Somebody will write a book about Mitch Johnson one day, or make a movie. He is that much of an enigma, a man with such a sensitive soul that the Barmy Army’s songs about his scattergun bowling in 2009 and 2010 got to him, yet who, at his best, is irresistible.
Now is the time for redemption, and they don’t sing that ditty (‘He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right. That Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is s***e’) anymore.
Johnson demolished England at the Adelaide Oval on a pitch so apparently docile that Australia compiled 570 on it. His 7/40 from 17.2 overs ranks among the greatest Ashes bowling spells, statistically and intuitively, because the conditions were not to his favour.
In less than an hour after the break Johnson may have delivered the series to Australia with raw pace and aggression and 5/12. Twice he was on a hat-trick, the second time almost picking up Ian Bell who looped a drive just short of Chris Rogers at cover. He smashed down Stuart Broad’s leg stump and ripped an in-dipper through the gate to bowl Jimmy Anderson, giving the Englishman a theatrical glare on the way past.
To the names of Fred Spofforth and Dennis Lillee (who also favoured hair above the upper lip) and Jeff Thomson (who did not), add Mitchell Johnson. Here was pure, unadulterated fast bowling at its best, above 150 km/h and unrelenting, unstoppable for all but the classy Bell.
England’s 172 left the tourists 398 runs behind, upon which Michael Clarke chose to bat again rather than enforce the follow-on. It was a strategic decision aimed at recharging his bowlers for a final assault, and perfectly logical, even if it will cause consternation.
Either way, England needs a miracle to avoid going to 2-0 down in the series followed by a trip to the fastest, bounciest pitch in Australia at the WACA Ground. With Australia at 3-132 at stumps on day three, Alastair Cook’s team will likely be confronting Johnson sometime in the second session tomorrow, with 600-plus to chase or, more accurately, a long time to bat for a draw.
Johnson’s renaissance is stunning. Three years ago he was dropped after a Gabba Test against England where he lost control of the ball, just as he had on the 2009 tour of England. His issues were technical; he had a recurring habit of falling away in the delivery stride and rolling his wrist, firing the ball away toward the slip cordon against right-handers. Diminished confidence resulted.
For a year he stayed out of the Australian team and a toe injury curtailed any progress, but plainly, he had not dropped his bundle, and he drew upon Lillee, his old mentor, and spent a day training with an SAS soldier and VC winner, Ben Roberts-Smith. Craig McDermott, the bowling coach, told him to split his fingers wider on the seam, making it easier to keep his fingers behind the ball.
Darren Lehmann’s arrival as coach was another piece of the puzzle for him. Lehmann and Clarke want him to focus on bowling fast, where Ricky Ponting wanted more accuracy as a starting point. Hindsight tells us Ponting had the wrong approach.
People who know him suggest that his wife Jessica, an elite karate exponent, has delivered perspective for him, along with the birth of their daughter, Rubika, just more than a year ago. At this rate, Cricket Australia will be encouraging all its single players to nuptials.
Like an old shirt in the wardrobe, and like facial hair, Mitch Johnson is back in fashion. And with an innings to come for England in Adelaide, he is not done yet.