Enigma Johnson finds fiery best
A full toss down the leg side is as bad a ball you can bowl in cricket. It is a ball so bad it is almost as if it was designed just so it could not get a wicket. It is how Mitchell Johnson started his day.
After three overs of few good balls, extra nervous paces in his run-up, and some shocking balls down the leg side, Johnson was off. The new ball was being wasted. The only ball that showed that a good day was possible was a very full one to Michael Carberry that swung late and beat him. But the seam told a story. Instead of being straight like Ryan Harris or James Anderson would present it, it was all over the place. The ball seemed to swing more because it felt sorry for Johnson rather than anything else.
The second spell only happened because of Harris' controlled probing of Alastair Cook. But as Jonathan Trott came in, Johnson was reborn. Again.
Australians don't see the IPL. So performances there don't count for much. Five wickets in one Shield match don't change much either. Australians often don't watch tours, especially one-day tours. And the Champions League is often, and easily, ignored.
But the talk of Johnson continued to grow. Of course, anyone can pick up a few IPL batsmen and scare them. Often a foreign quick is the first they've seen. And as a white-ball bowler, in Australia and otherwise, Johnson has often had series and years where he travels from ground to ground scaring the hell out of any poor batsmen who have to face him. It is not often like that in Tests.
He can talk up his form, Brett Lee can talk up his form, Allan Border can talk up his form, David Warner can talk up his form, and hell, even Sachin Tendulkar can talk up his form, but this is Test cricket. A form of cricket where Johnson has spread his absolute worst around many times. He would not be bowling to a skinny kid from Karnataka who has never seen a quick bowler before, or bowling with a white ball that swings if you get the seam roughly in the right place. This was the real deal, the place he had been and failed many times before.
The last time England were at the Gabba, Johnson was at his worst. And his worst is something that is almost special in its completeness. The ball turns into his enemy, his head almost retracts into his chest, and he has the perfect facial expression, which combines gormless confusion and utter despair. Zero for 170 and a dropped catch were what he gave.
The next Test he played after being dropped/rested, Johnson was Man of the Match.
"The television does not do any justice to the physicality of Johnson" is how Ed Cowan described what it is like to face him. It's not immediately obvious as he walks up to his mark what a brute he is.
Ryan Harris walks to his mark like a man about to pick up a truck and beat his enemy to death with it. Johnson has polite, eager, controlled steps, like an office worker who wants to go to the far sandwich shop to get his falafel wrap but is worried about how long it will take.
When finally at the top of his mark, Johnson's flick of the ball to himself is effete, coming out of the back of his wrist. It is not going to intimidate anyone.
Then it all changes when he comes in. The crouch and power-run-up start are much more intense, and the massive step and sling (which according to Cowan "takes an eternity for the ball to be launched towards you") is pretty intimidating. On a bad Mitch day, none of this is that big of a problem; on a good Mitch day, all of this plays into his force.
And his force looks increased. Maybe it's the masculine moustache, but his face looks tougher and his body looks stronger. He was never not well put together. Now he looks even bigger and more brutal. One journalist described his calves as practically exploding. And maybe he is wearing a tighter shirt these days, but even his veins seem to have muscles on them.
Moustache or not, at times he had a boy's face that made him look like a cuddly fast bowler that you could almost feel sorry for. Today he did not.
The spell that was supposed to be at Trott started with 12 straight balls at Carberry. At one stage, four out of five of them were bouncers. He also put a few down the leg side, perhaps to get Carberry off strike, but more likely he just had no control. A leg slip was brought in, but a second, finer, fine leg could have helped as well.
When he finally got to Trott, he was different. Cook and Carberry had played him without much trouble. With Trott he just assumed the batsman would struggle. Straightaway he slammed him on the gloves. Mitch stared at Trott in such an intense way; the old Mitch would have been afraid. Trott's defence was to hop across his stumps and scoop the ball away. It showed a fear and frailty in Trott that you almost never see.
Next over, Mitch bowled an innocuous ball down the leg side. Trott continued to jump to the off side, and this time got some bat behind to Haddin.
It was clearly a plan, and it was clearly intentional, but the actual plan was for Trott to receive a ball flying up at his ribs from around the wicket that he could not get out the way of, not just feather a ball he should not have been able to reach. In many ways, Mitch is master of the accident. He created the mistake, but had he bowled a better ball he probably wouldn't have got the wicket.
Fast bowlers have such a reputation that one admitting to getting counselling to get over ribbing from the crowd (even well-organised bullying) would usually seem out of place. But no one was surprised when Mitch said he got some counselling to overcome what the Barmy Army put him through. His frailties have never been hidden.
The Barmy Army were never going to let him off easy this time, and a few good showings with the white ball weren't about to stop them chanting their well-known rhyming verse.
This time he almost seemed to want it. He was talking about attacking throats and targeting batsmen - this from a man seemingly on the verge of tears at many times in his career. If he could not get England out, he was happy with putting them in hospital. He had even noted they had flown left-armers in to prepare for him. England, being the arch planners they are, would always do that. But he saw it as a personal victory. Another confidence boost for the new improved Mitch.
There is a theory that when Johnson bats well, he bowls well. It does occasionally happen. His only hundred was in a game where he took 4 for 148. And one of his 10-wicket hauls came when he scored a pair. So it is not science. But no one who has even casually glanced at Johnson would see him as anything other than a confidence player.
When he bowled to Carberry around the wicket, he looked like a completely different bowler to the one whom Carberry had blunted easily all day. The first ball crashed into Carberry; he jumped in anticipation as George Bailey scrambled for it. There was no bat on it, but it seemed to excite Johnson greatly. The next ball was a very quick bouncer, and produced a terrible attempted hook from Carberry. Next ball Carberry was out.
Root's wicket was just a standard full and wide Johnson ball; it could have happened on any day, even one of his bad days. Swann's wicket was granted by a guy who was thinking of short balls when he got a full one, and despite Johnson trying to decapitate Broad and Tremlett, he couldn't get the fifth wicket he obviously deserved.
At the end, Johnson had taken nearly half the wickets and gone for nearly half the runs. Johnson upset some batsmen, frightened others and roughed up almost all of them. He has been more brutal, on pitches just as lifeless, but he had not done it much when people had talked him up to this extent. He had never looked as brutal for so long. And he had almost never done it when people really expected him too.
Days like this do not forgive him for the many bad days, they just make him even more frustrating. Also exciting, as you know you're probably going to get something quite newsworthy from him, one way or another. There are few players who can win a Test so quickly. For either team.
Johnson might not win Australia another Test this series. He might not win them this one. He might get dropped before the end of it. He might never win Australia another Test. And this time next year he might have played his last-ever Test match. All of that is possible in the career of Mitchell Johnson. His future is as unpredictable as his next delivery.