I have a confession to make . . . My Girlfriend Loves Mitchell Johnson. There, I said it!
Having broken Graeme Smith’s hand at the SCG in January 2009, Mitchell Johnson then knocked the stuffing out of the South Africans in their own back yard during the return leg, in particular during his Durban Demolition where figures of 3-37 didn’t tell the full story. He had taken 8 wickets in the first match and at Durban took two in his first over and then had Smith retired hurt with a broken hand again and split Jacques Kallis’s chin before getting him out. He had announced himself as Australia’s “enforcer” with 33 South African wickets over 6 Tests home and away.
Two Tests into the Ashes Series though and he was hopeless. Couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo. Geoffrey Boycott’s moom could bowl better. He was lost and lonely, mind elsewhere because mummy wasn’t talking to him and wasn’t worth a pinch of all the pre series hype. That was the end of him, never mind what he had done against the second best team in the World in Australia and in South Africa, he hadn’t bowled well in two Tests against England so get him out. Figures of 8-331 didn’t help disprove that argument to be fair. Back home people were calling for his head. In March Peter Roebuck called him the best bowler in the game, in July Allan Border and many others wanted him out. But Ricky Ponting stuck with his young quick.
There were no arguments from the Australian camp that their main man was struggling, but those closest to him insisted it was confidence and nothing more serious that was causing his problems. Adjusting to the Dukes ball and English conditions was hard, it’s been hard for others before and will be hard for others in years to come. But despite all the wayward stuff at Cardiff and at Lords, where many a first time visitor has come unstuck by the slope let’s not forget, his figures aren’t as bad as you might think. He took as many wickets in the opening Test as Hilfenhaus did, and he was being hailed as the great success story. And none of his wickets were “gimmes” only Stuart Broad counted as a non batsmen and he is far from a tail ender. His second innings figures were 2-44 from 22 overs. Not bad in anyone’s book. He took 3 at Lords, expensively, granted, but Cook and Prior were amongst them. Two at Edgbaston where he reverted to bowling first change where all his success had come in Australia, and signs were clear to all that he was finding his feet again and the aggression so palpably absent early in the series had come back into his bowling. Stuart Broad chirped back at him as the pair had some fun late in England’s innings, but I know who I’d back in that dogfight.
Sure enough come Headingley, again bowling first change, he took 5 in the second innings, including 3-1 in the last hour of the 2nd day to officially end the game as a contest. This was the display of a bowler who was clearly coming to terms with English conditions and regaining his confidence. He bowled short, nasty stuff that got England’s “batsmen” – I use the term loosely – hopping about and on the back foot all ready to be undone by his late swing or fending off short balls to slip.
None other than Dennis Lillee described a 17 year old Johnson as a “once in a generation bowler” and fast tracked him into the Academy. That sort of praise doesn’t fall from that high without merit. The last Australian cricketer to receive such public adulation so early was Ricky Ponting, and that story tells itself. Not that I am suggesting that Mitchell Johnson will be as good a bowler as Ricky Ponting is a batsman, but 110 wickets at under 30 from his first 25 Tests is a pretty decent return. Extrapolate that over a career, account for injury and loss of form along the way, add in a champagne season and another series or two like he has against the South Africans and you’ve got a guy with 300+ Test wickets.
Johnson now finds himself with one Test match to be played just 2 behind Hilfenhaus in the listings for the leading wicket takers of the series. Never mind the economy rates, a bowler like Johnson is in the side to take wickets and rattle the opposition batsmen so they relax and make mistakes when the guy at the other end comes. He’s in it, and barring injury or a sustained period of poor form, not two bad matches, will be in for quite some time to come, because there is something about him. He has the much sought after “X-Factor” that captains will always go for ahead of a line and length banker. God only knows England persisted with, and have since recalled, Steve Harmison for that very reason.
Mitchell Johnson will arrive at The Oval for the 5th and final Test of the summer a man full of confidence, he may even claim the new ball back from Peter Siddle, and should pick up where he left off in Leeds and give England’s top five or six, whoever they might be, a serious working over. This tour has become a journey of self discovery and self improvement for Mitchell Johnson. A loss of form is a rite of passage for any Test match cricketer, whether he be batsman or bowler, and it’s the way that you deal with that first loss of form that separates those who play at the highest level for a year or two, from those who play for decade. Whether he overtakes Hilfenhaus as the top wicket taker in the series or not is largely irrelevant. If Mitchell Johnson ends the coming Test match having bowled as well as Dennis Lillee backed him to all those years ago, as well as Ricky Ponting, Tim Nielsen and all those around him know he can, as aggressively as Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis will testify that he can, and in the process show himself and the baying English public that he was not a one year wonder but a genuine Test class fast bowler, then only lifting that little urn will give Australian cricket more satisfaction.
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