The Fortunes of eccentric fast bowler could be the Ashes decider.
Think of recent Ashes contests and one particular Barmy Army song comes to mind, yes Mitchell it’s time to cover your ears.
“He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is shite.” – was a familiar chant amongst the English faithful across the 2009 and 2010/11 Ashes encounters.
At 32, Johnson must now show he is mentally strong enough ahead of what is being billed as a career defining series for the Queenslander.
At his best he can generate speeds of 155kph-plus and regularly swing the ball back into the right-handers at will, on the flip side at his worst he can be dealt will like a substandard club bowler – regularly losing discipline and going at over four an over.
To say that the Ashes series entirely rests on the shoulders of one man is stupid and naïve, but if Johnson can continue his recent ODI form and pace that he showed on the recent trips to the UK and India then Australia will have a genuine chance of winning back the Ashes that they last held over four years ago.
After being dropped during the ‘Homework Gate’ scandal in India in March of this year, Johnson has gone away and regained some of his best ODI form to break his way back into Test reckoning at a time that has coincided with a spate of injuries to Australia’s battery of fast bowlers with Josh Hazelwood, Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson, Jackson Bird and Pat Cummins are all currently sidelined for the start of the Ashes campaign.
It was his form showed in the ODI series in England that sparked off his resurgence back into the Test side. He rushed all of home side’s batsmen with regular hostile and quick bowling. His unsettling of Jonathan Trott and Michael Carberry was a particular highlight and would have not since have gone unnoticed by both sets of selectors.
For Johnson, most of his past poor form has coincided with not just fitness worries but also mental aspects of his game that have severely affected his confidence during matches. It has for years been wondered how a man of such considerable talent and confidence could on another day equally turn up with what looks like so little.
His only first-class showing for Western Australia was steady if not spectacular, (he claimed match figures of 5-162) but Australian bowling coach Craig McDermott believes that Johnson is back to bowling somewhere near his best: “He’s in a really good space mentally, very confident about what he’s doing and that’s a great place for him to be at the moment.”
As a veteran of 51 matches and 205 Test wickets, the time has come for Johnson to live up to the consistent potential that was spotted by the great Dennis Lillee fifteen years ago.
For now though, he must begin to take away some of the burden off Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle as it looks like Shane Watson will be limited to a non-bowling role in Brisbane at least.
Only the number six position has been up for debate in recent times, and even then it was only really a straight shootout between Tasmanian teammates Alex Doolan and George Bailey. The latter having impressed enough with his recent ODI exploits – namely against India last month where he clocked up a staggering 478 runs at 95.60 across five completed innings.
Bailey at 31, is set to become Australia’s oldest batting debutant since Jeff Moss was handed a baggy green 34 years ago and despite averaging just 18.28 in first-class cricket last season, his will and determination to ‘find a way’ in any circumstances of his international career to date has the selectors in no doubts to who is their man. Take into account his wealth of limited overs captaincy and a strong cricketing mind – perhaps it was a ‘no brainer’.
For England, doubts remain over the fitness of wicketkeeper Matt Prior. The longtime incumbent has been struggling with a recent calf injury but is still expected to be deemed fit to start ahead of the undercooked Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow.
Another area of key debate in the England side remains the identity of the third seamer to support James Anderson and Stuart Broad. With Tim Bresnan defiantly ruled out of at least the first Test their attentions turn to the tall-trio of Steven Fin, Boyd Rankin and Chris Tremlett – who are all vying for one berth. Reports coming out of Australia suggest that it will indeed be Tremlett to win the race for a start at The Gabba.
Certainly England’s thinking behind that decision remains in hope that Tremlett can repeat his exploits of three winters previous – when he regularly troubled the Aussie batsmen with pace, bounce and unrelenting accuracy in claiming 17 wickets for the series.
Worries certainly remain over the selection of England’s third seamer though. Tremlett would be the first to admit himself that his form for relegated Surrey this season was at times ordinary at best. Finn, despite taking eight wickets in his side’s final warm-up, has not offered the sort of control the England management and David Saker in particular would have wanted from him. On the other hand, Rankin has offered good control and accuracy but has lacked bite at times whilst also remaining untested at Test level.
While both sides go into Thursday’s showdown with much to prove and consider, Australia with their decision to recall the enigma that is Mitchell Johnson must be crossing their fingers that much more tightly.