It is with the sad inevitability and cruelty of time that we have to regularly bid farewell to sportsmen and women who have lit up their respective sports and offered up a host of memories along the way. Whether you loved him or hated him, there will be many sad at the news that Mitchell Johnson has now stepped out into international arena for Australia for the final time. Well perhaps apart from the batsmen.
One of the defining images of Australian cricket over recent years, especially in the Test arena, has been that of the dark haired, moustached Johnson ambling in to the wicket before unleashing another slinging, bullet of a delivery that could leave spectators shaken let alone those cowering at the other end. However, such sights will be no more as the 34 year old has retired from all forms of the international game, with it coming into effect after the drawn 2nd Test with New Zealand. A fine career in which he finished 4th on the all-time Australian Test wicket-taking list behind only Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Dennis Lillee has come to an end. He took 590 wickets from his 256 caps in Tests and ODIs at an average of 26.65, with 15 five-wicket halls and 3 ten-wicket matches. It says a lot for Johnson’s achievements if you consider that he surpassed Brett Lee in the Test wicket-taking stakes, a player revered as one of Australia’s finest famous fast-paced bowlers. The names which heap praise upon a departing player also gives a good impression of the impact they have made – that Sachin Tendulker was so fast to pay his tributes speaks volumes.
At his best there have been few better out and out pace bowlers than the Queenslander. Part of what made him such a remarkable international bowler was the way he went about his trade with a unique, low slinging action. The left-arm trajectory from which these balls were hurled from was extremely uncomfortable for international batsmen; his most famous delivery being a bouncer different to the conventional short ball – its flatness and point of release making it harder for opponents to predict and get out of the way of. His angled yorkers homing into the stumps were as equally formidable. Johnson was not your everyday international bowler. A balance of physical and environmental attributes were needed if he were to perform at his optimum. When these did combine through the short spells on hard, flat and fast pitches ideally suited to his way of bowling he was absolutely devastating. Box-office would be the most adequate description. Looking back at his career for Australia, it wasn’t just the sheer number of wickets he took but the way he took them that caught the imagination.
Certainly, bowler’s careers are often remembered most for the great spells that ripped through batting line-ups and Johnson had his fair share of them. The 2013/14 Ashes series Down Under will be forever synonymous with one of the best ever Ashes bowling performances from the man who would go on to be named Test Player of the year in 2014. Over 5 matches he took 37 wickets, the most in an Ashes series since 1981, earning an incredible 3 man of the match awards. He was unplayable throughout, particularly in Adelaide, where he produced some of the finest bowling of his career that included a match-winning spell of 5-12. Other performances of note include his 7-68 against South Africa on their own turf last year, the 8-61 against the same opposition in Perth in 2008 (the best ever figures for a left-handed bowler in a Test) and the crucial 3-30 he took against New Zealand to win the 2015 World Cup. The list could go on.
It would be fair to say that Johnson could traumatise batsmen. Few were able to instil such fear in batsmen and anticipation in teammates. He would not just send them back to the pavilion. He would crush their confidence and cause self-doubt and panic in even the most assured of men. At his peak an aura surrounded him. The psychological power Johnson had over opponents became almost as influential as his bowling itself. There was a fear associated with him that only the most supreme fast bowlers are capable of creating. Batsmen would end up seeking simply to survive at the crease, let alone allowing themselves to contemplate their real purpose of scoring runs. Flaws would be exposed and exploited, good short ball players would become bad, experienced run-scorers made to look like uncertain, fledgling internationals. Johnson’s reputation was such that he will be forever recalled as one of the most fearsome, hostile and immensely effective fast-bowlers to have worn the famous baggy green.
Any overview of the 2009 International Cricket Council's Cricketer of the Year must also consider what he did with the bat as well as the ball. It was fitting that in his final match, on top of another typical spell of raw pace to remove the New Zealand openers, Johnson later also illustrated his batting skills with a bright 29 from 45 balls. Over an international career spanning just short of 10 years he scored over 3,000 runs in Tests and ODIs. Indeed he is only the second Australian, after Shane Warne, to have taken over 300 Test match wickets and scored over 2,000 runs and only the 13th in history. That is one impressive stat to have next to your name. If he hadn’t already done it to you with his bowling, Johnson could very quickly take the game away from you when he himself was at the crease.
There were of course many ups and downs in Mitchell Johnson’s international career; periods where form and confidence deserted him or matches where his inability to sufficiently swing the ball or have a plan B was highlighted, with even the slightest drop-off in speed undermining his effectiveness. It is to Johnson’s credit, and his determined personality, that such moments are now mere blemishes on a career for which he will be remembered as a bowler whose extreme pace could put any batsman in the world in trouble. When Johnson was coming into bowl in full flow, Test cricket was as exciting and enthralling as it has ever been. It will, if only for a short period, not quite be the same without him.