So the ‘hard man’ of Australian cricket has finally called it a day. It is ironic that on the same day when Mitchell Johnson was struggling to intimidate batsmen at the WACA of all places, another left-arm quick bowler, Dirk Nannes, caused a local storm by decrying the time-honoured Australian ethos that sometimes makes hard cricket and verbal intimidation one and the same thing.
Nannes, commentating on ABC Grandstand, may well have been talking of the likes of Johnson when he referred to many of the Australian players being some of the nicest blokes in an individual sense but less than couth when driven along by the mob mentality. It’s hard to find any Australian with a harsh word to say about Johnson. The intimidation that he brought to the bowling crease (and sometimes with bat in hand) seems to have been very much a manufactured art form, at odds with his likeable persona off the field. As he struggled to kickstart the engine one last time to strike fear into the Kiwis, one begins to wonder if he was one of those fast bowlers who almost needed to get angry in order to find that extra 5%. In stark contrast to a Richard Hadlee, for example, whose style was all about control, precision and cold endeavour.
Australia’s Mitchell Johnson is chaired off the ground after completing his final Test match against New Zealand in Perth on November 17. Pic/PTI
Johnson was anything but Hadlee-esque, not even Dennis Lillee-like, his mentor, coach and father figure. Hot and cold perhaps, unplayable at times and “unplayable” in the other sense of the word at other times. There were brief periods in his career when his rhythm and confidence deserted him and he was literally unplayable, in the sense that the selectors simply could not pick him. Those moments often coincided with periods when his personal life was off the rails, a much-publicised rift between his mother and fiance causing much angst to this surprisingly shy and sensitive soul. It speaks to his maturity that the renaissance period of his career was during a phase of stability and normality at home, something that wasn’t always a part of the tearaway quick’s early years in North Queensland. Bowling action and life was anything but stable for the young Mitch.
Perhaps what will define our memory of Johnson is the fact that he was rarely ‘consistent’, in the cricketing sense of the word. The way he went about his work was the antithesis of being a medium-pace trundler. He could turn games in a moment and then go round the park at 6+ rpo, only to return for another spell that swung momentum once again. He was rarely just ticking along, biding his time, waiting patiently for a mistake. His extreme pace was his sword, scything through the very best batsmen and falling on his own sword when the low arm action occasionally went haywire. What was amazing about him was how quickly he went up the gears and down again. Last summer at the Gabba, having looked pedestrian for a large part of the game, he broke India’s resolve on the fourth morning but was soon tamed again. Too late; damage done, Test match lost. That was the Johnson cyclone — it blows in, causes havoc and then becomes a summer breeze. But the fear of what might happen, even when he was being collared, was what made him such a compelling fast bowler.
It says something about his pedigree that some of his best spells were against supposedly the best players of fast bowling. South Africa were blown away by him, with ball and bat, more often than you would expect from players used to extreme pace and bounce. His last tour of South Africa, where he roughed up the top order, was arguably his finest hour. It is hard to believe that barely two years later, he feels he has lost his mojo.
His successor, Mitchell Starc, is nothing like Johnson. Starc is most dangerous when he is full and aiming for toes, whilst Johnson was at the throat. Their batting is remarkably similar — clean hitters of the ball through the arc and with all the potential to graduate from dangerous hitter to genuine all-rounder. Johnson’s batting never quite scaled that summit but when he was flowing, it’s easy to see why many think he under-achieved.
Ultimately, it was his athleticism that defined him. Whether it was plucking catches at mid-on, throwing down the stumps or steaming in with arms pumping, Johnson’s value to the team was his sheer ability to win matches. Impressive enough numbers aside, what can’t be measured are the momentum shifts that he generated. You can’t buy fear. That was Johnson’s signature tune and clearly he now feels that the band has stopped playing his song. There are a few West Indians feeling mightily relieved at the moment!
Michael Jeh is a former MCC and Oxford player, who has also played senior club cricket in Australia