"The problem is that time erodes even the most vivid of cricketing memories. Eventually all you are left with is a series of random snapshots, which bear little relation to the way things were, but which have to do." - Marcus Berkmann, Rain Men.
It is perhaps a little too early to remember Mitchell Johnson as such, but I can already imagine myself reducing him to a few snapshots, his whole career a blur of high speed and dangerous, thrilling bowling; include the moustache for added effect. Age will erode memories of his 'bowls to the left, bowls to the right' days and what will remain is a post-adolescent love affair with fast bowling of the Johnson kind. Well it’s not his preserve really, this hostile fast bowling. It’s a throwback to and an extension of the Lillee-Thommo legacy.
Johnson was not quite the hard-drinking, bare-chested, shirt-unbuttoned, hair thrashing the air sort of fast bowler, but he could be a proper rogue when he wanted to. And what a lovely rogue he was.
Fast bowling and fast bowlers, for all their seriousness, have a rather comical impression on most of us (or it just runs in the family), often caricatured as a raging, foul-mouthed bully who, as Marcus Berkmann said of someone, "is determined to get you out, but only if he couldn't kill you first.”
I guess I have a rather savage sense of humour, but all those stories of an angry Lillee, for whom the mere existence of batsmen was a personal affront to his trade, seem rather funny; like a young boy miffed at the guy who stole his candy, only slightly more dangerous. But these guys, well, they went out of vogue by the late 90s. No more could a watcher of brutish quicks observe the quiet, long limbed giants from the Caribbean and their devilish glares. The ill-behaved Antipodean, hairy-chested and quick to invoke the f-word, made their exits much earlier along with their six packs of beer and desire to see blood on the pitch.
Of course you still had the occasional bloke who could flex enough muscle to propel the ball fast, very fast. Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee spring to mind. Shaun Tait was there too, for a brief period, spraying thunder before his body eventually caught up with those 150+ km/h missiles. Mitchell Starc has in fact bowled faster, much faster than Johnson's fastest and yet to the untrained eye, sitting behind the TV, Johnson in his pomp was more menacing.
Let me assure you that it’s not just the wickets. Many can take wickets and have indeed taken more, but can they make the batsmen shake in their boots? Perhaps they can (certainly Shoaib did). But do they look the part? Certainly not. Not even Shoaib. Nope. He looked too smooth, his face carved out of velvet instead of the hard rock baked under the Rawalpindi sun. But Johnson, fuck me, this bastard is rugged, the giant moustache tapering like the horse's hoof. It lent him a whiff of Lillee. The hard boy from the West, chipping stone and cutting timber, while knocking heads over without remorse.
What's in how a man looks you say, and I too would say so on all other occasions, but in Berkmann's wisdom I trust: "Cricketers are not racist, they just jump to conclusions very easily. Therefore a long-limbed West Indian on the other team will only ever be a frighteningly swift fast bowler, equally adept at ear-singeing bouncer and toe-crunching yorker." The same holds for moustachioed quicks from Western Australia.
If Johnson had played anytime before cricket went a little mad in the 70s, his moustache would have been a bit of a novelty. The clean shaven, side-parted decency of Lindwall was the norm. Trueman cared a jot for convention or looking decent in general. He was perhaps similar, just a bit more garrulous and prone to the occasional boast. Yet the black and white era always seemed a bit polite, a bit posh. Even Bodyline was tame compared to the viciousness of the 70s and 80s. The burst of technicolour shook cricket from all its past moorings. Charlie Griffiths would enjoy this era if he was still playing. In Lillee-Thommo, The West Indians, etc. Johnson found the right prototype for a fast bowler, especially in Dennis Lillee, his long time mentor.
Yet when Johnson hit the skids, he was horrible. But then again, there was no moustache, hence no menace. No fear. It just seems implausible. Blame it on the moustache. And Ashes 2013/14. And South Africa. And the successive balls that nearly maimed Johnny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. And ask Martin Guptill.
But if you want to remember him, or go one better and dress up as Midge in grounds across the world a few years from now, bring the moustache and throw in the glare he gave to Jimmy Anderson for good measure.
If Bev Congdon appears in Marcus Berkmann's memory as "little more than the extended chin", Johnson will persist in mine as the horse-hoofed moustache and a smattering of nasty bouncers. I'd like that when I am old and sitting on a rocking chair.