The Ashes 2013-14 November 12, 2013

Australia bet the house on Johnson

The fate of the Ashes, and the jobs of numerous senior figures at Cricket Australia, may now hinge on the enigma that is Mitchell Johnson
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Would you bet your house on Mitchell Johnson performing in the Ashes series? Australian cricket just has.

It is no overstatement to say that by recalling him to the Test team for the series opener in Brisbane, Cricket Australia have staked the farm on Johnson bowling with more reliable speed, consistency and sustained menace in the forthcoming matches than at any other time in his career. Every spell Johnson bowls may swing not only the fate of the Ashes but also the jobs of the team performance manager Pat Howard, the national selector John Inverarity, the coach Darren Lehmann and perhaps even the captain Michael Clarke.

James Sutherland, CA's chief executive, will not be watching Johnson's bowling in the Ashes with quite the same level of trepidation, after the chairman Wally Edwards guaranteed his job even in the event of a 5-0 drubbing. But for a series that Australia must win to provide solid evidence of progress on the field two years since the release of the Argus review, an enormous amount now depends on Johnson conjuring his very best.

This, of course, is something he has struggled to do consistently throughout a Test career that effectively began with 12th man duty throughout the 2006-07 summer, when he watched the last gleaming of the great sides led by Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. Johnson's best stands comparison with the most exhilarating displays of any of those teams, typified by the Perth spell during the last Ashes bout down under when he tore England's batting limb from limb in the space of little more than an hour. But his worst is risible, and has been glimpsed more often in Ashes contests than those against any other nation.

No one was more aware of the Johnson enigma than Ponting, who wrote of the aforementioned Perth spell in his autobiography. It is a telling passage among many. "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," Ponting wrote. "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."

Hence the Barmy Army's considerable repertoire of Johnson song material, and also his non-selection for the earlier Ashes series in England. At the time, the selectors sought the ability to wear England's batsmen down with consistency and accuracy - "be prepared to be boring" was a frequent catch-cry among the bowlers at the Brisbane camp that preceded the tour - and also favoured the younger Mitchell Starc. But now Starc is injured, and Australian grounds and pitches are hoped to provide the sort of atmosphere and turf that Johnson can thrive upon.

"I said a couple of days ago if Mitch was selected in this squad, it wouldn't surprise me if in a couple of months' time you see Mitch being Man of the Series."
Australia captain Michael Clarke on Mitchell Johnson

Much has been made of the fact that George Bailey's selection for the Gabba has arrived on the strength of ODI batting form in a different country, against different bowlers, on pitches in no way relevant to the Ashes. Yet the same is true of Johnson, who has convinced Lehmann, Inverarity and Clarke he is in the sort of confident, relaxed frame of mind for five-day battles on the basis of limited-overs form alone. His only first-class appearance since a muted display in the Delhi Test in March took place against South Australia at the WACA ground last week, and while five wickets and sundry other chances were created, he leaked 4.5 runs per over throughout.

A similar scoring rate for England against Johnson during the Ashes would release a considerable amount of the pressure imposed by the likes of Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Shane Watson, should he be fit to bowl. It would undo much of the good, diligent work done by those same bowlers in England, causing Clarke to spread his fields and resort to other options more quickly than he should need to. There would be a toll in terms of fatigue as well as runs conceded. In James Faulkner's retention in the Gabba squad can be seen not only a reward for a smart and feisty young cricketer but also a potential insurance policy for Johnson's bad days.

Clarke and Lehmann have acknowledged that Johnson had been chosen at least partly on faith that he can demonstrate greater control across the series. Lehmann said that while Johnson can be unplayable when swinging the ball at speed and pitching it right, "he knows he needs to do that and do that more often". When pondering the scenarios that might await him on the field this summer, Clarke admitted that the upward trend of consistency he saw in England and from afar in India needed to continue.

"I think he's bowling a lot more consistent at the moment," Clarke said. "His pace is certainly high, which is a great start. But it doesn't matter how fast you bowl, if you don't know where they're going it's always easy to face as a batsman. I think Mitch has that control. He showed that in the one-day format. I said a couple of days ago if Mitch was selected in this squad, it wouldn't surprise me if in a couple of months' time you see Mitch being Man of the Series."

It is this thought of Johnson's capability, of the damage he can inflict at his best, that has ultimately swayed the selectors. Inverarity, Lehmann and Clarke all saw Michael Carberry, Jonathan Trott and others hopping about when faced by Johnson during the ODI series in England, and have not forgotten it. As Inverarity put it, Johnson "really unsettled two or three of their batters". Harris, not averse to peppering the odd batsman with short stuff himself, spoke with typical frankness about Johnson's ability to plant fear in the mind of an opponent.

"He hasn't put too much pressure on getting back in there [the Test squad], he's just wanted to get his game right, get his mind right, work on a few little technical things - he's gone and done that and come back beautifully," Harris said. "Watching him bowl in the one-dayers in India and speaking to Brad Haddin who was talking about how quick they were coming through. So he's back to his best, he's moving the ball a bit as well, so if he gets it right he's going to take a lot of wickets. Bowling at that pace, speak to the batters - no one likes to face it. If he gets it right we're in good shape."

If.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • njr1330 on November 13, 2013, 21:24 GMT

    Mitchell Johnson is Steve Harmison, and vice versa. On their day, they are literally unplayable; but their day only comes once every Preston Guild.... [for you non-Lancastrians, a Preston Guild occurs once every 32 years!].

  • xtrafalgarx on November 13, 2013, 15:59 GMT

    @FFS: I agree, but one thing to consider though, Johnson is now 32 and it is unfair for him to be judged by what he did 3/4 years ago, he is a different bowler. He is a late bloomer, and he came into cricket late so he was still really learning his game, and he might still be now but he has come a long way i feel.

    I'm backing Bailey to do well, i think he is a gritty player and has the taste for a big occasion, f he could just find a way to average around 40 he would have done us good i reckon. As for Johnson, i have always had a soft spot for him and i think he is harshly judged sometimes but he is a supreme athlete, i hope that he lives up to his potential in this series.

  • Wayne_Larkins_Barnet on November 13, 2013, 15:44 GMT

    Agree @xtrafalgarx, Mitch has that wow factor. Knockers can knock, he is the bowler I would least like to face, he can unleash a real beast of a ball. His career average is on par with Anderson and Boad so he can't be that bad when he sprays it. I think it is a gutsy selection though his form has been fantastic and players should be picked on form and not potential. That is why it is irrelevant Bailey averaged 18 last season, this year he has been peerless in international cricket. If we listened to comments about about poor returns Prior would be playing beach tennis with Goughy in Bermuda right now after a year of poor form. Bailey us in form as is Mitch yet people knock them? Go figure the logic on that one.

  • xtrafalgarx on November 13, 2013, 14:42 GMT

    @Peter Bryant: The thing about Johnson, when he bowls well he has an impact. He's not the type of bowler to bowl well but be 'unlucky'. Also, he has the ability to rip the heart out of a batting order, not many guys can do that, not even Jimmy Anderson, or Dale Steyn so it's a unique ability that Johnson has, as well as Broad for England.

    When bowlers like that get wickets, they don't get 2/20 or 5/100. They get 6fers, 7fers, 8fers and demolish a batting line up within the space of an hour single handedly like Johnson did in Perth in 2010/11 or Broad in Durham earlier in the year.

    I feel for Johnson though, unlike Broad, behind all that speed, muscle and tough as nails look. He is a VERY shy guy away from the game and struggles with self belief, good bloke.

  • milepost on November 13, 2013, 9:53 GMT

    Great selection. On his day the best bowler playing today and for a guy who apparently sprays it he averages the same as England's top 2. Also averages 22 with the bat. He has the X factor like KP, he's awesome to watch. I reckon he will tear up the English lineup and so what if he doesn't? Nightmares for the batsman.

  • dummy4fb on November 13, 2013, 9:01 GMT

    "James Sutherland, CA's chief executive, will not be watching Johnson's bowling in the Ashes with quite the same level of trepidation, after the chairman Wally Edwards guaranteed his job even in the event of a 5-0 drubbing."

    Can you quite believe that? I mean, why? Can some Australian fans please tell me what's so special about this Sutherland guy that they would keep him even after such an unlikely result? I'm sure he's not solely responsible for what's been going on with the team, but still, can he really be so good as to keep his job after even a whitewash?

  • electric_loco_WAP4 on November 13, 2013, 6:34 GMT

    The stand out is strength and depth of the Aus pace battery .The young pacers are by far most electrifying bunch world has seen for some time .Add to that 2 of the 3 best quicks in world -Siddle and Harris - and 1 and only 'L/Arm Thomson' , fastest in the world ,Jonson - who is back to scary best @ 155kph bolts and is primed for most striking series of his career,even Ashes history with a M o Series prize as crowning feather to young Aus team's Ashes triumph at home which he will be chief architect of. Also a return to no.1 pos. in world displacing Steyn making him undisputed best,fastest and scariest quick of his gen -famous prediction by greatest -Dennis Lillee- coming true with the ruins of Eng's 4/5-0 battered team as seal .With plenty of similar feats, happiest will be Lillee ,am sure .-:) As to Eng,pitches they will get will be obvious as along with helping home pace attack the quick pitches will target Eng bats pace weaknesses.Eng's limited bowling also has task cut out .

  • Simoc on November 13, 2013, 5:46 GMT

    Ideally Australia bowl first on a green Gabba deck if these storms finally decide to drop some rain. Then Johnson catches Cook on the arm with a short one and he's gone for the series. This English side is the best they've had and are likely to ever have. In Cook, Bell, Pieterson they have great batters, and in Anderson and Swann great bowlers. We only have Michael Clarke at that test match level. But we're at home and swinging in a loose cannon like Mitch Johnson is perfect.

  • BazMace on November 13, 2013, 3:51 GMT

    Monumental risk playing Mitchell Johnson as part of a 3 man pace attack. On his day he is great, but unfortunately so few days are his day. What happens if he is bowling badly and drops his lip, like he has done so many times before? We need to take into consideration Watson probably wont be able to bowl. Ryan Harris can only bowl short stints because of his fragile body. That means Peter Siddle would be left to carry a huge workload. Surely this would suggest that Faulkner must get a game as well?

    I dont think you can go into a Gabba Test without a spinner (Lyon). So most probably it would be Bailey that would miss out, with Haddin playing 6, Faulkner 7 and Johnson 8. Still a decent batting lineup and a bit more depth in the bowling.

  • dummy4fb on November 13, 2013, 3:00 GMT

    Let's face it, if Patterson and Starc were fit we would even be talking about Johnson, let alone pinning 'man of the series' claims on his chest already... it's a classic case of Australia trying to big up the man rather than admitting he's made the team by injury default.

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