Mitchell Johnson Treads Tightrope with England Threats Ahead of the Ashes

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2013

Mitchell Johnson has been recalled to Australia's Test team ahead of the Ashes.
Mitchell Johnson has been recalled to Australia's Test team ahead of the Ashes.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Have you ever headed to your nearest shopping centre, desperate to emulate that striking outfit you recently caught a glimpse of, despite knowing deep down that it's just not your look? Ever journeyed through that process of attempting to convince yourself that despite your limitations, you can somehow make that unique look work for you?

Many of us have.

It's a contradictory quirk of the aspirational yet conservative creatures so many of us are. While still wanting to establish our own identity, there's the compelling desire to reach for distinctive examples that have gone before us.

Treacherously, it's apparent that Australia's Mitchell Johnson currently resides in a similar psychological space ahead of the approaching Ashes series.

Johnson, of course, has been recalled to Australia's Test team for their impending encounter with England on the back of impressive limited overs performances and injuries to James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc.

Thus, the left-armer has been afforded somewhat of a Test lifeline. Certainly, those that have closely followed the 32-year-old's story will be well aware that Johnson's red-ball career had been in jeopardy prior to recent events.

Buoyed up by that good fortune coinciding with some promising form, the curious enigma of Australian cricket is suddenly making some profoundly unfamiliar noises.

Trott has come out and said he is not worried about the short ball, Johnson said, according to The Australian.

We saw what he was like in the one-day series and he definitely did not like it. If I can get a few of those rearing balls towards the ribs, or a throat ball, it is his fault if he gets in the way.

You would rather get the wicket more than anything, you get a lot of joy out of that, but last summer I busted Sangakkara's finger so they were one short. If you can't get them out, that is the second option. 

In that same way that many of us have erroneously attempted to pull off that ill-suited look, Johnson appears to be trying to embody a forced persona, a persona akin to those of a handful of Ashes greats that have gone before him. At the same time as being peculiarly uncomfortable, it's also completely understandable.

Australia is a cricketing nation that proudly boasts a roll call of combative spearheads, players who thoroughly revelled in their role as the chief enforcer.

Mitchell Johnson's recall has come off the back of impressive limited overs form.
Mitchell Johnson's recall has come off the back of impressive limited overs form.Stu Forster/Getty Images

Glenn McGrath's ritualistic pre-Ashes predictions became as famous as his astounding record against the old foe. Of course, being the instigator of friction sat comfortably with the methodically ruthless seamer. 

Shane Warne, playing alongside McGrath, also relished the opportunity to provoke an opponent. The leg-spinner's regular announcements that he'd added a new "mystery ball" to his repertoire before an Ashes series were—in Warne's unique waya form of ridicule. 

A generation prior, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson relentlessly stoked the fire in the lead-up to battles with England, by publicly stating their intentions to inflict physical pain upon their opponents.

While this time-honoured practice has always been considered rather unsavoury in English minds, it's a reflection of the harsh, brazen rawness that pervades Australia's truly unique mentality.

However, what the likes of McGrath, Warne, Lillee and Thompson had in common was an unwavering level of self-belief. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to nominate another set of players with more bullish confidence than that group of fabled Australians. 

Yet that is precisely where Johnson differs.

Unlike his colossal predecessors, Johnson is a far more gentle character. The left-armer possesses a level of diffidence that separates him from the typical mould of the Australian spearhead.

Former Australia captain Ricky Ponting recently echoed that sentiment, when reflecting on Johnson's destruction of England in Perth in December 2010.

There were days like this when Mitch was as lethal a bowler as any in my experience; at other times, however, he was so frustratingly erratic and ineffective. I never questioned his work ethic and commitment, but for someone so talented, such a natural cricketer and so gifted an athlete, I found his lack of self-belief astonishing, Ponting wrote in his autobiography according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The self-belief, or lack thereof, that Ponting refers to, has been the catalyst in a string of wildly wayward performances from Johnson. That those performances have regularly occurred when the 32-year-old has reluctantly carried expectation further illustrates Johnson's defining contradiction: He's a wolf with a sheepish mentality.

Yet perhaps it is possible that Johnson's recent comments are a reflection of a newly-found level of conviction in his abilities. Perhaps it is possible that Australia's once-great hope is ready to embody the essence of his nation's cricketing history.

However, it's hard to shake the feeling that this is a false dawn; an expression of nervous energy before entering the defining series of his career.

In attempting to mimic his illustrious predecessors, Johnson has placed a burdensome weight of expectation and pressure upon himself—the very quantities that have proved to be the kryptonite of his international existence. 

So while his attempts to intimidate England and to impose himself on the series are admirable, Johnson's quiet nature leaves a certain uneasiness and a sense of artificial confidence to his words.

Of course, that substance of his statements will be tested next Thursday. But if Johnson falls victim to the same curse that has previously crippled his Ashes career, he'll be viewed as a tame impressionist of those before him.

In fact, he'll be left looking like the guy chasing that ill-suited look.