Ashes 2015: Mitchell Johnson remains an enigma for the Australians

The fast bowler is key to Aussie chances in this series

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The Independent Online

At the heart of everything Australia are trying to do in the Ashes lies Mitchell Johnson. The team know it, the fans know it, Johnson knows it.

There were two unforgettable moments involving Johnson in the match in Birmingham last week, both redolent of what a rare talent he is, how he can change a match in a trice, that he is quite simply a star.

The first was on the second morning when he bowled an over that will remain imperishable in the minds of all who saw it. It was frighteningly fast, uncommonly brutal and contained in it two of the most potent bouncers – each of which took a wicket, his 300th and 301st in Tests.

Nothing that either Jonny Bairstow or Ben Stokes could do would have saved them. They had no time to remove themselves from the unerring line, they had to play but there was no way they could react in the way they would have wished. It was purely a matter of fortune if they survived. They did not.

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Jonny Bairstow is bounced out by Mitchell Johnson in the third Test at Edgbaston (Getty)

On the following afternoon when Australia were losing the game, Johnson was still the name on everyone’s lips in an Edgbaston ground that seethed with passion. This is born of a combination of respect and fear. Johnson, a sensitive and gentle soul despite the nature of his job, responded by stopping in his run-up once and then bowling from alongside the umpire. It was all good fun, there was not an ounce of mean-spiritedness from Johnson.

“I get amongst it a bit more now,” he said. “I definitely take it as a bit of a compliment now and when the whole crowd is cheering my name at the end of a game when they’ve just won, you have to take that as a compliment.

“That over, where I did stop in my run-up, was deliberate to try and have a bit of fun with the crowd, and apparently it had a fair bit of appreciation when I went down to fine leg with people clapping and saying a few choice words.”

 

It was not always like this for Johnson. On Australia’s 2009 tour he was out of rhythm and the crowd being on his back exacerbated his difficulties. Perhaps he did not realise then that they loved him really and that they were also on his back because they were afraid of what he could do. By the time England reached Australia in late 2013, Johnson knew his game but it was also true that Australia knew it better as well. They finally recognised he should be used in short, sharp, rapid bursts, probably as first change, that he should be given his head and constantly encouraged.

This has worked so well that there is a temptation to be inflexible. There was a singular case for Johnson to open the bowling in England’s second innings in Birmingham. Without England chasing a small but pesky target of 121, someone from Australia asked what they would least like to face. The only possible answer would have been Johnson but he was kept waiting until the ninth over, by which time England already had 47 of the runs they required. Johnson tried hard to conceal his own irritation.

“I thought to myself I was really keen to get the new ball, but whatever is best for the team in those situations I’m happy with,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve become better at, not to become frustrated in those situations where sometimes I feel like I might be better suited in a situation like that.”

The day before it was Johnson himself who underestimated his powers. When he removed Bairstow and Stokes so dramatically, it seemed clear that more was to come instantly. It did not. Johnson largely bowled the fuller length he has tended to adopt for much of this series and when he reverted again to the occasional bumper it was no longer on the button.

Although he has indeed swung it on a full length, his two most telling spells in this series have been the one over at Birmingham and the last session at Lord’s, when he put the frighteners on with the short stuff. He can still barely explain what he was up to but leaves the distinct impression it will not be happening again.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess from my point of view I was just trying to really dry up the runs and I probably just lost that bit of aggression. I don’t read into it too much, to be honest. But I think because the ball has been swinging over here a lot more, I feel like I’m trying to get the ball up there a lot more often.”

It may not be happening again soon.

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