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Russell Jackson

Mitchell learns to rock (again)

Soggy in Cardiff, he was back to red-hot at Lord's, providing a fine exposition of the art of heavy metal bowling

Russell Jackson
Russell Jackson
There was also immediate success for Mitchell Johnson, England v Australia, 2nd Investec Ashes Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2015

Johnson: blood and thunder  •  Getty Images

How much can you really expect of a 33-year-old fast bowler with 372 games of professional cricket to his name? It was a question I found myself pondering during last week's Cardiff Test where, despite his best intentions, Mitchell Johnson looked nothing close to the demolition man he had been as Australia whitewashed England in 2013-14.
He didn't look slow; everything came down in excess of 140kph. He didn't lack effort - he still pounded his way towards the crease like a muscle-bound gymnast headed for the vault. He wasn't wayward like in years gone by. Perhaps it was the lifelessness of the surface? But then he didn't exactly eviscerate India on friendly Australian strips last summer, certainly not like when home pitches had turned his amplifiers up to 11 the summer before.
Maybe all the magic was finally gone, replaced by something far less compelling, something more human. It was close to treason to think it but I was wondering whether Johnson's glorious renaissance as a serious strike bowler might finally be over. Hovering by the boundary with water bottles, even steady-as-she-goes Peter Siddle loomed in the mind as a potential swap.
Wrong. That 0 for 111 from 25 overs in the first innings of the series? A tough few days at the office. Recovering so well at Lord's must have required at least an internal acknowledgement of how badly awry things went for him in 2009, but this time Johnson bowled with the comfort of a mountainous total to defend and within a few hours of slashing cricket old Mitch was back: bouncers, yorkers, slanters, snorters and wickets, glorious wickets.
At the close of play on day two this Test was as good as done. Johnson had reduced Gary Ballance to a timid and unconvincing presence and also removing England's new lynchpin Joe Root. The home side was 30 for 4 and confronting a repeat viewing of the same old horror movie. As if to showcase the most destructive forces within his repertoire, he removed Ballance with a ball that was full and swinging and then Root with uncomfortable bounce. No easy listening here, just thundering bass drums and crashing cymbals. Heavy metal fast bowling.
All three of Australia's front-line pacemen had their moments in this Test but it was Johnson again landing the killer blows, the ones that felt injurious and symbolic
Australia's batsmen might have ground Alastair Cook's side into the dirt for the best part of the preceding two days but here was another reminder of the irreplaceable virtue of genuine fast bowling. England lacked in it at any point when Stuart Broad rested. With Johnson firing away the sinking feeling had returned that any given batsman was only a single delivery away from disaster.
Bowlers win you Ashes series. This point was no better reinforced than when Australian batsmen scored eight centuries to England's two but still lost the 2009 Ashes series. What's remarkable about the turnaround here is that Australia did it with three front-line pacemen who could easily have been their Achilles heel following Ryan Harris' forced retirement.
Heresy, you say? Well, not exactly. Mitchell Starc made batsmen's eyes spin as he channelled Wasim Akram in Australia's World Cup triumph, but with the red ball he's still as likely to begin a spell with a huge leg-side wide as with an irresistible yorker. Josh Hazlewood might be a meaty Glenn McGrath clone with an extra yard of pace but he entered this series a veteran of five Tests, his powers of endurance not yet tested.
All three of Australia's front-line pacemen had their moments in this Test but it was Johnson again landing the killer blows, the ones that felt injurious and symbolic. Six years ago at Lord's he was milked for six and over by Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook and finished the game a figure of mockery. This time he was in control, pushing the home side around and getting his way again. All of a sudden Johnson was a true leader, showing the way in an attack whose youthfulness might otherwise have told.
It pays to acknowledge the craft of Johnson's bowling at this point and how he was able to adapt to his environment and thrive in spite of a pitch engineered to stymie the influence of the type of bowling he offers. England's bowlers made Lord's look like a paradise for batting, Johnson like an ordeal. To have even considered writing him off because he was old and maybe worn out seems so stupid in hindsight; 33-year-old pacemen have rarely been as fit as Johnson is, and performances like this make you wonder whether there might actually be plenty left in the tank.
Whether England's problems are terminal in the context of this series remains to be seen but in Johnson's re-emergence as a strike bowler and a dispenser of real venom we have an ingredient that every Ashes series should possess.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko