Australia bet the house on Johnson
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.
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."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here