Ashes 2013-14: Can Mitchell Johnson Maintain His A-Game Through the Series?

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Ashes 2013-14: Can Mitchell Johnson Maintain His A-Game Through the Series?
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

“He bowls to the left,
He bowls to the riiiiiight,
That Mitchell Johnson,
His bowling is sh*te!”

Mitchell Johnson knew that he would be in for some stick from the Barmy Army as soon as he took the new ball and marked his run-up in the second over of England’s innings on Day Two of the first Ashes Test.

He had, after all, copped plenty of it during England’s last trip Down Under in the Australian summer of 2010-11. Here’s another sample (one of the Barmy Army’s most popular chants listed on their website, sung to the tune of The Adams Family):

“His mother hates his missus
His missus hates his mother
They all hate each other
The Johnson Family 
de le la le de le la le de le la le” 

Ever since being named ICC Cricketer of the Year back in 2009, Johnson’s form as swung from the polar extremes of aggressively accurate to incomprehensibly wayward—Version A and B, so to speak.

This was evident in the 2010-11 Ashes, when he recorded contrasting figures of none for 66 and none for 104 at Brisbane, and six for 38 and three for 44 at Perth in successive Test matches. At Melbourne and Sydney, he conceded 134 and 168 runs respectively, picking up just six wickets in total, even as Australia went on to lose the series 3-1. That was when the Johnson chants were born.

Following a rather unremarkable 2011 and 2012, Johnson was dropped from the Australian Test squad for the summer Ashes in England in 2013. However, he took it upon himself to prove his detractors wrong and was the pick of the bowlers (24 wickets in 17 games) in the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2013, where his Mumbai Indians went on to lift the title.

It was almost a reborn, reinvigorated Johnson on display in the limited overs circuit, for club and country. Johnson had added that extra yard of pace to his aggressive left-arm fast bowling and begun clocking speeds of 90 mph on a consistent basis.

He troubled batsmen, the likes of Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, during the one-day series that followed the English leg of the Ashes, and then the superstar Indian batting line-up on sub-continental tracks that were flatter than a highway. It was a given that he would be picked for the return leg of the Ashes Down Under.

So evident was his transformation that even Sachin Tendulkar couldn’t help but put in a word of praise for him during his farewell press conference, when quizzed on the Ashes. Johnson was in every cricket writer’s "men to watch out for" lists for the Ashes, and rightly so. On seaming, lively tracks in Australia, Johnson’s version of frighteningly quick, aggressive and short-pitched bowling spelled trouble for the Englishmen. If there was a chink, it was only his waywardness, his Version B, which exaggerated when put under pressure.

Under pressure he was when England walked out to bat on Day Two of the first Test at the Gabba, having dismissed Australia for a rather unimpressive 295. The Barmy Army was up on their feet and chirpy as ever as he ran up to bowl to the left-handed Michael Carberry. His first delivery drew loud cheers from the English support as it drifted down the leg-side. He was hit for three boundaries by the English openers in as many overs, before skipper Michael Clarke replaced him with Peter Siddle.

Same old story, different day?

After being given some time to compose himself, Johnson was brought back into the attack to expose Trott’s weakness for the short ball after the fall of Alastair Cook. Johnson responded straight away, as he banged them in and had Trott hopping on his toes and protecting his visor. It wasn’t long before he found the right-hander’s edge, which was caught by Brad Haddin behind the sticks, moments before lunch.

The wicket set the tone for what was to be a spectacular session of Test match cricket—well, at least for the Australians. England did well for the first hour after lunch, cruising along at 82 for two, before pandemonium struck the tourist camp. In a remarkable 10-over spell before tea, England lost six wickets for just nine runs. England were to be all out for just 136, losing nine for 81, out of which Johnson accounted for four.

The way he set up Trott, followed by Joe Root, with a relentless line and length of short-pitched bowling, had the Gabba on their feet and in full song. The Barmy Army, meanwhile, had gone quiet, wondering if they had awoken a monster. Johnson finished with figures of four for 61, and even if it didn’t quite match up to those of the pantomime villain from the other side, Stuart Broad (six for 81), England were left hoping that this other side of Johnson’s maverick personality dies away soon.

After the day’s play, Shane Warne told Sky Sports that England's inability to play the short ball, and Johnson in particular, could be their folly:

Australia had the X-factor of Mitchell Johnson bowling fast - he was bowling consistently around 90mph plus—and he got it right. He looked a completely different bowler; there was no-one who really looked comfortable against the short ball.

Carberry all but concurred with Warne, when he said in the post-match press conference:

In terms of pace he’s up there with some of the quickest I’ve faced in my time, but more importantly he put the ball in the right areas.

In the right areas. That’s where Johnson will have to ensure he bowls for the remainder of the series. He’s got the pace, he’s got the length, he’s got the aggression; he’s even got a menacing handlebar moustache look—his tribute to "Movember." 

What he doesn’t have is the ability to maintain that threatening line for a prolonged period. That said, when Johnson is up in the right spirits, as he was on Day Two, there is no stopping this rampaging freight train. But will he be able to subdue his Version B?

If he is, England are in for some trouble, to say the least.

 

(This article first appeared here)

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