Mitchell Johnson got it wrong. Often. Very often. In fact, the times when things didn’t go well far outnumber the times when he was successful. This is true of every cricketer, of course. For every hundred a batsman scores there are four or five failures. For every five wicket haul a bowler takes there are many less productive efforts.
But when he got it right…
Rightly or wrongly, a cricketer from either England or Australia is judged by how well they do when those two teams meet in Test cricket. For Johnson the 2013/14 Ashes were the moment when his legend was cast in stone.
Going into that series, his record against England was relatively poor. He had 35 wickets at an average of 34. In the 2009 Ashes he had a decent performance at Headingley. In the 2010/11 series he had one good game at Perth. Other than that, his bowling was profligate and wayward. He looked fragile and admitted as much afterwards. England’s fans were brutal on him.
Then came the ‘Gabba in November 2013.
It began with the wicket of Michael Carberry. Before that Johnson had dismissed the horribly out of form Jonathan Trott but was going at more than four an over. Then an absolute firebolt from Johnson took Carberry’s edge. It isn’t often that one wicket so early in a five Test series can be pinpointed as the turning point, but in this case, that isn’t over stating it.
From that moment on, England were in Johnson’s thrall. He seemed to be operating from a user manual discovered in a crashed UFO. There was nothing they could do. The batsmen were shaken and it showed. He wasn’t beating them with guile. He wasn’t defeating them with something they weren’t expecting. He was just quick. Really, really quick.
In all the time that I have watched cricket, I have seen bowlers take wickets with late swing, reverse swing and seam movement. I have watched as bowlers have defeated batsmen with unexpected bounce. There are very few times that a bowler has blasted a side apart just with speed. Curtly Ambrose did it to England in 1994. Allan Donald’s battle with Mike Atherton in 1998 was the stuff of legend.
Mitchell Johnson was that and more. He could have stood at the top of his mark with a catapult and he would have been less threatening. The difference seemed to be that he had given up trying to look for swing. He had straightened his arm and was just slinging it down as fast as he could.
It was breathtaking to watch. England fans, myself included, had come to see Johnson as a figure of fun. It took less than one and a half Tests for the joke to stop being funny. Three Tests in, England had already lost the Ashes. By the time the series was over it was another 5-0 drubbing.
We should have seen it coming. At the end of the English summer, Johnson was bossing the one day games. He only took five wickets but went at four an over and troubled all of England’s batsmen with his speed.
Even then, hardly anyone expected 37 wickets at an average of 13.94 in an Ashes series. In fact, if you thought that Australian team would win 5-0 led by Johnson’s wickets, you are a fool, a liar or Glenn McGrath.
That he went on to do something similar in South Africa made it one of the great periods in any bowlers career. What went before doesn’t even matter. Even as a supporter of the opposition, it was impossible not to get caught up in the theatre of it all. It was like watching your childhood teddy bear get set on fire, the melting fur making beautiful colours. You couldn’t look away even though it hurt your heart to watch. It was Mitchell’s world, we were all just living in it.
From the start of that Ashes series until he called it a day Johnson has taken 108 wickets at 22, but it will be that remarkable period in late 2013 and early 2014 that will be what people discuss when Johnson is mentioned. It was the time when his talent went from patchy to fulfilled.
It seemed, in this most recent series against New Zealand, that his powers were fading, but on that last morning there was another glimpse of what he can do as he picked up two wickets to take his career tally to 313 – fourth overall for Australia with only Dennis Lillee, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne ahead of him. That last two years of his Test career elevated him to the status of an Australian great.
It may well be a while before we get to see the kind of sustained ferocity from a bowler that we got from Johnson. It was visceral and electric. It was barbaric. It was great to watch.