Johnson joins pace pantheon
It has taken Australia six years, three coaches, three bowling coaches, two selection panels, two captains and 50 Test matches to work out how best to use Mitchell Johnson. It has taken Johnson almost as long to decide how to get the best out of himself.
At various times the experiment has looked like it would be abandoned for good, either by the selectors or Johnson himself. Yet in the space of a single terrifying spell in Adelaide, all those false hopes and dead ends came to mean something. Johnson is winning the Ashes for his country in the most spectacular fashion imaginable, joining the ranks of those rare fast men his mentor Dennis Lillee had long promised he would.
On a day pivotal to the outcome of the series, Johnson found frightening life where other pace bowlers could locate only blood, toil, tears and sweat. To watch terrifying fast bowling is one thing. To watch it on a flat pitch where no other bowler has been able to generate anything like the same sense of danger is quite another.
Plenty of pacemen have succeeded when the going is fast, the bounce and carry providing ample encouragement, and even through the development of a pack mentality. But spells of the kind conjured by Johnson are rare enough to be summed up in the space of a single paragraph.
Since Michael Holding's 14 wickets at The Oval in 1976, the archetype of such performances, only a few others have inspired similar awe. Jeff Thomson's at Kensington Oval in 1978 is still spoken of in hushed tones on Barbados. Malcolm Marshall's at the SCG on a 1989 pitch that reaped 11 wickets for the spin of Allan Border epitomised his skiddy greatness. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis seemed to bowl on a different strip from everyone else at The Oval in 1992. And Dale Steyn defied the MCG drop-in for 10 wickets in 2008 as Australia's crown slipped.
For a long time it has been laughable to mention Johnson alongside names such as these. The inconsistency of his method, the fragility of his mindset and the changeable nature of his use by Australia have all contributed to the view that he is a proposition as risky for team-mates as opponents. As recently as the earlier Ashes series in England, the selectors preferred the younger Mitchell Starc as a more reliable option.
But even before that decision, Australia and Johnson were forced to weigh up how they would get the best out of Lillee's "once in a generation bowler". Critical for the selectors was the formulation of a bowling attack in which Johnson could sit happily as an aggressor, free of unhelpful notions about the leader's mantle. Critical for Johnson was working to find a mental space in which he could operate without fear or expectation.
It was no coincidence that Johnson's problems against England sprang up in the aftermath of a highly successful South Africa tour in 2009. Though Ricky Ponting's team had functioned as an ensemble, it was Johnson who attracted the attention, and subsequently arrived in England thinking largely of the pressure he would be under to carry the rest. Cardiff brought frustration, Lord's humiliation, and for most of the next two years Johnson veered between unplayable and unmentionable.
A foot injury in Johannesburg in 2011 arrived at a serendipitous moment. Allowing Johnson and his handlers to step back from the treadmill he had been on. Durability was always a strength for his strong body, but it had become millstone of sorts as pace dipped and desire ebbed away. By the time Johnson was recalled to the Test team last summer, his appreciation for international combat had been enhanced by time away, while Michael Clarke seemed clearer on how to harness him.
Test matches against Sri Lanka in Melbourne and Sydney look remarkably prescient now. Johnson was used as a shock weapon alongside the steadier work of Peter Siddle and Jackson Bird, breaking bones and taking wickets on a pair of quite easy-paced pitches. While the dysfunctional tour of India drew a major hiccup, as Johnson was one of the Mohali four suspended for failing to follow team instructions, the memory of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara hopping about was not erased from the selectors' thoughts.
What followed was a steady diet of limited-overs matches, first in the IPL and then for Australia in England and India. On surfaces not always given to pace and bounce, Johnson unsettled numerous batsmen, none more than Jonathan Trott. Surrounded by bowlers of narrower parameters, he was able to express himself, with appreciably higher speed and better rhythm the result. Johnson's early departure from India effectively forfeited the ODI series but allowed him to recalibrate in a Sheffield Shield match at the WACA ground.
Duly prepared, he unveiled a Brisbane performance to unleash plenty of bloodthirsty rebel yells from a wide-eyed crowd at the Gabba, and nodding approval from the bowling coach, Craig McDermott. In each innings, Johnson took advantage of earlier incisions with the kind of vigour he had intermittently shown in the past, using the bounce on offer to tremendous effect. In doing so he planted seeds of doubt that were still evident when the teams resumed in Adelaide.
Johnson's coach, Darren Lehmann, had remarked that despite the help he received from the pitch, pace through the air meant that similar havoc was not implausible for the slower, lower drop-in strip of Adelaide. This was certainly evident in his dismissal of Alastair Cook, a ball of enough velocity and curve to worry all of England's batsmen. Lower bounce was not entirely a curse either, Joe Root struck brutally in the chest by a ball he might have ducked under in Queensland.
On day three, Johnson again found himself working to exploit a breach made by Siddle, Nathan Lyon and Shane Watson. The manner in which he did so was definitive, twice threatening to claim a hat-trick, while creating a thunderous atmosphere seldom easy to stir up in Adelaide. England's tailenders are now as fearful of Johnson as their predecessors were against the great West Indian sides, and their batsmen as wary. It is an effect only the fastest and best can conjure.
Having finally worked out how to utilise his irresistible force, Johnson and Australia will now hope for a long period of success while doing so. At 32 he has reached the age when most bowlers of his speed have begun to throttle back, but the hour of terror in Adelaide may come to be seen as the first day of the second half of his career.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here