Pace, perseverance and pantomime villain: the tale of Mitchell Johnson

Steady decline and fading desire lead to 34-year-old’s retirement; he departs the game with 313 Test and 239 ODI wickets.

Mitchell Johnson retires 3

The end is upon us. Batsmen around the world can breath a sigh of relief. Mitchell Johnson has hung up his spikes for the 73rd and final time.

In the end his retirement had become public knowledge long before his announcement ahead of the final day’s play at the WACA. The whispers had grown louder; the desire had grown no longer and the career of a great enigma had reached its conclusion.

Ahead of this week’s WACA Test, Johnson had mooted the possibility that it could be his last. When he was blazed around the park by Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor on a scorching third day, he knew it was a wrap. First innings figures of 1-157 from 28 overs (the most expensive by an Australian bowler at the venue) certainly didn’t advocate for pretty viewing or a fairytale finish. However, as often symbolic with Johnson, his perseverance eventually came to the fore. In one final hurrah both Tom Latham and Martin Guptill were bumped out in emblematic fashion.

Once the doubts over retirement had set in during the six weeks preceding the failed Ashes retention, it appeared only a matter of time before the cricketing spark would fizzle away in favour of an easier life spent at home with both wife and daughter.

After deep discussions with wife Jessica and his mentor Dennis Lillee had taken place, it was decided that the opportunity to go past his idol Brett Lee’s haul of 310 Test wickets, would prove too enticing to walk directly away from.

Evidently, after passing Lee’s mark during his treacherous bowling display on Monday, the lack of desire to re-approach his bowling style – that has seen him only ever bowl fast and intimidating – came over in waves. He decided to pull the curtains on a career that had spanned 73 Tests and seen him take an impressive 313 Test wickets at 28.40.

Fittingly it would all end at the WACA. Over the years Perth and its famous old cricket ground have become a home from home for Johnson. His record there is outstanding too. After relocating to Western Australia from Queensland in 2007, his seven Tests at the venue have fetched him 45 wickets at just 22.77.

But the flatness of the wicket during this November match with New Zealand, along with the emergence of Mitchell Starc as the team’s new go-to-man, had both conspired to leave the Townsville-native somewhat underwhelmed.

It’s been difficult times for Johnson of late. His 1-157 at the WACA was the sixth time in the past cricketing year and the second time in just three innings that he had conceded more than 100 runs. In fact since his heroic efforts against both England and South Africa – now 20 months and 14 Tests ago – his average, strike rate and economy rate have all risen sharply in a sure sign his star was on the wane.

Sure, there have been glimpses of that magical time since, but only glimpses. During this year’s Ashes, the fourth afternoon at Lord’s springs to mind, as do the consecutive ripsnorters to fell Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow at Edgbaston. Likewise in more recent times the deliveries to dismiss Taylor, BJ Watling and James Neesham at the Gabba also stood out for their intimidating qualities.

This past year, though, has taken a huge emotional toll on Johnson. His aggression and general demeanour were both understandably down after the death of teammate Phillip Hughes last summer, while he also admitted to considering retirement after lifting the World Cup in early April.

Nevertheless he carried on alongside a corpse of aging teammates, with the shared burning desire to retain the Ashes on British soil – something which hadn’t been achieved by his fellow countrymen since 2001.

Mitchell Johnson Portrait Session
Mitchell Johnson poses during a portrait session at Newlands Stadium, South Africa (Photo Credit: Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

But despite glimmers of light along the way, he never did quite conquer England or the English crowds. For a tearaway bowler – who relies on aggression, pace and bounce – the slow seaming conditions conjured up in the motherland were never truly to his taste.

In the eyes of the English supporters Johnson was most commonly renowned as the ultimate pantomime villain. At times the Barmy Army stood in awe, at others they derided, heckled, abused and mocked him until his confidence and bowling action were shot to the ground.

And when the action fell away, things rapidly spiralled out of control. If the chips were down, his natural slingy low-arm action would creep even further off and the radar would disappear completely. The once threat of wicket taking deliveries would simply turn into an incomprehensive haemorrhaging of runs.

His bowling against England certainly fluctuated from the sublime to the ridiculous. Regardless, his overall numbers certainly speak volumes among modern day Ashes contemporaries: In 19 Tests he captured 87 wickets at 25.21.

But those numbers only tell half of the story. For three out of the four Ashes campaigns he was bordering ordinary, for the other, he was quite simply breathtaking.

Johnson’s Ashes series

2009 in England. (5 Tests, 20 wickets at 32.55)

2010/11 in Australia. (4 Tests, 15 wickets at 36.93)

2013/14 in Australia. (5 Tests, 37 wickets at 13.97)

2015 in England. (5 Tests, 15 wickets at 34.93)

With Johnson, nostalgia will always harp back to the 5-0 whitewash series of 2013/14. The fear inside the eyes of the English can still clearly be pictured to this day. The left-armer simply couldn’t put a foot wrong. Bone-shattering accuracy was mixed with a fierce determination to right previous Ashes wrongs and of course pace, serious pace.

With a throwback-handlebar-moustache – drawing back to the good old days of Lillee and Merv Hughes, Johnson terrorised the England batsmen – neither top order nor tailender were spared his jaw dropping velocity.

Johnson, with some help from Brad Haddin along the way, fired Australia to their second Ashes whitewash in three home campaigns. He would later be awarded both the Allan Border Medal and the ICC International player of the year accolades for his achievements.

Showing this new found confidence was no fluke, he destroyed the South Africans in their own backyard just months later. Spread across the aforementioned eight Tests, he had hustled 59 wickets at an average of just 15.23 including five 5-wicket hauls.

This sudden resurgence was all the more remarkable given that he faced five months out enduring a lengthy rehabilitation following toe surgery in 2011. During which at times he even questioned whether he had the ability or desire to return to international cricket.

While he would never again scale such heights as he did in those few months against England and South Africa, Johnson had done enough to ensure he would go down in Australian fast-bowling folklore alongside the likes of Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

***

Although it’s been a tremendous journey, it certainly hasn’t been an easy one.  His perseverance shown during the times of adversity should serve as inspiration to any young fast bowler out there.

Growing up in the northeast Queensland coastal town of Townsville, for a while as a teenager, he had aspirations of becoming a professional tennis player. Bourne out of his admiration for American Pete Sampras, he would regularly put tennis ahead of cricket in the sporting ranks. Aged 14 he was offered a tennis scholarship in Brisbane, eventually turning it down to concentrate on becoming a scary fast bowler – Oh how many batsmen, the world over, would have wished he’d chosen the racket avenue?

At 17, he was spotted by Lillee at a fast bowling camp in Brisbane. The former Australian quick was so impressed that he immediately arranged for Johnson to spend time with Rod Marsh at the Australian cricket academy in Adelaide, from there he progressed to the U19’s before injury struck.

He went on to suffer four separate back stress fractures – symptomatic with fast bowlers in the modern era – either side of making his first-class debut for Queensland during the 2001/02 summer. Although Queensland knew they had a talent on their hands, he was still raw and very much injury plagued so it was no real surprise when he was released from his playing contract in 2004.

Never one to quit, Johnson persevered; driving a plumbing van whilst often playing as a specialist batsman in the Brisbane Grade scenes, all the while getting himself fit and firing before re-entering state cricket with Queensland.

The hard yakka and resilience paid off in late 2005 when he made his ODI debut against New Zealand at Christchurch. His first introduction to Test cricket was during the 5-0 Whitewash Ashes campaign of 2006/07. Although, intitally, he couldn’t force his way into the side ahead alumni’s such as Glenn McGrath, Stuart Clark and Lee, he did eventually made his debut against Sri Lanka at the Gabba in November 2007.

Aside from the devastating spells produced in 2013/14, he will also look back with fondness at other memorable bowling displays such as the 11-159 against South Africa at Perth in 2008 and the 8-137 against the same opponents in Johannesburg, just months later.

Johnson can certainly sit down with wife Jessica and daughter Rubika and be proud of his career. He’s been a mercurial force, an enigma, a thoroughbred, a champion, at times a lost soul, at others a throwback moustache-wielding destroyer.

And he leaves the game trailing only Shane Warne (708), McGrath (563) and Lillee (355) as the most prolific Test wicket-taker in the history of Australian cricket.

Farewell Mitch.

 

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