Why Teams Need their Stars to Shine

As Australia has now closed out the Perth Test as easily and unexpectedly as they wrested control on day 2, I will now examine the main reason: Mitchell Johnson.  All teams need their stars to shine and Johnson is Australia’s biggest star.  While all Australians will be thrilled that “Mitch is back”, this Australian worries about the team’s fortunes being in the hands of an enigmatic character whose fortitude seems so fragile and fickle.

At the outset, I will say three things:

1. In the batting, Australia is relying on just three men and I do not wish to overlook them.  Hussey, Mr Cricket, cannot be praised enough.  His turn around has been every bit as profound and complete as Johnson’s.  And he can already boast three Tests back at the top.  In a row. And Australia owes a debt to Haddin and Watson.

2. I apologise for not discussing England.  They have a good team, probably better than Australia and I still think they are chance to win the series.

3. Most of the rest of this piece is hearsay, speculation and idle musings.  In undertaking an in-depth examination of Mitchell’s heart and soul, let the reader know that I have not spoken personally to Johnson, his mother, Troy Cooley, nor have I even read the last New Idea article on Johnson.

Most teams have a star.  Starting from kiddies sports (and possibly especially in kiddies sport) through all levels of adult sports, right up to international, most teams have a player who stands out.  To this player goes respect and glory but also a burden of responsibility.  Not only do those players at times win matches almost single handedly but while they are playing well, the rest of the team will lift simply because they think they can win.  Conversely, if those players are out of sorts, or injured, the rest of the team can be crippled by self doubt.

For example, look at New Zealand in the Hadlee era.  Hadlee was a super star – nobody could argue with that.  He won games on his own and he inspired his team mates.  He was also a complete dickhead but because of his on-field deeds, his team mates put up with that (and keep in mind that Kiwis do not suffer dickheads lightly).  Have a look sideways and NRL (rugby league) – several teams have been known as “one man teams” (e.g. Newcastle in the Johns era) – if the star is out, injured, don’t tip that team.

Watching the transformation of Johnson in this Test, and the ensuing, resultant transformation of the entire team made me consider Johnson’s performance of the past 2-3 years in the context of his role as the emerging star.  On Friday, in the hour before lunch, Australia went from behaving like a team of down and outs to acting like world beaters.  It was like a switch had been flicked.  The change was that dramatic.

For 10 years up until 2006, Australia had a team full of stars.  Not just stars but genuine Super Stars.  In Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath, they had three of the best cricketers that ever played plus plenty of others.  When you think of the confidence that just one super star gives a team, how much more is drawn from having, say, five super stars?  Further, if one of those players is a bit down on form, it does not matter so much as there are plenty of others to get the job done.  Back to my earlier points, this in no way lessens the glory or fame but it reduces the burden of responsibility.

With all of those players leaving from early 2007 onwards, Australia looked for new stars.  After Hayden and Gillie retired, Ponting was the only super star remaining and until recently, he carried that burden well.  But who would be the next bowling sensation?  And then Mitchell Johnson stepped into the spotlight.

In his early days, Johnson took a lot of wickets with why I considered rubbish.  Fast, wide stuff, well outside off stump.  But there must have been something too it – perhaps he was more slippery than the batsmen realised – because he kept taking wickets with those same deliveries.  While his wicket counted climbed, his stardom seem to rise disproportionately to his improvement.

Then came the South African summer of 2008-2009.  Johnson started the series with 8-61 in Perth and he was a confirmed star.  But remember that in the second innings of that same match, South Africa chased 414 to win.  Personally, I think Johnson just had one of those days where everything seemed to go right.  He didn’t bowl that well especially.  Johnson rated his spell on Friday as the best of his career and I agree.  Easily.  He finished the 2008-09 home series by breaking Smith’s thumb in Sydney and then bowling him (after he returned at number 11) in the second innings for Australia to win with a few minutes to spare.

Johnson and Australia then embarked on a famous tour of South Africa.  It was there that Johnson the Super Star was born.  The genuine article.  Not only did Australia suddenly possess a great fast bowler but the all rounder they had desperately been seeking materialised under their noses.   Johnson’s bowling in the series was notable for its hostility and also because the occasional in swinger (to right handers) appeared.  These were lethal and made Johnson a truly dangerous bowler.  He broke Smith’s thumb again (tee hee) and wrote himself into folk lore with a devastating spell in the second Test in Durban.  With the bat he scored 96* and 123* in rather Gilchrist-like fashion.  He can hit a ball ferociously.

Shortly after, when Australia arrived in England for the 2009 Ashes, all eyes were on Johnson.  Not just Australian eyes but English as well.  Johnson was a man who deserved some fear and respect.  The Poms had not seen him before and they were worried.  What they got was a flop.  Johnson’s form was terrible. Unbelievable.  He lost the new ball honours.  He still got quite some wickets with trash but watching him bowl was painful.  How could that happen?  From hero to zero.

A very public spat between his girlfriend and mother was given much of the blame.  It seems that Johnson may not have a hide as robust as say, Warnie but I wonder if there was more to it.  Perhaps Johnson collapsed under the weight of expectation.  Did he wonder if he was as good as everyone else thought he was.  Was he good enough to single handedly route England as everyone thought he would?  That is a large burden to carry – the hopes of a fanatical nation.  In turn, how much impact did Johnson’s slump have on the rest of the team?  All of these things are impossible to measure but it must be shattering for a captain and team when their star bowler plays like that.

Since 2009, Johnson has been up and down, more down than up and he has never looked like the bowler of early 2009.  I think it is safe to say that his status and potential kept him from being dropped for as long as it did.  As a selector, you would surely keep saying, “If only he would bowl like he did in South Africa,” and give him one more match.

Then finally, the crisis.  Johnson simply had to be dropped after taking 0-170 amidst a sea of failure.  Then the triumphal return.  I, as are many others, are simply agog at his bowling in Perth.  He took 6-7 with searing, unplayable in swingers.  Perhaps the batsmen would have had some chance if they considered in swingers a possibility.  But these came form nowhere.  Out of rabbit’s hat.

The question is, who was the magician?  Was it Troy Cooley and if so, why was remedial action not taken long ago?  I wonder if being dropped released Johnson.  He must have considered he deserved to be dropped.  In being treated like everyone else and coming back into the team as a reprieve, maybe he felt a great relief.

We should also consider that Johnson’s star performances have mostly come from pitches that offer assistance.  Yes, they offer all pace bowlers the same assistance.  I’m just saying, I wonder if Johnson is one of those bowlers who needs some encouragement and confidence from the conditions to perform well.

One thing is sure and that is he has some confidence back, he has truly shocked the English and he has dragged his team out of a very big hole.  With Ponting’s form and fortunes (not his financial position, of course) in the toilet, Johnson has worked his magic.  Harris’ bag of six in the second innings was timely for Johnson – it shows that Johnson is not a one man bowling attack and that will help Johnson.

I still get the impression that Johnson doesn’t really know how he did it.  I hope he doesn’t try to figure it out – he’s not that sort of a guy.  He just needs to run in and bowl and if it swings, it swings.  The best advice would seem to come from the greatest fast bowler of them all – “Just roll up and let it go whang.”

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