Tall, left-arm and fast: Spencer Johnson grasps his second chance

At one stage it wasn't certain a stress fracture could be healed, but now he is Brisbane Heat's key death bowler

Cameron Ponsonby
Spencer Johnson was pumped up after denying Marcus Stoinis, Brisbane Heat vs Melbourne Stars, BBL, Gabba, January 22, 2023

Spencer Johnson was pumped up after denying Marcus Stoinis  •  Getty Images

You look at Spencer Johnson and quickly decide that life isn't fair.
Six-foot-a-million with golden locks and an all-Australian smile. He made his Big Bash debut two weeks ago and immediately started bowling 145kph on our TVs with Brett Lee swooning over him. Then you find out he's also part Italian and it really is all a bit too much. Go and sit over there, Spencer. I'm sick to death of you.
His high-profile arrival led to swathes of fans googling this new wunderkind with a chorus of shocked responses that, "Oh. He's 27."
How, exactly, can someone be capable of bowling 145kph and not make their domestic T20 debut until their late twenties?
Well, as it turns out, Johnson can also make a fair claim at life not being fair, with an injury record so appalling it'd make the lad from Operation blush.
A recurring stress fracture in his foot, first suffered during his professional debut way back in 2017, led to three years out of the game with the severity of the injury meaning for the first 12 months he was unable even to run, let alone bowl.
The surgeon said I'm not sure how this is going to go, I've never done this operation before. And he was the best foot surgeon there was in Sydney! So that was really scary.
His state South Australia stood by him, but after three years spent in the physio room it became too much and his contract was ended.
"That's when I had to go and work a little bit," Johnson explains to ESPNcricinfo. He still had his Adelaide Strikers' deal which meant he had income as a cricketer for three months of the year, but for the other nine he found work of his time as a local greenskeeper in Adelaide.
"It was just such a rare bone to get a stress fracture in," he says of his long road to recovery. "There was no evidence that [surgery] would work but after 12 months of it not healing, it was the only option to try and put in a couple of screws."
His body rejected the screws. And the process was forced to start all over again.
"The surgeon said I'm not sure how this is going to go, I've never done this operation before. And he was the best foot surgeon there was in Sydney! So that was really scary."
Mercifully, Johnson is now as fit as he's been in years and is reaping the rewards for it. In 2022, he regained his South Australia contract when he was awarded the final spot on the roster and a route back to full-time cricket.
However, while Johnson had been re-signed by South Australia, his BBL deal with Adelaide Strikers' was coming to an end and so he made the decision to move to Queensland for a stint in club cricket.
As a friend of Marnus Labuschagne's, Johnson moved to the Australia Test batter's club Redlands where his performances would end up attracting the attention of not just Adelaide Strikers, but Brisbane Heat.
"I knew that if I made a bit of a noise out there then the Strikers might put something forward, but Brisbane Heat jumped first," Johnson says.
Johnson had travelled across the country to attract the attention of an ex, but instead found a new love whilst he was there. And when presented with a decision of returning to his long-term, will-they-won't-they partner, or a fresh romance, he opted to sign with the Heat. With a sense of loyalty to Heat whose club competition had provided him with the opportunity to make his Big Bash bow winning out.
"To get a fresh set of eyes on me was definitely the main focus going out there," Johnson explains of his Queensland fling, "and yeah, they [Adelaide Strikers] put something forward, but the Heat deal was, I guess, the better offer in the end."
Nevertheless, Johnson is still a South Australia player and more importantly, a South Australia boy. And walking out for Heat at the Adelaide Oval in just his second game for the Heat carried with it a number of emotions.
"There was the joy of playing at the Adelaide Oval in front of friends and family," Johnson says, "but also, you're playing against your mates and against Jason Gillespie [Adelaide Strikers and South Australia head coach] who has backed me in for the last three or four years as well.
"All the high performance staff have watched me come through and to play against them and I guess for them to not get the reward for the effort that they've stuck with me for the last five or six years. That was a bit of a funny feeling."
Conflicting loyalties aside, it has been a fairytale return for Johnson who two weeks ago, had played three professional cricket matches in 1,918 days, but has now played six in 14.
"Yes." Is his blunt reply as to whether he has surprised himself with how well he has performed in his return to the professional game with an economy rate of 7.32 in his six games back and having twice been entrusted to close out a Heat victory. In particular, his wicket against Melbourne Stars where he rushed Hilton Cartwright gave him a moment of relief that, yes, I can perform at this level.
"It's funny because before my first game you would think there'd be nerves but I was just calm. I didn't have any stomach drops that I've had before even playing club cricket. I just wanted to get out there and play.
"I've been bowling in the nets and my team-mate Nathan McSweeney, we were in the hotel together and he just said you're ready to go. And that was cool hearing that."
Johnson's injury record means he knows not to get too far ahead of himself, with comparisons to Mitchell Starc appreciated but being left well alone. What comes next is an attempt to break back into the South Australia team and make it unscathed through to the end of the domestic season before travelling to Scotland to make his international bow for Italy. "A no brainer," according to Johnson.
"I'm just happy with whatever's in front of me", he concludes. "We go again tomorrow and if we win that then we'll think about the next game. It's just one game at a time. One day at a time."
It is the oldest cliche in the book, but it has taken Johnson this far. And with a little bit of luck, it is a method that will prove that maybe life is fair after all.

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby