Mitchell Johnson: The need for speed

By Dattaraj Thaly | Last Updated: Nov 18, 2015, 10:31 AM IST

Mitchell Starc’s belligerent burst at the Kiwi batsmen towards end of Day 3 at Perth was a thrilling sight. That phase of play will perhaps be etched forever in the minds of many. Starc, bowling with genuine pace and hostility, commanded the undivided attention of spectators at the stadium.

Fast bowlers live for such moments. Mitchell Johnson lived for such moments. But of late, he had lost the artistry to produce such moments. That ability to strike fear into opposition batsmen, wake the crowd up or spring life into a dull day of cricket had diminished.

Which is what that spell from Starc highlighted. Australia had found a new Mitch – younger and faster. Johnson didn’t want it any other way either. He always wanted to bowl fast. He knew his time was up. The tank was empty.

If Mitchell Johnson didn’t intimidate batsmen, he wasn’t really Mitchell Johnson and who’d know this better than the man himself.

The beauty about Australia’s deep-rooted cricket culture is that it prevents players from overstaying their welcome. Like Michael Clarke and Shane Watson before him, Johnson too had to obey the unwritten law. Like them, Johnson too left after having achieved everything the sport had to offer an Aussie – a World Cup and Ashes wins.

Johnson belonged to a rare group of cricketers. Numbers will never justify his contribution to the Australian team. 25th and 27th on the highest all-time Test and ODI wicket takers list respectively doesn’t merit an inclusion into a select club of great cricketers, but the tremors and shivers he sent down the spines of batsmen don’t find mention in stats columns.

His ability to nip the ball back into the right-hander at pace and alternately slide it across the batsman made Johnson a difficult bowler to deal with. The fizzing bouncer directed at the armpits of batsmen was another potent weapon he possessed. Unlike fellow pacers, Johnson could catch batsmen on the crease with his speed.

From a neutral standpoint, the sheer unpredictability about Johnson’s bowling is what made him a truly fascinating watch. The 34-year-old could be magnificent one moment and mediocre the next. He could dish out good, bad and the ugly in a matter of six balls.

For a large part of his career, dependability was a quality one hesitated to associate with the Queensland native. But he more than made up for such deficiencies with a characteristic hard to define called the X factor. Good or bad, Mitch made things happen.

The Indian team was among the first to experience the full fury of a young Johnson. Seven matches into his ODI career, Johnson made light work of the famed Indian batting line-up. The rain gods eventually rescued them, but not before Johnson caused carnage in Kuala Lumpur, removing Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and Irfan Pathan in seven overs of high-quality bowling.

Like most feared fast bowlers, Johnson too was gentle and likeable off the pitch. His teammates adored him and the media never had problems with him. However, one particular group of people he managed to rile on most occasions was England’s Barmy Army.

Johnson got under their skin. Every time he came on to bowl, the Barmy Army sang, "He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson is bowling his shite."

What started off as banter in the 2011 Ashes series, came back to haunt England fans two year later in 2013 in Australia. No longer inaccurate and unpredictable, much to the other horror of the Barmy Army, Johnson was a symbol of precision and menace.

He terrorized the English batsmen like no other bowler had since the famous West Indian pace battery in the 70’s. Johnson fired one rocket after another in short four to five over bursts. The Poms, bobbing and weaving, were subjected to a full frontal assault from a man now at the peak of his powers.

That series was perhaps the crowning glory of Johnson’s career. He’s now credited with being the man who changed England cricket forever. The damage he caused on that tour was in many ways irreparable.

Despite being a World Cup winner and an Ashes legend, it’s hard to make a case for Johnson’s inclusion in the greatest Australian XI. Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson will by all means make the cut ahead of him.

Hence Johnson will have to be judged by his ability to alter the course of matches. He will have to be remembered by the buzz he brought to the game. Use of standard measuring metrics is best avoided in case of a maverick like him.

Players across sports, modify their methods to boost longevity. In case of pacers in cricket, cutting down on speed has been the preferred option for most. Johnson didn’t take that route. He could never take that route. He bowled at full pace even at 34 on a dull Perth pitch.

If legacies matter, Johnson’s should be that of a great fast bowler. He stayed true to its definition right till the very end, which is why Johnson’s last victim in international cricket, Martin Guptill, was out caught trying to fend off a bouncer.