Mitchell Johnson, "he bowls to the left, he bowls to the right", or so sang the Barmy Army, many summers ago. Throughout two consecutive Ashes series, under the grey skies of Britain and in the sun and shine of Australia, they serenaded him thus and he responded by crumbling under the wit of their collective tongue. Here was a bowler, once proclaimed by the great Dennis Lillee as 'once in a generation', but now nothing more than a parody figure for drunken men.
It must have been tough. The memories of Perth, against South Africa, and his trail of destruction, were fresh in the mind. But he was weak, and professional sport preys on the weak. Unfortunately for Australia, their spearhead was rendered blunt, not just by the English batsmen, but also their merry fans, dismissing him quite throatily, hands waving from side to side, brass band playing in harmony. A moment of schadenfreude had provided the soundtrack to Mitchell's miseries.
Darwinism suggests that only the fit survive. Sport has added a further dimension to it: only the fit and mentally strong survive. It is, after all, a natural form of elimination, for there are many who are physically capable but their minds are, in a sporting sense, stuck at some pre-evolutionary stage. Mitchell Johnson was condemned by many as such.
Physically, there was little wrong- strong, muscular frame, good height- he was sculpted to be a fast bowler. More importantly, he could bowl fast, very fast! What was in doubt, however, was his mental fortitude. This was cricket's equivalent of 'can he do it on a cold night in Stoke?'
Evidently, he could not.
Fast forward to the fag end of 2013. The Ashes were upon us once again and England arrived Down Under, brimming with confidence, expecting to dispatch the 'worst Australian team in decades'. Mitchell Johnson had been recalled to the Australian squad, after having spent time with Dennis Lillee, perfecting his craft. Johnson even adopted the rum and coke fast bowler's customary moustache. He reeked of menace, and unleashed the most demented assault on hapless English batsmen.
To a generation of cricket fans growing up on tales of Lillee and Thommo, The Four Horseman of West Indian apocalypse, etc. this was a throwback, almost a tribute to bowlers from a different era.
He claimed wickets, 37 of them, but there was something more sinister working in that vicious head. He wanted to scar them, inflict physical and mental torture, on a deeper scale than had been dished out to him. One could almost hear him snarl.
"Be ready for a broken fucken’ arm," said his captain to Jimmy Anderson, and nothing was closer to the truth than that solitary quip. It was thrilling cricket, and nothing has surpassed the sheer rush of adrenaline one got from watching a fast bowler, rather a savage beast, decapitate harmless willow wielders.
Dennis Lillee would have been proud! Once in a generation, fuck yes!
Johnson's transformation was more in sync with the carefully cultivated image of Australians shaped in our minds by their cricketers. No more a porous lad, baulking under the weight of the Earth, he was now chiselled out of the hardest stone, handpicked by Lillee, presumably over several pegs of rum and coke. The man that is Johnson was born out of the ruins of the boy Mitchell.
Yet, his present form resembles Mitchell more than it does Johnson. In Cardiff, he was once again spraying balls to the left and right, revisiting old horrors and playing dusty records. Mitchell/Johnson had admitted to fatigue and a loss in pace. The tragic death of Phillip Hughes has softened that stony exterior, and he no more snarls and bites like a rabid dog.
It must be an overreaction (at least, I hope it is) but these days, every time Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bright Eyes' is playing at home, I am reminded of both- Mitchell the boy and Johnson the man. Is the man receding into the boy we were so eager to destroy? Are we witnessing the death of a career? These are some of the questions I have to grapple with, and at some level, Johnson has to as well. Only over the course of four further tests will we get a definitive answer. Till then, one can only assume that his brisk 77 will serve as a catalyst to the beast within.