How much does Mitchell Johnson got left in the tank?

Date: August 21, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Mitch Johnson“I was sitting there, thinking, ‘I could die here in the f***ing Gabbattoir.”

That was what England batsman Kevin Pietersen wrote in his autobiography which was released late last year.

The thoughts entered his mind as he was watching Mitchell Johnson’s frightening assault on England number three, Jonathan Trott on the second day of the Gabba Test that opened the last Ashes series in 2013-14.

“You very seldom hear people in your own team saying that they are physically scared, but our tail-end batsmen were scared,” Pietersen wrote. “I heard (Stuart) Broad, (James) Anderson and (Graeme) Swann say they were scared. When you’ve got that, you know that a bloke in the other team is doing damage.”

That series ended in a whitewash, just the third time in the history of the famous little urn.

Sadly for England, it has been on the receiving end each time. The first two occasions were at the hands of great Australian teams – Warwick Armstrong’s 1920-21 side and the Ricky Ponting led side of 2006-07.

In 2013-14, Australia rode to a clean sweep on the coat tails of Mitchell Johnson who singlehandedly dismantled England’s batting, and in the process, got into the minds of every one of its batsmen

His performance provided a redolence of the 1974-75 Ashes series when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson destroyed England.

From the opening Test at the Gabba, where Johnson captured 9-103, the tourists had few answers.

His man-of-the-series award was a fait accompli – 37 wickets at 13.97 across the five Tests; three five-wicket-hauls; a best of 7-40; and a strike rate of 30.5.

It was an effort that sat comfortably in the pantheon of cricket’s greatest solo performances.

Johnson had become England’s nemesis. He carried the form from that series to South Africa in early 2014 where he captured 22 wickets at 17.4 across the three Tests.

Having arrived in the Old Dart on the back of averaging 18.6 with the ball in the twin-Test Caribbean series in June, he was once again on the lips of England’s fans, and no doubt its players too.

The broad-shouldered, moustachioed left-armer landed on English soil on the cusp of 300 Test wickets. But would he provide the same menace?

The man himself said “yes”.

Johnson was keen to start the mind games before the series began, saying of the last encounter, that “You could see their batsmen scratching around at the crease, you could see the different movements in them and you could just sense something different about their blokes.

“The plan was to go hard at them and it worked. The short stuff made an impact.”

Last Australian summer, against India (where he averaged 35.5), the short-ball and the outright hostility was largely missing from Johnson’s game.

He admitted such prior to the current Ashes series that his pace last summer and through the Caribbean was down as a result of the Phil Hughes tragedy in November last year.

“We were definitely underprepared at that time and my pace was definitely off. I probably wasn’t fully right, fully mentally right at that time.”

He declared in the lead-in to the opening Test at Cardiff that he was ready to return to the tactics that had made him so devastating 18 months earlier – namely by bowling quick, with fire and menace.

Yet, on balance, through the opening four Tests of this series we have only seen glimpses of the Johnson of old. Coming off match figures of 2-180 at Cardiff he appeared to regain some of his mojo during the second Test at Lord’s.

Some of the old venom seemed to return with the likes of Ian Bell and Moeen Ali really given the hurry up.

In the third Test at Edgbaston he produced two snorters in the one over with steepling deliveries clipping the gloves of both Johnny Bairstow and Ben Stokes en route to ‘keeper Peter Nevill.

But the moments of outright pace and menace have been generally lacking especially when you consider that the last two Tests have been played on pitches that have given the bowlers something with both matches ending in two-and-a-half days.

Johnson is very much a confidence bowler. How he starts often determines how things will go. He is not the sort who can necessarily work his way back into the match after a flat start.

His success is also predicated on pace. And therein lays a problem for the selectors as his numbers on the speed gun have fallen this series.

Johnson is not like Lillee or Richard Hadlee who became masters of swing and cut in their later years when the rigours of the game saw their pace diminish.

Johnson is a bowler in the Thomson category – the key to success is outright pace. Both men also share the trait of not always knowing where the next ball was heading. Yes, the ball often swung with Johnson, but pace was the key.

Johnson turns 34 in November, which for a bowler whose game is centred around pace, is old.

The end of Johnson’s career may well come quickly. When his body can no longer summon consistent pace his main weapon will have been stripped away.

The final Ashes Test tonight at The Oval will be played, by all accounts, on a pitch that will again provide the quicks with solace.

Johnson will enter the match with 11 wickets at 39.8 from the series to date and best figures of 3-27 at Lord’s. He and the selectors will be hoping that he makes an impact.

The career of Mitchell Johnson is not yet over but the signs perhaps are there.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 20 August 2015, soliciting 36 comments