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The Lowdown - Mitchell Johnson

Express train stays on the rails

Peter English

September 21, 2006

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With so much cricket played these days it is often difficult to keep track of who is who and what they are doing. In this weekly feature Cricinfo will take a look at one player who is making the news. This week it's Mitchell Johnson, the Australian left-arm fast bowler who secured the Brian Lara-Sachin Tendulkar double in Kuala Lumpur



Launch pad: Mitchell Johnson takes off in Kuala Lumpur © Getty Images
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Anyone who thinks Mitchell Johnson has had an easy ride into the Australian team is misinformed. There was a season when he was unwanted by Queensland. He has been regularly crippled by back injuries and upset by self doubt teasing him to walk away from a game his body apparently wasn't made for. Since Dennis Lillee tipped Johnson, who was then 17, as a star from the same galaxy as Brett Lee he has fought to live up to the prediction. Until the past year - perhaps even until the last week - he has failed.

Johnson's two-game tour of Malaysia is already over but it was not an untrustworthy bone or muscle that sent him home. Instead he made the decision of Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, to predetermine the one-day line-ups look as badly calculated as a bowler's image without pieces of metal dangling from his skin. Johnson, who has a silver stud through his bottom lip, properly joined the new face of Australian bowling last Saturday as he blazed in between a stream of storms at Kuala Lumpur, mopping four India wickets in eight balls before rain intervened terminally.

In four overs Johnson lit up a no-result contest with forks of bowling lightning that were only slightly overpowered by the ferocious bolts from the sky. Rahul Dravid and Irfan Pathan were swept aside and while Sachin Tendulkar survived the hat-trick ball he did not escape the one that followed. Yuvraj Singh's prod to first slip completed Johnson's collection at 4 for 11 as the clouds broke again, ending the match and Johnson's tournament. After taking care of Brian Lara and Tendulkar in two fixtures, his next engagement is an appearance for his Brisbane club side at the weekend.

Batsmen in the district competition swear Johnson is the fastest they have faced and flinch when remembering the experience. At 18 he was timed bowling at 135kph - his speed in Kuala Lumpur was around 140kph - and he hopes to clock 150kph on a regular basis. If he can manage it and form the next generation of Australian speed men with Lee and Shaun Tait, the fiery core could claim to be one of the fastest in history.

"He's got talent and it's very exciting, but having talent and being successful is not a given," Terry Oliver, the Queensland coach, warned last year. Johnson barely spoke when he first entered the state squad, but as he matured a cheeky personality emerged and his whoops and leaps of celebration in Malaysia showed he was comfortable with his new position.

Originally from Townsville, Johnson, who stands at 189cm, wanted to be a tennis player but reworked his goals following his meeting with Lillee. Nicknamed 'Midge' after a popular fishing spot (not the annoying insects that snack on angler's legs), he has had little time for summer casting since being called up for the national one-day team after only 12 first-class games.

The initial outings were punishing, but after bowling Queensland to victory in the Pura Cup final with a ten-wicket haul he found comfort on the Bangladesh tour and stepped up further on his most recent Asian adventure. His next major stop is the Champions Trophy in India where his development will be assessed under greater pressure and in conditions less threatening to wary batsmen.

Johnson has finally shown a wider audience what Lillee spotted seven years ago to send him on the bumpy fast-tracking. Talent was his gift but back problems were his curse. He has worked through the physical and mental pain and in four overs in a cricket outpost surged into Ashes contention, making Lillee seem more like a sage than an outrageous star gazer.

Timeline



Johnson bowls for Queensland last season on the way to a national call-up © Getty Images
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1998-99
Called a "once-in a generation bowler" by Dennis Lillee after a clinic in north Queensland, Johnson is quickly promoted into the Australian Under-19 and Academy set-ups.

November 2001
Opens his first-class scoring with a six in a tour match against New Zealand at the Gabba. He also picks up three wickets.

2004
Loses Queensland contract as he suffers another serious back problem.

2004-05
Relieved to play a full season without major injury and appears in four Pura Cup and three ING Cup fixtures for Queensland.

December 2005
Picked as a replacement for Brett Lee after only 12 first-class games, he flies to New Zealand to make his one-day debut in the Chappell Hadlee Series. Jacob Oram and Brendon McCullum introduce him to international cricket as they successfully chase 332, with Johnson going for 64 from nine overs.

March 2006
Having watched his Queensland team-mates pile 6 for 900 declared, Johnson upends Victoria with 6 for 51 on a lifeless pitch to secure the Pura Cup. "What you saw today was a massive turning point," Jimmy Maher, the Queensland captain, said. Finishing with 10 for 106, he begins to justify his inside run and is named on the tour of Bangladesh.

September 12, 2006
After leaking 39 from his first four overs, he traps Brian Lara lbw for 1 in the opening game of the tri-series in Malaysia.

September 16, 2006
Johnson rockets into contention for regular duties during a huge summer with 4 for 11 in four overs before rain saves India from further damage.

September 17, 2006
Flies home to Australia as part of the national selectors' plan to prepare him for the Champions Trophy.

What he said
"Tendulkar said 'well bowled'. Getting Tendulkar and Brian Lara in the same week has been awesome. I probably struggled a little bit at the start of my one-day career but getting those wickets has definitely helped."

What they said - Ricky Ponting
"Mitchell's got everything - he's got pace, he's left-arm and he can swing it, so everything's there."

Andrew Hilditch, the Australian chairman of selectors
"Johnson's performance [against India] was fantastic, a big moment for Australian cricket and for him. He was told what he had to do, and he's taken his chance."

What you may not know
Employed as a plumbing van driver for a Norths team-mate, Johnson considered quitting the game during his recovery from a back injury in 2004. Navigating Brisbane streets with a vehicle full of supplies was traded for international recognition a year later and he picked up a national contract for 2006-07.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo

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