Johnson rediscovers himself
He hasn't reached his peak, but Mitchell Johnson has begun to find his form again and believe in himself
Mitchell Johnson is looking people in the eye again off the field. Before the Test in Leeds he avoided returning stares in the city's centre but after his second-innings breakthrough of 5 for 69 he has started to feel comfortable about his bowling and position in the team. It doesn't mean he's cured.
Johnson is not a blokey fast bowler who swears, shouts and bumps shoulders when he meets people. Away from the middle his voice is soft and uncertain, like he's willing himself to believe what he's saying. As he explained the troughs on his Ashes tour he sighed a lot, sucked in deep breaths and paused, not for dramatic effect but to plan the right words. It was easy to feel sorry for him, an unfamiliar emotion for someone who can be so brutal with a cricket ball. Nobody offered him a hug.
The team had celebrated levelling the series the previous night, which slowed his thoughts, but he brightened when talking about his bowling improvements. Then he shifted uneasily back to dealing with the problems that derailed the first half of his tour: losing his accuracy, having his place under threat and a family dispute which became public.
"It's been a bit different than normal," he said. "The first two Tests especially, I felt a bit more pressure than I have in the past. I've started to handle it a lot more now."
Troy Cooley, an assistant coach, helped with the bowling rebuild and Ricky Ponting and Brad Haddin were the most supportive team-mates. Messages arrived from home as he struggled through the opening games and also had to deal with his mum saying his girlfriend had snatched him from the family.
"It's been different for me, having not been in this situation before in personal matters," he said in between some long breaks to reconsider the severity of the past five weeks. He continues to insist his family wasn't the reason for his bowling slide, but the episode had to affect him. When he was running in at Lord's he was thinking about his wrist position, front-arm pull-down and "everything that I could".
That second Test, when he sprayed 3 for 132 off 21.4 overs, was the lowest point of his trip. "I didn't really know where they were going, to be honest," he said. "I bowled a lot of wide, short balls. That was a pretty tough moment for me. To be copping it from the English crowd, I didn't know how to deal with it at the time, it was the most I've copped it."
He was bowling so badly he thought he could be dropped, a scenario which was unthinkable when he blasted through Graeme Smith and South Africa earlier in the year. "It was in the back of my mind," he said. "Obviously, you're not going well and you start thinking a lot of things, that [being left out] was one of the things that was popping into my mind."
Outside the team hotel he was under threat and suddenly a target for ridicule. During the third game at Edgbaston, where he slowly improved, the England supporters sang "Super Mitchell Johnson" when he got the ball. He kept them quiet in Leeds in the second innings, starting with three wickets on the second afternoon and another two the following day.
When Johnson ended the match by bowling Graham Onions, Ponting, the compassionate captain, ran to the boundary to collect the match ball and presented it to his bowler. "It's great to have that support when you're not at your best," he said. "Now it's great to have a little bit of form and go into the last Test with some confidence." He will enter the game at The Oval on August 20 with 16 wickets at 32.62.
Johnson was used at first-change in Leeds and it allowed him to feel his way into the game instead of being forced to perform straight away. Rather than worrying why the ball wasn't swinging in the first over of the match he was able to field for half an hour while planning ways to embarrass Ian Bell. England's middle order was run through quickly on both occasions and in the second innings he mixed searing short balls with clever inswingers to the right-handers. Bell was a victim on both occasions.
He wants to play the tour game against England Lions at the weekend to continue to fine-tune before The Oval. "I've been on a few tours when it takes me a couple of games to get going," he said. "I'd like to keep the ball rolling."
The next time things go bad he will consult the checklist he made during the games in Cardiff and London and stop reading the papers. He will limit his technical thoughts to the nets and focus on running in and bowling fast. "And keeping puffing my chest out," he said, "getting in the contest with a stare here and there."
That approach doesn't suit the kind Johnson even though he looks like a mid-weight kickboxer when his hair is cropped and cheeks are stubbled. "I don't normally say too much," he said at the end. He was talking about his on-field persona but it reflected his overall personality. By manufacturing this new, part-time character he has eliminated some of his troubles.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo