Test cricket February 26, 2014

Mitch and the art of ruin

Oliver Goldstein
He is huge, monstrous, violent. In his hand, leather balls are grenades. At the moment he is unplayable. Hail Mitch

Brilliant, blazing, barbaric. © AFP

When I left they were sleeping. I hope you run into them soon. - Leonard Cohen


He is tall, muscular, defined. The kind of bowler you dream of being: fast, faster than fast, faster still. Down his right arm, an intricate pattern tattoos the skin. His left hand fingers the seam.

He begins in the distance. His run-up is brash: a brutal thing formed of thumping strides and gathering pace and a galloping flourish. His left arm jerks up, his right foot thrusts forwards. In the moment before release, he is huge, monstrous, violent. In his hand, leather balls are grenades.


At his best, he is unplayable. Everyone knows this. He reaches the end of his run-up and his neck tilts viciously to one side. His eyes are ablaze. A moment of silence lingers. Then, like that, it is gone.

The pace is implausible. Ninety mph, ninety-five mph, more. It is deadly. In 2008, he breaks Graeme Smith's hand in Sydney. Three months later, he breaks it again. There is no one like him: not Steyn, not Morkel, not Anderson. Bowling like this, he is cricketing pyromania. Brilliant, blazing, barbaric.


But at his worst, he is terrible. There is nothing orderly about the bad days: just a skewed wrist, a flagging shoulder, and a flayed mind. England flog him like a dead horse in 2010 and 2011. The only pattern is the absence of pattern: too short or too full, down the leg side or wide of off-stump.

And the pace? Yes, even the pace is down on days like these: under ninety, into the eighties, hovering, floaty, kind. Whisper it quietly: Mitchell Johnson seems a muscular Sartre on days like these, a divided self, tormented and broken. Pyromania when he feels good, schizophrenia when he doesn't.


Dennis Lillee spots him at just 17. "A once-in-a-nine-lives prospect," says the great fast bowler. He contacts Rod Marsh, has him fast-tracked to the Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide. "He reminds me of Gary Gilmour," says Lillee in 2012, when they start working together again. "Gilmour was one of the most natural cricketers I ever saw. Mitch is better."

When Johnson is seventeen, he prefers tennis.


Never mind the rippling muscles, the super-sling action, the electro-violent style: Johnson is more tortured soul than demonic monster, more Scott Boswell than Jeff Thompson. Behind the snarling mask is a nervous man, a fragile psyche. "I let the chanting affect me a lot," he says. "It's hard not to when that's all you can hear in the cricket ground."


In 2011, Johnson takes thirteen wickets in six Tests. They come at an average of 57 runs. Before an injury saves him from selection for an upcoming tour, he considers retirement.

Together with Lillee, he picks up the pieces. "He has every chance to be back in the Test team next summer," says Lillee, "and I think he can have six or seven more years at the top level." He goes unselected for the tour of India, where Australia are whitewashed.

He is not picked for the Ashes in England. Australia lose 3-0.


Every bowler dreams of the day when it all comes together. The run-up flows smoothly, the wind blows the right way, the delivery is organic. But bowling is a terribly exacting, precise, problematic affair, demanding myriad awkward gestures be replayed again and again at implausible speeds. In cricket, the bowler is a sweating, labouring worker: there are no cover drives for him, no flourishes of the blade, no swings from the hip. "In the game of cricket," notes I.A.R. Peebles, "it has always been customary to accord more adulation to batsman than to bowlers." But every bowler dreams of his day.


He gathers himself. "To be written off at 30 is ridiculous," he tells the press in 2012. "I don't think I've even reached my peak." He returns to the T20 side in England. He is nervous. The chant that followed him years ago follows him still. "He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right," they begin. "Mitchell Johnson, he's absolute shite." He breathes in deep, waits for a moment, begins. His first over in England. Two wides and three boundaries. Seventeen runs. But when he returns, Michael Lumb doesn't scare him. He trusts in his instincts. Once again, in from the boundary and left arm up, right foot forward, he flings a grenade. Like that, the ball whistles through the air, straightens slightly, crashes into pad. The finger goes up. Out.


At Old Trafford in the one-day series, he bowls well. His pace is good, his arm high. In his second over, Michael Carberry slaps a wide one to Michael Clarke. The next ball is a brute: Jonathan Trott, cursorily stepping down the line, fends a riser back to the keeper. What's more, he's economical. Ten overs go for thirty-six runs. He gets Kevin Pietersen in the next game, bowls quick, stays precise. Trott looks notably unnerved. A hopeful review earns an LBW reprieve, before Johnson cracks him on the grill with a ball that rears up frightfully. "It's definitely a plan to target Trott with the bouncer," says Matthew Wade when the match is rained off, "but any batsman getting bouncers at the pace Mitch is bowling them will find it difficult." In the last game of the series, Johnson's ten overs cost him twenty-one runs. From the England batting line-up, Carberry, Trott, Pietersen, and Root will start the Ashes.


But Test cricket is a different beast. "There are good one-day players," says Trevor Bailey, "and then there are good Test players." Johnson takes the new ball for the first Test. Failure seems inevitable. He is nervy, anxious. His run-up is chaos. He sprays his first delivery down the leg-side, struggles with the next. The seam is scrambling, screaming. After three overs, he is off.

His first six go for thirty-two runs. He looks fragile. But at the other end, Ryan Harris doggedly persists. The line is military, steady, focused. Before long, Cook nibbles one to Haddin. And when Trott comes to the crease, Johnson transmogrifies: fragile no more, he is big, bigger than big, bigger still. He cracks him on the gloves, stares him in the eye. Trott, steadfast as concrete, stubborn as rubber, looks defenceless. Stepping across to the off-side, he is Johnson's first victim. A delivery to leg takes a nick through to Haddin.


Mitchell Johnson turns bowling into violence, violence into art. England, so often his scourge, have nothing in reply. Moustachioed Mitch is chuntering death. Michael Clarke gives him four-over spells, five at the max, and one-by-one he hits, hurts, beats and breaks an established set of batsman. He takes nine in Brisbane, eight in Adelaide, six in Perth, eight in Melbourne and six in Sydney. Thirty-seven wickets in five Tests. His bowling becomes carnival, Bacchic, Dionysian. Australia win by whitewash. Mitch is a once-in-a-lifetime.


He is tall, muscular, defined. The kind of bowler you dream of being. In his first Test after the Ashes, he takes twelve wickets, concusses Ryan McLaren, breaks the best team in the world. After 51 Tests, he had 206 wickets. After 58, he has 257.

He begins in the distance. His run-up is brash: a brutal thing formed of thumping strides and gathering pace and a galloping flourish. In his hand, leather balls are grenades. He is unplayable.

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Oliver is a 20 year-old student and writer. He contributes to Boxing Monthly and has covered boxing for the Sunday Times. Last September, he wrote a five-part documentary series that was featured on the American cable network, Showtime. He was also a runner-up in the SJA Student Sportswriter of the Year competition.