Have you ever seen a one trick pony in the field so happy and free?
If you've ever seen a one trick pony then you've seen me
Have you ever seen a one-legged dog making its way down the street?
If you've ever seen a one-legged dog then you've seen me
Bruce Springsteen's The Wrestler was written for the Darren Aronofsky film of the same name. It's a tender portrait of a figure who has given a lot, and a wider rumination on what entertainment asks of its practitioners, particularly those who practice visceral and sometimes bloody arts for the crowds that come to see them.
Mickey Rourke's character Randy "The Ram" Robinson was one of those, a man burnt out by a transient life yet still drawn to the thrill of the arena. Mitchell Johnson is another.
Ranking Johnson by his figures leaves him very highly placed among Australian bowlers - only three others sit ahead of him. But the truer measure is to look at how he enlivened the matches in which he was at his fastest, creating merry hell for batsmen and at the same time the rarest of spectacles for cricket watchers. The thrill of his best days caused a surge of energy through grounds that few other cricketers have created. Perhaps only Jeff Thomson has been at once as terrifying to face and as transfixing to watch.
But there was a cost to all this also. Johnson's powerful method was difficult to control, and it took him years of injury followed by more of wildly inconsistent performance to distil what worked for him. It was also a way of bowling that can only work when a bowler is at his most focused, not pausing too much to think about the potential pain that can be inflicted by him hurtling the ball down at batsmen with, to crib from Apocalypse Now, extreme prejudice.
Johnson's association with Dennis Lillee is well understood. Lillee saw something special before many others did, even if tales of Johnson's prowess in junior competition are still retold by contemporaries such as Shane Watson, Chris Hartley and Shaun Marsh. As the years have gone by, Johnson has gone back to Lillee several times for advice and support, notably before the Perth Test of 2010 when he turned around a poor display in Brisbane with a show-stopping effort at the WACA, and again when he took an injury-induced sabbatical in 2011-12.
"As a piece of biomechanics Johnson was more Tiger Woods than Roger Federer, all violent power and strength to muscle the ball down at the batsman. Like Woods, if Johnson missed, he tended to miss big"
What kept Johnson going back to Lillee, while also relying upon other mentors such as Troy Cooley and latterly Craig McDermott, was that his bowling action and modus operandi were so difficult to replicate. As a piece of biomechanics it was more Tiger Woods than Roger Federer, all violent power and strength to muscle the ball down at the batsman. Like Woods, if Johnson missed, he tended to miss big. And when pace and rhythm were absent, he was unable to replicate Lillee's knack for finding other ways.
Another hurdle for Johnson was that he possessed a shy Queensland country boy's countenance, slow to find his public voice and slower still to get his head around the pitfalls of a high profile. Successes against South Africa in 2008-09 lifted him to the title of the ICC's cricketer of the year, but also made him a prime target for the Barmy Army in England that year. Combined with tabloid stories about his estranged mother they left him addled in the middle, and struggling to find a way to block it all out. Any thoughts of embracing it seemed the furthest thing from his mind.
Initially, he layered on a veneer of brio, manifest in a 2010 confrontation with Scott Styris that featured the odd sight of Johnson offering a gentle head-butt to his helmeted opponent. It looked silly, and nor did it work - New Zealand won the game, and both Johnson and Styris were fined. He had also been sanctioned over a run-in with Suliemann Benn - the only two ICC code of conduct breaches Johnson committed over his career, and he did not persist in that front. This was fortunate, for he always remained an endearingly warm personality without the ball in his hand.
One side effect of Johnson's strong frame and apparent imperviousness to injury was that he ended up playing more matches than any other Australian bowler between 2007 and 2011, irrespective of how well he was bowling. Much of that time he wrestled with his rhythm and technique, yet kept playing due to his inherent value as a man capable of swinging a match.
The boom and bust of his bowling reached its nadir in 2010-11, accompanied by the "He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right" chorus so beloved by England's supporters. That Ashes defeat heralded enormous change in Australian cricket, yet when Johnson resumed in Sri Lanka and South Africa the following season, he felt anything but refreshed, and bowled with more resignation than venom on those tours. Before a freakish foot injury gave him a break, he was last seen trying medium pace off a short run in Johannesburg as Pat Cummins blew past him.
Away from the crowds and pressures, Johnson had time to ponder what he was, and what worked for him. He spent considerable time with Lillee, and also the Australian soldier and Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith. Between them and his wife Jessica, Johnson worked on refining his body and mind, and importantly took it upon himself to own the overt physical threat inherent in his best bowling. When he returned for Australia in mid-2012, results did not flow immediately, but his confidence was far less easily shaken.
There was one hiccup to overcome before Johnson re-emerged of course. The "Homeworkgate" saga in India estranged him and Shane Watson from much of the team, and required the circuit-breaker of Darren Lehmann to mend numerous fissures. Johnson has always thrived on strong relationships and simple advice, two qualities very much in Lehmann's playbook. As Johnson said last year:
"He has been very, very, very good. He has brought fun back into the game, but also what he has done is been brutally honest as well. It's very important in this game to have that honesty in the team. For me personally he has been able to find my strengths and been able to help improve on those, so he has been a big help in that fact. The game's meant to be played in good spirit and you're meant to have fun when you play. So we're doing that at the moment."
The "fun" featured Johnson frightening the batsmen of Andy Flower's England in a way no one had before. A moustache grown for "Movember" charities gave Johnson a Mephistophelian presence, something he augmented with a stare more piercing than any of his halting earlier attempts at sledging. Bouncy wickets in Brisbane and Perth helped, but the arguably greater factor was a beautifully balanced bowling quartet: Ryan Harris was surgical, Peter Siddle serviceable, and Nathan Lyon would pick up whatever scraps were left. Together they allowed Johnson to think only of attack, and his captain Michael Clarke only of using him in short, shock bursts.
Australia's cricket had an edge to it, not always pleasant, but decidedly effective. If anything they upped this intensity in South Africa during February and March, helped by a Centurion Park pitch that offered variable pace and bounce to turn Johnson's bowling downright dangerous. The paradox of this occasionally macabre spectacle was how much the fans loved it. Late in the trip, Johnson spoke of how children had responded to his reign of terror.
"I'm getting a lot of fans following me when I'm at the games and I noticed that a lot in South Africa, young kids were wearing the moustache as well. There has been a lot of talk around the team but also my performances personally in the last six months. I wouldn't say I'm a superstar but I'm definitely at the peak of my game. I did go through a bit of a low point like a lot of players do in professional sport, and it's really enjoyable now to be back playing cricket well and consistently with my mates."
"The death of Phillip Hughes affected Johnson deeply... Just how difficult it became for Johnson to summon the venom to threaten batsmen only he knows, but he was seldom as fast again"
The last day of the series in Cape Town saw Harris win the game with a late burst, but Johnson bowled 21 overs at top pace in considerable heat to keep the pressure on. In hindsight it was his last great and sustained performance, as the wages of a constant cricket schedule (including lucrative IPL involvement) and other factors began to conspire. A few spells would catch the eye, like his first couple of overs in Dubai against Pakistan, or his two brutal throat balls to Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes at Edgbaston, but they were mere glimpses of 2013-14.
Like Thomson, Johnson prospered best on surfaces offering him some assistance in terms of bounce and pace. Neither man was ever at his most fearsome in England, for instance, and dead pitches could often cause them to wonder at the value of pounding the ball down at high speeds. Towards the end of last summer, Johnson noted the unforgiving nature of the tracks prepared for the India series with weary annoyance; those of that season and this one have been nothing like those cooked up for England.
Team composition, too, was an issue that evolved to detract from Johnson's attributes. By calling in Mitchell Starc, the selectors compelled Johnson to think of himself as a senior bowler, needing to bowl spells designed to contain as well as capture wickets. Harris' retirement was a mighty blow to Johnson's effectiveness robbing him of the high class offsider who so complemented him. When Lehmann and Rod Marsh declined to recall Siddle by way of balance, Johnson was left in further conflict over his exact role.
Finally, the death of Phillip Hughes affected Johnson deeply, not just in terms of the loss of a good friend but also as a reminder of the destructive capacity of a cricket ball. It has been speculated by Christian Ryan that Thomson was never quite as fast after the death of Martin Bedkober, a flatmate, when struck in the chest during a club match. Among the most indelible images of Hughes' funeral was at the end of a montage depicting his life: cameras cut to Johnson, weeping openly in response. Just how difficult it became for Johnson to summon the venom to threaten batsmen only he knows, but he was seldom as fast again.
Johnson has made no secret that he is a Test match traditionalist. His sadness at the decline of the WACA Ground was made plain before his final match; his distaste for the looming day/night experiment in Adelaide also clear. Several times since its announcement, Johnson has said "I've got my views on that but I'll hang onto them until we get to the match". Perhaps he never really thought he would make it that far, but he has left a collection of memories many are grateful for.
The last of these was a new ball spell to New Zealand where he bounced out Tom Latham and Martin Guptill, rousing a small WACA crowd to noise worthy of a far larger gathering. Like "The Ram", Johnson went out doing what he loved, but knowing he could no longer do it as he once did.
Then you've seen me, I come and stand at every door
Then you've seen me, I always leave with less than I had before
Then you've seen me, bet I can make you smile when the blood, it hits the floor
Tell me, friend, can you ask for anything more?
Tell me can you ask for anything more?