The summer of Johnson

When a spectre out of Dennis Lillee's wildest imaginings came rampaging at England and South Africa

Daniel Brettig

Play 04:47

"Shit, shit, shit." Kevin Pietersen spoke for every batsman in the dressing rooms of England and South Africa when he realised, in a moment of terrifying clarity at the Gabba, that the formidable fast-bowling physique of Mitchell Johnson had finally been combined with a mentality both ruthless and robust enough to withstand any attempts to throw it out. In trying to goad Johnson, as he had done with success in the past, Pietersen simply received an icy stare in response, and was eventually swept away, like everyone else, by the left-armer's high pace, hostility, and the contrasting effects it had on team-mates and opponents.

Jonathan Trott felt the mental toll first. After being shaken up by Johnson in northern autumn ODIs beforehand, he froze when battle was rejoined in Brisbane, and left the series early, a broken batsman. The physical threat of Johnson, articulated by Michael Clarke's "get ready for a broken f***ing arm" to James Anderson, was consummated by the series-ending concussion inflicted on Ryan McLaren in Pretoria. At short leg, George Bailey had a ringside seat to Monty Panesar's nervous murmurs: "I was just trying to get him to get his elbow out of the way, for starters. He was muttering away to himself to watch the ball. It was not pretty."

Morning, Ian: Bell nearly gets a faceful of leather at the Gabba © Getty Images

The exhilaration of the cricket, and its overt physicality, ushered in a new era of Australian brutishness after numerous muted years in the wake of Monkeygate. It had immediate vindication in South Africa, where Johnson produced his scariest performance of all, on an uneven pitch in Centurion. Thanks to that match, and a tighter victory at Newlands, Australia followed a 5-0 Ashes whitewash with a return to the top of the world rankings.

But just as brightly as Johnson's fire had burned, it was snuffed out by a confluence of circumstances, conditions and grieving. Opposing teams fashioned slower surfaces to reduce the advantage of his speed; home curators offered up blander pitches themselves in search of day five finishes; Phillip Hughes was struck on the side of the neck by a short ball, and left a generation of Australian players wondering why it had been him rather than them. Less than two years after Centurion, Johnson retired.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig