“He can be quicker than Brett Lee”
“Mitch, from Townsville,” Mitchell Johnson introduced himself.
The 18-year-old was at Adelaide Oval No. 2 on an April morning in 1999. Nobody had heard of him. Some laughed at his hairstyle–an undercut with a ponytail. They mightn’t have, had they known ‘Mitch from Townsville’ was sent there by Dennis Lillee.
Lillee was conducting a cricket clinic in Brisbane. Mitchell thought he’d have a go at it. He wasn’t desperate for a breakthrough. Cricket wasn’t his first love. He grew up playing tennis, idolising Pete Sampras.
Mitchell, without a fuss, ran hard and bowled fast. That was enough. Lillee rang up his former teammate Rod Marsh, who was running the Australian Cricket Academy.
“Got one for ya, mate,” he told Marsh.
“Send him down,” Marsh replied.
Mitchell sent down a ball or two and the laughter died at Adelaide. They were serious now. They witnessed serious pace.
“He can bowl 10 yards faster than Zaheer Khan and quicker than Brett Lee, too,” said Marsh after watching him bowl.
“He’d not just been knocked over but had his stump broken in half”
Few months passed, his pony-tail was chopped, his action was tightened. He was picked for Queensland’s youth team to terrorize batsmen.
The U-19 National Championships that summer was held at Perth–home to the world’s fastest surfaces. The demon was put in a graveyard.
Queensland played New South Wales. The latter had a confident batting unit led by Ed Cowan. Apparently some of them had even batted without chest guards hitherto. But, in the end of the match, they were battered.
Cowan opened the batting. Johnson ran in and bowled quick. Queensland’s keeper Chris Hartley collected the ball on the rise, 25 meters behind the stumps. Both Cowan and Hartley were shocked.
“It is still the quickest I’ve kept to,” Hartley said when he had completed 99 matches and a decade in first-class cricket.
Queensland then went on to play the hosts, Western Australia. If the former had a prodigy in Johnson; the latter had Shaun Marsh, the superbly talented son of Geoffrey Marsh.
Johnson fired one that whirred past Marsh’s helmet. He looked back wide-eyed at Hartley.
He was uncertain about the next ball. It was pitched about middle and off and straightened enough to beat his outside edge. It was all too quick for Marsh. Now when he looked back, his off-stump was snapped into two.
“The joy coming from our team was completely at odds with how silent the sidelines felt with the WA team, who had been banking on Shaun,” said Hartley, recounting that day. “He’d not just been knocked over but had his stump broken in half.”
“He hit him in Sydney and broke his finger there… Then he hit him in the third over in Durban”
Ten years later. Johnson was 28 now. He still couldn’t surpass Lee’s pace. He was playing hide-and-seek with consistency. He was Peter Siddle’s second fiddle. But Johnson was dangerous. He broke Graeme Smith’s finger… twice.
South Africa was touring Australia. They had won the three match series 2-0. A dead rubber was played at Sydney. Australia won the toss and posted 445.
South Africa’s turn to bat. They were going good at 33 for no loss. Their skipper, Graeme Smith made 29 of them. He had made the most runs for his team throughout the series.
Over 12, bowling change, Johnson into the attack. Four balls passed without any calamity. Ball number five: Johnson came hustling over the wicket and banged the ball short on a fifth stump line.
‘Another harmless ball,’ Smith would’ve thought as he tried a backfoot defence. He had every reason to think that way. It was a harmless second day Sydney wicket. And, the bounce was as trustworthy as one’s best friend.
However, Johnson’s fifth ball rose higher than it should have. Smith hardly expected that. It was like being held at gunpoint by a seven-year-old in a crowded park while taking a Sunday evening stroll. The ball travelled further and fractured Smith’s left pinkie.
Two months later. Australia was in South Africa. The visitors were seeking revenge. South Africa, albeit losing their skipper’s left pinkie, had beaten the Aussies at home.
First match at Jo’burg. The visitors won it by 162 runs. Johnson scalped eight. He was man of the match.
Second one was at Durban. Australia won the toss, batted first and made 352.
South Africa’s turn to bat. First over. Johnson. A double-wicket-maiden. Neil McKenzie nicked a short ball to Haddin behind wickets. Amla was out plumb. Johnson flared.
A rather timid Ben Hilfenhaus over was completed before Johnson returned for his second. Facing him was Graeme Smith.
Ball one: Johnson ran in hard, he banged the ball hard, it travelled at 150.9 kmph and hit Smith’s right little finger… hard. Another broken finger.
Bonus damages: he cut Jacques Kallis chin, which had to be sewn with three stitches.
In a press conference before the start of the following ODI series, Ricky Ponting–knowingly or otherwise– was rubbing salt in the wounds.
“He hit him in Sydney and broke his finger there and the next time he got the chance to bowl to him was in Jo’burg (in the first Test in February). He got him out second ball in the first innings in Jo’burg and he almost had him first ball in the second innings. Then he hit him in the third over in Durban…” Ponting listed out Johnson’s assaults on Smith.
“He bowls to the left, He bowls to the right, That Mitchell Johnson, His bowling is S**te”
2010-11 Ashes. Australia had a terrible series. They lost the Ashes 3-1–their first Ashes defeat at home over two decades.
Johnson did moderately well, picking up 15 wickets–highest by an Australian that series. But he looked out of sorts, vulnerable, and painful. He who’d been breaking things hitherto got his spirit broken.
The Barmy Army celebrated his implosion.
“He bowls to the left, He bowls to the right, That Mitchell Johnson, His bowling is S**te,” they chorused.
Burdened by family problems and uncertainty, Johnson wobbled in the international circuit for a few months, starting to hate the sport he loved the most.
Then, a toe-injury put him back on his feet.
“My knee was hurting. My pride was dented. Trotty was in shreds. The tail-enders were scared. Cooky was dithering.”
2013-14 Ashes. Johnson was prepared. The injury break had restored his hunger. Dennis Lillee had repaired his bowling. He warmed up for a few months. He unsettled Jonathan Trott at England; bounced out Yuvraj Singh on a placid Mohali track; and got himself picked for the series that mattered the most.
First Test at Gabba. Australia scored 295; 64 of it came from Johnson’s bat.
Now, it was his turn to bowl. Redemption was just a few overs away. He took some time to get into rhythm. And naturally, a few deliveries strayed. Loud groans among the 35,000 present at the Gabba.
He bowled five overs and gave away 26. More murmurs.
Then, the first ball of the sixth one. It changed everything. He bowled one short to Trott.
Trott scored 445 runs the last time he toured here. But a few things had changed ever since. For starters, Johnson had a moustache: a stylish, masculine, and threatening one. His pace and bounce went well with it.
So, Trott, in the process of awkwardly trying to protect his rib-cage, nicked one to Haddin. That wicket set off a chain reaction. One after another, match after match, succumbed to Johnson’s ferocity.
In a time when batsmen are said to dominate the game, he made the English tremble. Some of them shuddered with their helmets on.
Some tried to appear brave. They ducked a bouncer. And another. Few more. Finally got one on their helmet. Then they found it tough to appear brave.
Johnson picked 37 wickets in the series, striking at a ridiculous rate of 30.5. Only Sydney Barnes had a better strike-rate, one century ago.
Kevin Pietersen, who bore the brunt, later recorded in his controversial autobiography:
“I heard Broad, Anderson and Swann say they were scared. When you’ve got that, you know that a bloke in the other team is doing damage.
My knee was hurting. My pride was dented. Trotty was in shreds. The tail-enders were scared. Cooky was dithering. It was clear that Johnson was already a weapon that we had no answer to.”
“I still find it strange sometimes to think batsmen are fearful of his bowling.”
With the brawn, the height, and the moustache, Johnson can be a successful bully–off the field as well. Not many would mess with him. But Johnson isn’t one.
Mitch from Townsville is a mild-mannered person. Kevin Johnson, his dad, can barely remember Mitchell getting into trouble. Apart from occasionally not doing his homework and the police once pulling him over and warning him to wear a helmet on his push bike, there hasn’t been many complaints.
Mitch from Townsville rose from a modest background. He couldn’t afford a pair of cricket spikes in his early years. He had to be content with his father’s old golf shoes until someone gave him a spare pair.
Mitch from Townsville is quite a family man. There was a bad Ashes tour in 2009 because of a family meltdown. In 2013, a few months before the Ashes, he was upbeat about his little girl–Rubika Anne Johnson.
“You come home from what may not have been your best day and you’ve got your family there. Your little one smiles at you and it just makes everything better. If I bowl a bad over and go down to fine leg I can think about the good things in life,” he said.
Kevin is bewildered of Johnson’s on-field transformation into a fire-breathing dragon.
“He is not an extrovert who needs the attention,” Kevin said. “He has never been like that. It seems strange because if you don’t know him personally you probably think he is very aggressive but he’s not. I still find it strange sometimes to think batsmen are fearful of his bowling.”
An edited version of this article can be read here.