Mitchell Johnson has retired rather suddenly from Test cricket. Unlike many retirements in recent years, Johnson’s decision smacks of rightness. He doesn’t seem to have stayed too long. Everyone is happy with Mitch. Sad, perhaps that he is leaving but happy in the knowledge that it does seem to be the right time. I read today that Johnson didn’t want to keep playing if he couldn’t bowl fast anymore and that to me sums up Johnson: Simple and to the point.
Remembering that Johnson has been such a maligned cricketer at times, to see him sent off with such goodwill speaks volumes of the man and probably his comeback in late 2013. I admit that I was a detractor at times (between mid-2009 and 2012) and this was mostly born out of frustration at his inconsistency and perceived underachieving ways. I am not going to dwell on that but it can’t be ignored either. It was vexing to many, including me, especially when it had a large impact on Australia’s prospects.
In pausing to reflect on Johnson’s achievements, I cannot go past the 2013-14 Ashes series. Nothing else seems to matter. Even though his more recent form has been below that benchmark, it doesn’t seem to matter. That Ashes summer, followed by the successful tour of South Africa still shines. I liken it to a fishing excursion I had once. I landed a big Salmon on a busy beach with a crowd of people cheering. My daughter took video of that happy occasion on her phone. It made me happy for a year. If ever I was feeling a bit flat I would think of that fish or even better, watch that couple of minutes of video. I do the same with Johnson’s summer. I go to youtube and watch his 37 Ashes wickets. It never gets old and you can’t help noticing how many of the wicket taking balls are absolute crackers.
To expand on that comeback, some context is required. Johnson had been out of the game for an extended period of time with injury which coincided with poor form. He missed most of 2012 through injury. He came back for the summer of 2012-13 and was not impressive. He was one of the naughty boys in the homework scandal in India in 2013 and did not make the Ashes squad for 2013. Many including myself thought that might be it for MJ. Australia was beaten in the Ashes 3-0 and at least Mitch did not have his name against that. When he exploded back into the team for the return Ashes bout, most people, including myself, were amazed. But not Warnie. Many failed to notice that Mitchell Johnson played the ODI series that followed the Ashes and had some very impressive spells. So Warnie was not surprised that was carried forward. That’s what he says, anyway.
There is another youtube that I like to watch that compares Johnson’s performances in the 2010 and 2013 Brisbane Tests. Johnson in 2010 managed a duck and match figures of 0-170. Three years later in 2013, he made 64 and 39 with the bat and had match figures of 9-103. But Johnson’s presence in that match went way beyond figures. The way he took those wickets, the way he intimated and triumphed, setup the 5-0 whitewash. During that 2013-14 summer, I made a couple of posts celebrating and pondering Mitchell Johnson. The links are below if you want more of my thoughts on MJ during that summer.
If you want to get analytical about Johnson’s career, it is very interesting. Peter Roebuck once observed that there was a very long way between Johnson’s best and worst and not much in between. Nothing could be more true. Johnson’s best was utterly sensational and his worst was awful. And the turnaround in those extremes could be rapid but not always unpredictable. I read an article on Cricinfo listing Johnson’s top five performances. What struck me is that I could clearly remember each and every one of them and not really any others. Obviously, with 313 wickets, he must have done more right than that but it has to be said that Johnson took many of his early wicket simply because he was fast and was left-armed.
The other period of great success for Mitchell Johnson was the 2008-2009 season. Johnson’s performances against South Africa home and away during that summer were legendary, especially in South Africa. It announced him as a world class cricketer and the exciting thing was that it preceded the 2009 Ashes. Johnson was Akram, Bruce Reid and Gilchrist in one player. All of the cricket world waited to see what Johnson would do to the Poms. They had to wait more than four years to see what he could do but what he did do in 2009 was shocking. He was as forlorn in his failure as he dazzling just a few months before in South Africa. And nobody could work it out. They still can’t.
And that’s it for me. I remember 2008-09, 2009 and 2013-14 and only snatches otherwise. I remember Johnson in his early days taking many wickets with outside edges to straight, fast balls, well outside off stump. I don’t want to sell him short because 313 wickets is a lot. It should also be noted that his strike rate is 51.1 which is great. And that includes his poor performances. There is a good article here which looks into Johnson’s stats including the inconsistencies. In matches that Australia won, his strike rate was 42.2.
Johnson’s bowling was based on physicality. I read that Lillee thought that Johnson could persist for another three or four years by taking the approach that he took – drop the pace and use skill, control and guile. As already stated, Johnson only wanted to bowl fast. And I doubt Johnson possessed skill and control to emulate Lillee, nor the nouse. I wondered after the 2013-14 Ashes how long Johnson could carry on like that. He was in fantastic physical shape. Incredible. He bowled with sustained, searing pace all summer. That is not sustainable in the long term, especially at Johnson’s age.
What was different about Johnson after 2013-14 was that he did find somewhere in between. I wish Roebuck had lived to see it. I don’t think Johnson ever plumbed the depths after that. His returns became more modest but he was always there or there abouts and he did put in some exciting spells. There was one such spell in the 2015 Ashes. Australia was way behind following a dismal first innings at Edgbaston. On the morning of the second day, Johnson opened the door just a crack for Australia. He took two wickets in the one over with brutish throat balls. Almost identical balls (I think ball tracker showed them hitting exactly the same spot on the pitch) and both fended to the ‘keeper. If Australia had crashed through the rest of the English order, the game was still on. But those were the only wickets Johnson took in the innings and England prevailed. Johnson was interviewed by Mark Nicholas at the end of the day and asked him why after those two wickets, he reverted to bowling length with no short stuff. Johnson shrugged his shoulders and said he thought that might be the best approach. That was Johnson.
Johnson after the past couple of years has gained many friends. He has matured on the field and off the field. He is reportedly a shy person and from his interviews seems humble and down-to-earth. He answers questions honestly and simply in a way that makes it easy to warm to. I was delighted when Johnson won the Allan Border for 2014. It wasn’t surprising but Johnson’s acceptance speech was just lovely.
Johnson leaves the game as one of the greats. He is fourth on the Australian wicket takers list and that gives him great credibility. For those of us who followed his career and watched him a lot, we know there is much more to Johnson than that. At his best, he really had the potential to be one of the game’s all-time greats – one the same rung as Keith Miller. I guess it was disappointing that we didn’t see his best often enough. But that being said, we did see it enough and more importantly, recently enough, for him to leave the game with his held high and his stocks in good shape.