The last time I wrote on Mitchell Johnson, it was on “Mysterious Mitch”. That was after the first Ashes Test, in Brisbane. Since then, there has been little need for me to add to the pool of words uttered in admiration of Johnson. But after sweeping England aside and now starting on South Africa, I should offer something in the way of celebration of the new superstar of world cricket. I have been a detractor in the past and fair is fair. I apologise if you receive two email notifications again but this one might be worth reading twice.
In my post, Mysterious Mitch, I pondered whether Johnson’s incredible effort at Brisbane was another flash in the pan or whether he would back it up in Adelaide. We now know that Johnson did back up in Adelaide in a most spectacular way and he kept going. The planets seem to have aligned in his personal life, physical and mental condition. And now with what appears to be the right team management, Johnson, the superstar, appears to be here to stay. God Save the Queen.
I’m not going to argue for his beatification or anything like that but Johnson’s achievements should be documented on this blog.
I watched much of the first Test at Centurion. The telecast was from British Sky Sports. I always enjoy the chance to get some commentary away from Australia’s parochial home offerings. Sky Sports offers a cosmopolitan commentary team and is anchored at home by some guy I don’t know with Bob Willis and Steve Harmison. They take over during innings breaks and tea breaks etc. During the innings break after lunch on day two, Bob Willis said something along the lines of, “Well we’ve had the entrée. Now it is time for the main course.”
That is exactly the way I felt. Since the start of the Test, I had been wanting to see Johnson bowl. Notwithstanding my gratitude to Smith for allowing Australia to bat first, I was waiting for the tail to get out after lunch. It was getting late (at night in Sydney) and I wanted to see Johnson bowl. Willis and Johnson waxed lyrical about Johnson, they rolled the tapes of Johnson ploughing through English batsmen, with Alistair Cook being dismissed over and over and it became clear: The English were well and truly terrorised by Johnson and they wanted South Africa to do just as badly so that they could feel like it wasn’t just them.
To that end, they were not disappointed. If anything, Johnson’s first spell at Centurion exceeded expectations, which was no easy feat. It took Johnson just four balls to claim his first wicket of the series and that was just his second ball to Graeme Smith. He didn’t just get him, he plumb near killed him (OK, I’ve been watching Bonanza again). Johnson charged to three wickets in his first four overs and South Africa did not recover. After the match, Smith said that there would be no scarring. They had lost a Test match. It happens. They just needed to regroup.
I’m not so sure about that. Those words sound familiar.
What is so impressive about Johnson these days is his accuracy and consistency. Graeme Smith was on strike for the first ball of the South Africa innings. He received a short ball from Ryan Harris and pulled it to the boundary in emphatic style. It has to be said that first ball was somewhat of a loosener.
Down the other end, it was another matter with Johnson. He does not bowl looseners. Johnson’s physical shape is very impressive. He’s quite the athlete. His first ball is always 140 plus, any spell, any time of day. In Sydney, England started their first innings towards the end of day one. Carberry was on strike to Johnson. Prior to the first ball, they displayed on the scoreboard the six fastest balls of the Test (to that point). They were credited to Staurt Broad and were in the low one hundred and forties. Johnson opened up to Carberry and beat him comprehensively outside of off stump. Fastest ball of the match (to that point): Mitchell Johnson. Demonstrating that scoreboard attendants are more than just button pushers, the crowd was updated in the fastest ball of the match after every ball of that first over. At the end of the first over, Carberry had played at every ball, not laid bat on ball and Johnson had bowled the six fastest balls of the Test match.
Which brings us back to South Africa. Johnson took exactly two balls to dismiss Smith. But it goes so much further than dismissing. The word “dismissing” doesn’t say enough. Smith likes to dominate. He likes to bully. He likes to be in command. He was dismissed fending an absolute snorter from in from of his face. It was self preservation, nothing more. He shaped to hook but before he knew it, he was saving his own life. Having done that, he was heading back to the pavilion.
Alviro Peterson was next to go and his mode of dismissal was also worth discussing. He swished at a fast ball outside off stump, was done for pace and was caught behind. It was vintage Johnson. Johnson has dismissed countless other batsmen in such as fashion. He has always been fast and has always done batsmen in such a manner. But there is a difference. In the past batsmen ‘went’ at these deliveries out of frustration, boredom even. It was Johnson’s stock delivery, after all. Johnson’s accuracy and hostility is now such that Petersen had a dash at that ball from sheer relief. It wasn’t going to kill him and it may have looked, well, innocuous. What could go wrong?
Johnson has taken 49 wickets in his last six Test matches and really does look to be unstoppable. He looks and acts mean on the field but I’m liking him off the field. When he received the Allan Border medal, he stood at the podium trying to compose himself. It was unexpected and anyone could see how much it meant to him. He spoke humbly and with great appreciation. I recall also when he received his third man-of-the-match in the Ashes series (at the close of the 4th Test, in Melbourne) that he was appreciative but remarked that he thought ‘Buck’ should have got it.
In one of the previews of the first Test at Centurion, I read that the match featured the top four ranked pace bowlers in the world. And Mitchell Johnson. It has taken Johnson just one Test to show the world that while he may not be officially ranked number one, his captain is right. Just at the moment, it is pretty hard to argue that he is not the best.
I don’t want to risk being a fair-weather friend. I have read many times that Johnson has been ‘much maligned’ and it is true. This can easily be traced to his disastrous Ashes tour in 2009 where he pretty much fell apart. By why maligned? I’m sure he was trying his heart out but without getting good results. The truth is that players are maligned when they let the fans down simply because the inner well being of those said fans is undermined. Johnson is loved now because his great success is causing great joy to a cricket-loving nation. It is rather contrary, I admit.
So here’s to Mitchell Johnson. To a guy who didn’t give up even when it seemed his career was over, without him achieving what so many expected from him. And probably not achieving all that he may have wanted, himself. He persevered and has come out the other end better than ever. I hope he enjoys his time in the sun. The rest of his countrymen are enjoying it, as is the cricket community at large.