Mitchell Johnson has flown to Perth ahead of the team to participate in a study at the invitation of Curtin University. Johnson will be studied by the sports psychology department in an attempt to make sense of one of the most enigmatic bowlers Australia has ever known. The late Peter Roebuck once observed that there was a very long way between Johnson’s best and worst and not much in between. How true that is and how rare it has been to see Johnson’s best.
Johnson’s performance in this Ashes series has been nothing short of astonishing. He has been player-of-the-match in both Tests and his sensational results would have received accolades in any place, at any time. But it is the journey that Johnson has made that is the fascinating thing.
Johnson is now 32 years old and I, like many, was surprised when Johnson was named in the squad for the 2013-14 Ashes. In fact, I thought, “Nooooooooooo”. Still, when a rational stock was taken of the available quicks, it was a logical decision. Johnson may not have played in the ‘Northern Ashes’ but he was impressive in the one day series that followed and again, recently in India.
It was the summer of four years ago when Johnson first hinted that there was a super star in the making. He had great results in the home series against South Africa, including his famous “8 for” in Perth. He then had a champagne series in South Africa with bat and ball and arrived in England in 2009 as a bonafide super star. Huge things were anticipated from Mitchell Johnson. And then it all unraveled.
This is when Mysterious Mitch first presented. This is where the psychology unit wants to start its investigation. Why did Johnson fall apart so rapidly and so completely in 2009? Understandably, having shown such promise, the selectors pinned a lot of hope in Johnson so they persisted steadfastly. It was agonising to watch Johnson bowl over after over of erratic rubbish.
Over the next two and half years, Johnson rarely produced the goods, although when conditions suited there was the possibility that good Mitch would show up. In March 2010, he took 6-73 in Hamilton, NZ and then 5-64 in October 2010 in Mohali in a performance that helped almost win a Test against India. And just after that, in December 2010, there was that very famous match in the Perth Ashes Test where Johnson took figures of 6-38 and 3-44 and almost single-handedly won the match with an extraordinary spell of express swing bowling.
This was following endless speculation of whether Johnson would be dropped after poor performances in the first two Tests. But following that performance, he slumped to taking 2-134 in Melbourne and 4-168 in Sydney. Australian cricket and Mitchell Johnson were in tatters. However, he maintained his place in the team until November 2011 when he was sidelined for many months with a serious foot injury. Many, including myself saw this as mercy. Surely that would be the end of Johnson’s international career. He has just turned 30 years old.
I recall when Jason Gillespie was dropped in 2005. He was 30 years old and even though he had an illustrious career and had displayed good form in Shield cricket and also in his fleeting recall in Bangladesh, there was no way back for Dizzy. During Johnson’s absence, a resurgent Hilfenhaus was joined by a new band of quicks in Cummins, Starc, Bird, Faulkner and Pattinson. Surely the far less celebrated Johnson was finished.
I guess it should not surprise that the unexpected happened and Johnson did return – things don’t seem to go as expected where Johnson is concerned. Aided by Australia’s injury woes in the pace department, and possibly because his comeback Test was at Perth, his happy hunting ground, Johnson found himself back in the team just over 12 months after his last Test. That was just over 12 months ago and since that time, in Mitch’s infrequent outings, we saw ‘the bits in between’. His results were OK without setting the world on fire. Johnson was not even in the Test squad for the 2013 Ashes series.
So who could have guessed it? With Australia’s fast bowling stocks depleted and some decent One-Day form, Johnson was given another chance. And two matches in a row, Johnson has been brilliant. How did he do it? Has he matured to the point where he has overcome his apparently delicate psyche? Is it the influence of Darren Lehmann and/or Craig McDermott? Is two matches in a row a fluke?
After the first Test, a few people asked how I thought Johnson would go in Adelaide. I was guarded. I hoped he would go well but I had doubts. It was not surprising on a bouncy Brisbane pitch, and following some first innings runs, to see Johnson get it together. Even so, the extent of his authority was noteworthy. His prolonged spells of express pace and menace, coupled with control that increased as the game progressed shocked England to the core. This was what they had braced for in 2009 and finally it had come. That Johnson backed up with such incredible bowling in Adelaide (and after a first innings failure) says a lot.
So now we are at Perth. Is this Johnson’s biggest test of all? He is on top and the Perth pitch is expected to assist the quicks. And not only that, his two most famous matches prior to this series have been at Perth. And Australia is poised to reclaim the Ashes. All eyes are on Mitchell Johnson. Will the pressure of expectation come flooding back?
Looking at Johnson this series and remembering his famous summer of 2008-09 I feel a little saddened that there has been so little in between. He has obviously always had the ability. For reasons that are most likely complicated (that the guys at Curtin Uni are going to get to the bottom of) Johnson has had a tormented existence to the point where “much maligned” has been often used. Australian and world cricket should have been enjoying this sort of play for the past few years (barring injury).
But as they say, better late than never. Hopefully Mitchell Johnson can make up for a bit of time and enjoy a stint at the top while he has the physical powers to deliver. And besides, whatever his ups and downs have been, he already has 222 Test wickets which is 10th on the Australian list. Roll on Perth and let’s hope Good Mitch shows up. Oh, and by the way, the whole thing about Curtin Uni was made up. You know that, right?