Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 3rd day December 7, 2013

Johnson joins pace pantheon

With a spell for the ages, Mitchell Johnson appears to have discovered how to harness his formidable gifts

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.

Johnson worked to exploit a breach made by Siddle, Lyon and Watson and the manner in which he did so was definitive, creating a thunderous atmosphere seldom easy to stir up in Adelaide

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 9:19 GMT

    I hope Mohammad amir returns and challenges him

  • peter on December 9, 2013, 5:49 GMT

    Obviously any comparison to great Left Handers like Akram is way off but now that he is not trying to swing the ball Johnson is looking like edging into Thommo-like shock strike bowler territory. Pattinson no good? have a look at some of his bowling vs India last time they were in Aust. Cummins? time may tell whether his body is up to it but who can fail to have high hopes for him after seeing the way he worked Kallis over in SA (with intelligence as much as brute pace)

  • M on December 9, 2013, 2:30 GMT

    @Ian Jones; "2 great Test matches do not make a legendary bowler" -

    With his performance now in the 2nd Test, that takes Mitchell Johnson to 7 Man of the Match performances... so lets talk legendary status... That places him 36th all-time ahead of Swann & Broad (6 each) and Anderson (5) and equal to Dale Steyn on 7... but when you look at conversion of MOM to matches played, MJ is now 6th on the list (V Philander, W Akram, M Muralithiaran, C Ambrose, and J Kallis are ahead of him) with 7 in 53 matches.

    Those sort of figures suggest that of all the players here, he is the player most likely to have a serious impact... and he is proving that at the moment.

  • murtaza on December 9, 2013, 1:41 GMT

    He is good but not good enough to compare with other legendary bowlers. His stats are very good , but he is far away of Wasim Akram skills . Akram was real champion , players sachin , Lara, Taylor , Waugh , Ambrose, Donald , McGrath, gangully and many others sang his songs in their prime time. So just wait 2-3 series then compare.

  • Peter on December 8, 2013, 22:22 GMT

    @Ian Jones.Yep, I talked Cummins up ,but I have seen him live & let me tell you he is lightning! When an 18 yo runs through a top class batting line-up like South Africa, something tells me he has a little bit of the "it" factor. Starc looked awful in England? Took 11 wickets in 3 tests averaging 32 & with a back injury? Interesting take but you are entitled to your opinion of course.

  • Scott on December 8, 2013, 20:39 GMT

    @Ian Jones, um, that's because Cummins is 19, is seriously fast and has also done well in ODI cricket - which is astonishing at that age. Pattinson was Aus best bowler in 2012 and did well against SA, who boast a much more formidable batting line up than Eng. He also was one of the only threatening quicks we had in India. It was noticeable the lack of pace he was showing in Eng. Possibly he was told to slow down to find swing, or his injury was already niggling, but he too is rather sharp. Starc didn't look too bad in Eng either and is a way better prospect than any of the young quicks in Engs ranks.

  • Dummy4 on December 8, 2013, 17:57 GMT

    I would wish for one Mitch with the Indian team for bowling at the opposition and providing practice to the Indian team against top class pace.

    While watching England's first innings in this test at Adelaide, was surprised that Clarke kept using Siddle, Lyon et al when he 10th wicket partnership flourished. Then Mitch came on....He has outdone himself this time. Hope he keeps bowling fast and furious. Showed that bowlers need not be an endangered species.

  • ESPN on December 8, 2013, 9:14 GMT

    Amused that some people are bigging up Cummins (1 Test, injured ever since), Pattinson (his brother is better) and Starc (looked awful in England).

  • ESPN on December 8, 2013, 9:07 GMT

    2 great Test matches do not make a legendary bowler! Just looks like a man Pakistan. Brilliant one Test or series, dire the next

  • zaan on December 8, 2013, 7:45 GMT

    @Rehan Sethi: He made Indian batsman hop and jump on extremely flat tracks where every inning was 300+

    plus he has always performed well in india.