To describe Mitchell Johnson as a member of a bowling unit is like calling a howitzer just a part on a tank. Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon are parts of the unit. Quality parts, working very well. Mitchell Johnson is the bang. Forget plans and line and length, England were smashed in the mouth by Mitch. Again. It was a continuation of his summer of brutality.
It could not have been more different from this time three years ago.
“He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is shite” was ringing out by this stage of the previous Boxing Day Ashes Test. It was well earned. Mitch’s first over went for 11. It had followed his fourth-ball duck. Later there would be wides, byes that should have been wides, plenty short outside off and full tosses down the leg side. Had he bowled the ball into his own foot, he couldn’t have done much more damage to himself.
It continued to be just that bad the next day, on the very rare occasions that Ricky Ponting gave him the ball. By lunch on the second day, he’d sent down 12 overs of the 76 bowled. He’d taken no wickets. He’d gone for 57 runs. And Brad Haddin had gone for a few byes.
The Test before, Mitch had sat beside Ponting in a sweaty gym-cum-press conference room admitting he had no idea why he had bowled so well at the WACA. Now he was bowling the very opposite, and presumably still had no idea. The Barmy Army abused him in song. The Australian fans abused him less lyrically. The only way his lunch could have been worse that day was if someone had spat in it.
By drinks today he was having a break. His job was done. England were out. Australians near the Barmy Army were probably arguing whether “his bowling’s a fright” sounded okay in the song. He could enjoy his lunch, hoping his batsmen can cash in on his carnage.
The MCG yawns louder than other grounds. When England passed 250, you could hear the entire crowd not give a hell at once. Harris might have been storming through the crease with a vicious face and a perfect seam position, but Melbourne didn’t want that. They wanted Mitch.
Tim Bresnan’s wicket was their chum. They needed to know it was the Mitch of last night, and not the Mitch of three years ago. They needed to see the first victim. Then they let loose. Anyone who had strolled in late, not knowing of the 10.30 start, would have walked a lot quicker just because of the atmosphere of the crowd. You could feel the feet pounding the concrete. The members murmured with anticipation. The public clapped their hands.
Fast bowling was made for this ground. Not the pitch; the pitch rarely gives much at all. It’s the crowd that does it. Sarfraz Nawaz’s reverse swing is still whispered about like a massacre. Merv Hughes’ fitness regime became legendary. Curtly Ambrose came around the wicket with murderous intent. Glenn McGrath was given the ground by Bill Lawry. And Dennis Lillee, well this ground is as much part of him, as he was of it. He was a champion everywhere, he was a God here.
But if it makes Gods, then it also is vicious to those who don’t make it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an Australian cricketer or an overseas player, if you’re playing badly, this ground lets you know very well. Australian cricketers have threatened Melbourne crowds with violence on their worst days. Opposition players have been pelted with gold balls, and urine. Flags were used as weapons as poor fielders picked up a ball from the mammoth boundaries.
As England beat Australia up three years ago, Mitch was out on the boundary getting abuse from both sets of fans as a blown up condom drifted across the ground. Written on it was the simple message, “F*ck you England”. No punctuation, no subtlety.
Rather than needing the crowd to do that for him, Mitch did that himself today. His only mistake taking his wickets in front of a crowd that was leaving last night, and a crowd that hadn’t turned up today. He owed himself better. He has dominated England all summer, he should have taken all five of his wickets in the Melbourne screaming hour. That magic hour right after tea when everyone is at their drunkest, and only those who have been kicked out for anti-social behaviour have left.
His five-wicket salute to the Barmy Army shouldn’t have been polite hand gesture in front of people still climbing up to their seats. This ground humiliated him. And in this innings he smashed all that away. He should have screamed out a demon and beat it to death with a series of short balls.
Three years ago Mitch ended with 2 for 139 from 29 overs. But it might as well have been none for a billion. Today it was 5 for 63. On both occasions the MCG was noisy. This time it was for explosions that Mitch created. The humiliation had moved on.