Assessing Mitchell Johnson's Chances of an Ashes Recall

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Assessing Mitchell Johnson's Chances of an Ashes Recall
Matt Roberts/Getty Images
Keeping his eye on the ball: but will "Midge" get the nod for Brisbane though?

Mitchell Johnson was sent home from Australia’s limited-overs tour of India on Thursday in order for the fast bowler to start gearing up for a possible Ashes recall later this month.

However, what chance does the Western Australian really have of facing England in the first Test match at the Gabba on November 21?

Well, if we were judging solely on Johnson’s recent fiery displays for his country in the shorter form of the game—both in England in September and more recently on the subcontinent—then one would say his odds on a return to the Test team look good.

"Mitch has performed very well in India," Australia performance manager Pat Howard said of the surprising decision to omit the tourists’ most effective bowler so far in their current seven-match, one-day international (ODI) series against the reigning world champions.

"However, we believe it is best for his preparation ahead of a busy summer to have him return home to increase his bowling loads in preparation for the Ashes Test window."

And it is a real sign of just what a good place Johnson is in at the moment with his bowling that Australia are really going to miss the left-arm paceman in Saturday’s crucial seventh and deciding ODI in Bangalore—not a sentence anyone thought would be written about the bowler a few short months ago.

George Bailey’s men may have been taking on their ever-confident hosts on some of the flattest featherbeds the subcontinent has ever produced these past three weeks, with some outrageous 50-over totals to prove it, but Johnson has consistently remained the one bowler on both sides to have rushed the batsman and at least made them think about how to score their runs.

As a result, the 31-year-old leaves India having recorded impressive overall bowling figures of seven for 224 from the 39 overs that he sent down at just 5.7 runs per over (RPO), which is an outstanding achievement to have kept his RPO at below six.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s match-winning spell of four for 46 in Australia’s four-wicket win in the third ODI at Mohali was a real sign that the seamer is now virtually back to his intimidating best, although anyone who watched "Midge" bowl in England during the 50-over series back in September would have already known that to be the case.

As in that rain-curtailed five-match series—as well as the two Twenty20s that preceded it—Johnson appeared to have rediscovered the inner mongrel in him which had so clearly been missing from his game ever since he nearly suffered a very public bowling breakdown during England’s previous tour Down Under in 2010/11.

In Australia on that occasion, notwithstanding his man-of-the-match performance in the third Test at Perth, Johnson appeared at times almost to be suffering from the cricketing equivalent of the yips—a condition not helped when you have thousands of members of the Barmy Army constantly ridiculing you from the stands (see video below).

And yet there has been none of that extravagant loss of control, low bowling arm and lack of pace on display against England or India of late.

In fact, it's been quite the opposite, with some of his short bursts against Eoin Morgan’s side in particular causing more than a few raised eyebrows, and bruises, in the home dressing-room.

However, herein lies the exact crux of the problem for Australia coach Darren Lehmann, national selector John Inverarity and recently rehired bowling guru Craig McDermott to ponder between now and when the Aussies name their squad for the first Test in Brisbane on Nov. 12.

Does Johnson’s ability to rough up the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott with the white ball during short, sharp three or four-over spells mean that the left-armer can consistently and repeatedly reproduce that sort of pace and hostility with the red ball over the course of potentially five Test matches this winter?

This is the key question for that trio to answer, especially as so much of the Aussies’ success with the ball last summer came about via the control they were able to exert over the England batsmen from the likes of Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle.

But Johnson does not tend to do control, even when on song.

With one bowling place definitely up for grabs at the Gabba following injuries to the likes of rival seamers Mitchell Starc, Darren Pattinson, Jackson Bird and Patrick Cummins, perhaps "Midge" is a gamble worth taking.

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Especially when you consider Australia’s remarkable record in Brisbane, where the home team have not lost a Test match since being beaten by the great West Indies team in 1988/89, while England themselves have not won at the Woolloongabba since their victorious 1986/87 tour.

And anyone who knows anything at all about what type of character Lehmann is will know—especially when it comes to matters such as team selection—that the coach loves to gamble by following his hunches.

So do not be surprised at all to see Johnson’s name both in Australia’s squad for the first Test and their final XI, too, come Nov. 21.

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