During the ‘Bodyline series’ there was a play running at her Majesty’s Theater in Sydney titled Our Miss Gibbs. It was about a young girl from Yorkshire, Mary Gibbs, who gained employment in a shop selling candy and her interactions with a number of suitors who, in attempting to gain proximity to her, imbibed too much candy for their own good. It ends with Miss Gibbs getting married and living happily ever after with a young man who turned out to be the son of a well-known Lord.
The play had nothing to do with cricket, but the Bodyline series, and especially the brutal bowling of Harold Larwood, had so consumed the country that a verse was added to a number that was regularly performed in the show. It went as follows:
Now this new kind of cricket takes courage to stick it,
There’s bruises and bounces galore;
After kissing their wives and ensuring their lives,
Batsmen fearfully walk out to score.
With a prayer and a curse they prepare for the hearse,
Undertakers look on with broad grins;
Oh! They’d be a lot calmer in Ned Kelley’s armour,
When Larwood the wrecker begins
The English batsmen who had the ghastly misfortune of facing Mitchell Johnson on their 2013-14 tour of Australia never quite had Ned Kelley’s metal armour but they needed all the protection they could find, for Johnson, for the duration of the Ashes series and the visit to South Africa that followed, scripted the most terrifying period of fast bowling ever witnessed in the long history of the game.
Upon reading that the mind will inevitably recall the great fast bowling feats of the past: the aforementioned Larwood, Frank Tyson in Australia in 1954, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson during the Australian summers of 1974-75 and 1975-76, when they persecuted England and the West Indies in turn, and, of course, the great West Indies four-pronged attacks that ruled the world for almost two decades.
Yet for sustained and extreme fast bowling over an extended period, I daresay Johnson’s effort was never surpassed. It was a frightening experience for batsmen forced to face him. The Queenslander became unstoppable, capturing plenty wickets and inflicting plenty of pain. Helmets were clanged. Blood was drawn. Bodies were bruised and battered. Bats and hearts were broken. Not only were England decimated, losing the series 0-5, their cricket was in total disarray by the end.
He remained a foreboding threat throughout the eight games he played that summer, grabbing 37 wickets at an average of 13.97 in the Ashes series, and 22 wickets at 17.36 when they travelled to South Africa.
But that was the high point of a career that had seriously low periods as well. Picked out early as “once-in-a-lifetime fast bowler” by none other than the great Dennis Lillee, he made early strides in the game before being struck down by all of four back stress fractures. Other unwelcome problems he endured were difficulties within his own family and inexplicable loss of form.
At his best, such as when he demolished South Africa with 8/61 at the WACA in 2008, Johnson allied late away swing with the new ball from a round arm action with forceful pace. But when his form dipped his wrist position became inconsistent and he was as unlikely to bowl an unplayable delivery as he was to spraying it all about. In Resilient, his autobiography, he describes the way bad form visited him for the first time in 2009. “I was leader of the pack, one of the fastest bowlers in the world, a man not to be messed with and I was feeling really good about myself, but it turns out I was headed for a brick wall. Or a cliff. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. Something came loose, a wheel began to wobble and my cricket became a slow motion train crash.”
On the 2010-11 Ashes tour he was abysmal in the first Test in Brisbane, was left out for the Adelaide Test, returned at the WACA, grabbing 6/38, before falling off the cliff again in Melbourne and Sydney.
And then there was the infamous taunting by the Barmy Army in 2011: “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson his bowling is s****.” Johnson admits that he sought professional help to deal with the ridicule.
Unyielding fighter that he is, however, Johnson persevered. A toe injury in 2011 allowed him a much-needed break, time he used for recovery, soul-searching, and to plot a return. “I knew if I was going to come back I had to be absolutely bulletproof physically and mentally.”
He became the fittest he’d ever been. And when he made his way back into the team he was unstoppable. He always had blistering pace; now he was also unrelenting, consistent and confident. This was Mitchell Johnson reborn, as the Englishmen and the South Africans were to find out.
One notably grim period worth mentioning was the death of Phil Hughes in 2014 after being struck on the back of the head. Getting back to cricket for him, and for the entire Australian team, was difficult. The first Test of the Indian visit that followed was delayed and indications of a somewhat changed attitude to the dangers presented by the hard, bouncing ball arose from an incident where Johnson scored a hit on Kohli. The batsman was quick to signal that he was okay but Johnson’s distress was quite apparent. He never showed that kind of concern when he terrorized batsmen before.
On Saturday, 19 August, the fast bowler announced he was retiring from all types of cricket. He had already left international cricket behind in 2015, but was still playing in T20 leagues. He could still bring the fire too, as he continued to show in the IPL and the Big Bash League in Australia.
It took him a while to fulfill Lillee’s prophecy. But when he ascended to his peak he was higher than any pacer had ever reached. From late November 2013 to early March 2014 he presided over a reign of terror that the cricket world had not seen before and has not seen since. He had his share of troubles, but it is his performance during that period of just over three months for which he will always be remembered.