Dennis Lillee famously hailed a young Mitchell Johnson as a ‘once in a generation bowler’. it’s a sentiment that has often drawn ridicule over Johnson’s Test career. And should Johnson not have reached this point, it would still be unfair. Left arm fast bowlers are rare, especially ones that genuinely reach 95 mph. On that alone, Mitchell Johnson is the definitive left arm fast bowler. At his nadir, you could perhaps exclaim that you can not believe someone could bowl like that. Yet at his summit, which may well be today, you can only stand in awe that you saw someone bowl like that, perhaps doubly so because it was that same guy.
What no doubt caught the great DK’s eye is that he is such a rare athlete. If he didn’t bowl, he could throw or pitch; if he didn’t bat, he could probably play tennis or golf. He’s tall, but not lanky; muscular, but not bulky. If not playing sport, the only career I could fathom involves besieging Troy. In an age of fragile fast bowlers for Australia, Johnson was the tortoise to so many young hares. It was often desirable to drop Johnson in favour of someone else, but it was always desirable to have a genuinely fast, experienced bowler as a backup. And he’s near-on bullet proof. In the modern game, that is a vital attribute for a fast bowler.
From the outset in his international career, he seemed an oddity. He was pacy, but there were quicker. He seemed to be capable of conceding a million runs, or at least, that seemed to be the case in the NZ cake tins. Yet he also seemed to have the knack of taking wickets, of inducing a really awful shot outside off stump. What was that about? Was it his action? Was it the height of the arm leading the batsman into a false shot, or was the action itself a little hard to pick up? Were they certain he was eventually going to bowl an outswinger?
The first dawn arrived in Perth, December 2008. It was a pretty flat looking wicket, but Australia hadn’t made 400. South Africa looked capable of making them pay for that at 4/200. It was Johnson who stood alone in their way, not only dismissing everyone of importance, but loosing a clusterbomb on the lower order that ended their innings only 50 odd runs after being at that point which you’d normally consider “a platform”. South Africa went on to dominate with a record run chase, but it probably stands as testament that they had to be as good as they were to win.
By now it was recognised that Johnson could bowl 90 mph and he’d started breaking Graeme Smith’s arms. In South Africa in 2009, the unthinkable happened, Johnson started swinging the ball. He also walloped a century. Expectations for the coming Ashes series skyrocketed and predictably never culminated, though no one predicted how badly Johnson was to be mashed by the English. He couldn’t bowl an over in the same spot. Had they been tinkering with his action? Was it his mum’s fault? Suffice to say, even as Johnson claimed wickets in England, he single-handedly gave the Lords Test away. In the wake of the Barmy Army’s savaging, revisionism had started to occur. Did the South Africa tour really happen as people thought? Johnson had never been known for supreme accuracy, but now his mark was waywardness. And of course he was mentally compromised because clearly his mum had broken his action.
If Johnson were a vampire, then there’d have to be some sort of antediluvian crypt underneath the WACA Ground. He always manages to find the extent of his powers at Perth. Although it was still a long hard slog of a series, Johnson again changed the narrative. The swing had returned, perplexing all with his tumbling seam. Johnson managed to defend a low total, which he himself had contributed substantially to, by simply being unplayable. His length was perfect and he was able to thread the ball towards the stumps in a way most swing bowlers muse about someday managing to do. Also, he’d grown a moustache.
The 10-11 Ashes series was not to be Johnson’s resurgence, however. Soon enough, he had again begun to grapple with the peculiarities of his action. The writing was on the wall in South Africa 2011, where he had started bowling off a short run in an attempt to gain some control. Selectors were now excited by Pattinson and Starc. Hilfenhaus was also the star of the India series, snaring 5 wicket hauls that had eluded his international career. Ryan Harris persisted as potentially Australia’s first choice seamer, while the bionic limbs were functioning. Peter Siddle demonstrated that you could be robust and not Mitchell Johnson. Thusly, Johnson’s star had dimmed.
As TISM once said, you’re only one phone call away from captaining the Aussie side. Johnson has never been too far from the XI, because there’s always a need to call up a fit bowler. After the gruelling Adelaide Test in 2012, Australia needed at least one more bowler and it was promptly decided that they would call up an entirely new attack. This was the real resurgence of Johnson. He only took 6 for the match compared to Starc’s 8, but he was far meaner. He was as suited to the wicket as any on display, including three of the finest bowlers in the world playing for the opposition. He was finding the fabled bounce in the wicket, as others struggled to bowl at all. He wasn’t just a bit quicker, he was hitting bats on the splice and shoulder. It was a much better performance than the scoreboard return and his working over of Dean Elgar was as ruthless a greeting as you’re likely to see. This Mitchell Johnson continued forward on Boxing day, two Tests later and though he played at Sydney and made the tour to India, he was well down the pecking order by the next Test. Much shuffling of players was done and eventually, a failure to shuffle paperwork saw Johnson miss his big chance to have impact. He bowled 19 overs on the whole tour.
With Harris and Siddle, plus Pattinson and Starc, Australia’s selectors were understandably adverse to taking Johnson back to England. Perhaps they managed to play the long game well, however, by allowing Johnson to focus on himself, on fine tuning his game and understanding his strengths. Or perhaps not even he really knew what was about to happen until it did. His first spell in Brisbane was honest, but foreshadowed nothing of the bouncer barrage that dominated that match. And in some sense, it was admittedly not that great. It was brutish, both in colour and methodology. Many bouncers whistled past the batsman in hopes of finding his head or bat. The batsmen certainly didn’t like it up ’em.
The greatest part of the story so far is the answer to the great question of what would Mitchell Johnson do on a flat Adelaide wicket? It’s just brilliant. He bowled a heap faster. This was the classy Mitchell Johnson, he pitched it up and got the ball to jag a little. With the venom in his short ball, he could push any batsman back in his crease on that wicket, denying them the chance to prop forward and smother the movement of his full length ball.
Nine out of ten express pace bowlers are going to be right armers; and I don’t think I’ve yet seen nine express pace bowlers, certainly not live. What we have seen today is perhaps the fastest left armer who ever lived, forever branded with an anachronistic handlebar that harks of both Merv Hughes and Fred Spofforth. And for that (the pace, not the moustache) he may be much more than just the most dangerous left arm quick since Wasim Akram, he might be beyond the need for comparisons. He may just be so absurdly inimitable to simply be the one and only Mitchell Johnson.