home Ashes summer. At the time it seemed a strange decision, a backwards one. Johnson? Again? Wasn’t he yesterday’s news?
Well, yes, and also no. Because suddenly the past no longer mattered. Suddenly he blew through it like crepe paper.
Instead, he launched for one of the most significant singlehanded bowling efforts in any series, one that defined it and him, the latest instalment in the lineage of pure pace bowling that defines the Ashes, back through Flintoff and Jones, Lillee and Thomson, Snow, Tyson, Larwood and Voce, McDonald and Gregory. Speed and its exhilaration.
But despite the suddenness with which that moment seemed to arrive, the wisdom of New Zealand haircare expert Rachel Stewart was applicable: it didn’t happen overnight. Those three freewheeling days against Sri Lanka a year before were where it all began.
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Written by Geoff Lemon
Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster on sport, politics and literature. He’s on Twitter @GeoffLemonSport.
Design and editing by Daniel Jeffrey
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