Mitchell Johnson is gone but will never be forgotten

Date: November 19, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

Ashes 2nd Test, Australia v EnglandFew things excite a cricket crowd more than a full-throttle fast bowler. They personify menace and have fans collectively edging towards the front of their seat. Mitchell Johnson, who drew the curtain on his international career yesterday, was one of those men.

On his day, and there were many of them, he was a weapon of mass destruction. Think 8-61 against South Africa at Perth in 2008-09; his 7-40 against England at Adelaide in 2013-14; his 7-68 against South Africa at Centurion the same season; and his 6-38 against England at the WACA Ground in 2010-11.

Each of those performances reduced the opposition to dust and catapulted his side to victory.

Charging in, with his hair stirring in the breeze like a pall of black smoke, he delivered thunderbolts that regularly cut down the best batsmen of his era. At his fearsome best he was akin to Gulliver taking on the Lilliputian XI.

But along the way Johnson confronted obstacles in the form of injury, self-doubt and significant losses of form and confidence.

It was the Dennis Lillee who first brought Johnson to the cricketing consciousness when he openly extolled his virtues as a raw-boned 17-year-old. Johnson continued a professional relationship with Lillee who was often called upon to help hone his technique which had a habit of breaking down. Towards the end of his career he emulated the great DK in the form of a large handlebar moustache.

After overcoming the fast bowler’s scourge of stress fractures in the back he made his ODI debut against New Zealand in December 2005. I was there at the time with the ABC and was rather bemused by this shy, quietly spoken Queenslander with the stud beneath his lower lip as he bumbled his way through the pre-match media conference.

He went on to play 153 ODIs in which he collected 239 wickets at 25.3 along with a World Cup winner’s medal.

It was in the Test arena however where he really made his mark. His raw pace made him both an enforcer and strike weapon for successive skippers.

His slinging action coupled with explosive pace could produce wayward spells when all was not in synch. But when it was all working the result was often devastating.

There were several high water marks during his career.

In South Africa in 2009 he finally harnessed the ability to swing the ball back in to right-handed batsmen. The newly acquired skill made him even more lethal as batsmen grappled with two-way swing at genuine pace. Yet, just a few months later he struggled to land the ball on the cut surface in England.

The lethal marriage of pace and control that he had displayed just a short time earlier suddenly deserted him. The man who was the reigning ICC International Player of the Year was soon derided by the England fans. The chants and pointed barbs from over the fence stung a man who away from the field is a quiet and reserved soul.

Sadly, the home of cricket never saw the best of Johnson with his 12 Tests in the Old Dart producing 38 wickets at 36.6 with just the one five-wicket haul.

Johnson was most effective at home where the harder and faster pitches along with the steeper bounce added to his lethality. Never was that more to the fore than during the 2013-14 Ashes whitewash where he earned man-of-the-series honours with an astonishing 37 wickets at a mere 14. Throughout the series he averaged a wicket every 30 deliveries.

His 34 Tests in Australia produced 171 wickets at 25.5 while on the road he took his 142 wickets in 39 matches at 31.9.

The opponent against whom he had the most success was South Africa – arguably the best all-surface batting side in his time – playing them on 12 occasions both home-and-away for 64 wickets at 25.6.

If there is to be a regret when he looks back over his storied career it may be the fact that he did not do more as a batsman. The first ball he faced in first-class cricket, playing for Queensland against the touring New Zealanders in 2001-02, was struck for six.

Power hitting was to become a hallmark of his game and was best displayed on the 2008-09 tour of South Africa where continued to lob left-arm spinner Paul Harris onto the on-side grass banks at Wanderers as he bludgeoned an unbeaten 96. Two matches later, at Cape Town, he brought up his only Test century with a six off Dale Steyn. He went on to remain unbeaten on 123 from 103 balls having struck 11 fours and five sixes.

In the end he scored 2065 runs in his 73 Tests at 22.2 but given he compiled 11 fifties on top of his solitary ton perhaps his average should have been north of 25.

Johnson is a superb athlete and completed his game with a solid pair of hands in the field and a laser like arm from the deep.

Yesterday, his international career came to an end at his adopted home ground. The WACA was his Elysian field, having claimed 42 wickets at 20.2 prior to his final Test.

Perhaps it was a combined return of 3-177 that helped make up his mind that it was time to depart having flagged pre-match that the end was nigh.

He leaves the scene with 313 Test wickets at 28.4 to sit fourth-all time behind Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Lillee. His strike rate of 51.1 is second only to Ryan Harris (50.7) for bowlers to have claimed over 100 wickets for Australia.

With ball in hand he was akin to a wrecking ball taking to a dilapidated building but in essence the man himself is reserved and thoughtful. At various times he could make a statue cringe with his firebrand hostility. That is all now in the past but the memory of his deeds will last the test of the time.

Well played Mitch and good luck in retirement.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 18 November 2015, soliciting 14 comments