From the outside it would have looked like any other plumbing van.
It was being driven by a bloke who had lost his state cricket contract. He was once a kid who could bowl seriously fast, but his body was not a weapon – rather, a wasteland of stress fractures. His boss, also his coach, Brett Mortimer, had given him the job as driver.
Mortimer knew there was something special there. Had the bloke disappeared right then, he might not have even been a what-if. When he crashed his van into a team-mate’s, there was no reason for it to make the papers. He was no one; probably one bad week, one niggly injury, from packing up his life and travelling back up the coast and living out his life in obscurity. But Mortimer saw him every day in the nets. And he didn’t need Dennis Lillee to tell him this was a serious bowler. Mortimer had played cricket for years and he’d never seen anything quite like this.
Mortimer had one last crack. With Brendan Nash away on state duty, Northern Suburbs had a space open at the top of the order. So the bloke was thrown up the order to have some fun, instead of being depressed that he couldn’t bowl. He scored well, and while it was never a science, it wasn’t the first time in his life that runs led to wickets. But really, it was about belief with him. It always would be.
No one would have seen that plumbing van and believed there were 310 Test wickets in there. Not even the bloke driving it.
A few years earlier others didn’t believe the speed gun. They looked at it again. There must be something wrong. The speed gun was part of a plan by Queensland to find a real quick. But this quick? Surely not. This 17-year-old kid, wearing his father’s golf spikes, was bowling quicker than the entire Queensland squad. That can’t be right.
Wicketkeeper Chris Hartley was standing 25 metres back in a Queensland Under-19 game. Ed Cowan was facing. Hartley was taking the ball above his head. Hartley and Cowan were sharing glances. This can’t be right.
Dennis Lillee saw this kid in the nets. The kid was already thinking about joining the army to “shoot guns and get fit”. But then Lillee saw this kid bowl and said he was a “once-in-nine-lives player”. This can’t be right.
After Mortimer pulled the plug on Mitchell Johnson’s bad mood, Johnson only took a couple of years to play for Australia. The white ball seemed to love him. It exploded off the pitch and into the gloves of keeper or batsman. You couldn’t watch Johnson bowl at that point and not feel the excitement.
For whatever reason, the red ball didn’t get the hype. Even in Shield cricket, Johnson and the red ball hadn’t got along. Two five-wicket hauls, never more than 29 wickets in a season. But the white-ball work, and hell, just the look of him, it was electric. You didn’t need data analysis, biomechanists and speed guns, you just needed eyes.
Johnson was now also dedicated to cricket. There was no need to drag or convince him. He wanted it. Bad enough that he even travelled to the MRF pace academy in Chennai to work with Lillee. But his numbers didn’t improve.
His early Tests involved wickets from right-handers who chased wide balls. They had to chase them, because otherwise they’d spend hours waiting for one at them. His arm seemed to get lower almost every innings, until he was bowling fast, almost accidental, offcutters. When the batsmen didn’t chase the wide ones, he just let off pressure for whoever was at the other end. After 13 Tests he was averaging 34 with the ball.
Just when the excitement was fading he found a green pitch, against New Zealand, and their tail still shudders about it.
Two Tests later he was up against South Africa on a sluggish wicket (by WACA standards). AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis had the score at 234 for 3; both had half-centuries. Johnson had a ball that was 70 overs old, with no reserve swing, but just his fast, and slightly more accurate, cutters. In 21 balls he took out five batsmen. He ended with 8 for 61. It was a goddamn Curtly Ambrose spell.
In South Africa for the following series he did something he hadn’t done for 20 Tests. He swung a ball perfectly. Hashim Amla could only stutter and lose balance as Johnson struck his pad. Immediately it became the thing his team, and the cricket world at large, fixated on. You could hear people whisper around the world, “No, it can’t be, but maybe it is, a Wasim Akram incarnate”.
In the next Test he made a hundred. Australia were always going to lose. But the way Johnson did it, with such long, fluid hitting, the ball just seemed to want to be smashed over mid-on. Parts of Paul Harris are still left in Cape Town after one over. Johnson’s hundred took 86 balls. In the series he was the leading wicket-taker and Australia’s third-highest scorer. Australia were fighting for the Test crown, and Mitchell Johnson Bothamed South Africa out of the series.
Johnson had almost crushed Graeme Smith’s hand. He’d discovered swing. Terrorised New Zealand. Defeated South Africa. He was the biggest, baddest damn thing in Australian cricket. No one needed Dennis Lillee to tell them how special he was.
And he hadn’t even played a Test against England.
You can smash all the other nations you want. Antagonise India. Destroy West Indies. End Bangladesh. But Australian and English players get their legend status from being great in the Ashes.
That was what Johnson was supposed to do in the 2009 Ashes. He was to lead the attack, continue England’s misery, and confirm he was the legend Australian cricket demanded he be.
By the end of the series, none of those things happened.
Johnson couldn’t bowl England out in Cardiff. Johnson couldn’t stop stories started by his mother. Johnson completely lost the plot at Lord’s. Johnson lost control of the attack. Johnson all but lost his spot in the team. And Johnson couldn’t win the Ashes.
By the time the 2010-11 Ashes came around he was an okay performer in an okay team. The beast that would become a legend was a distant memory. There were good matches, there were bad matches, this was just a cricketer doing his job.
The Gabba Test was a chance to do something special. Johnson took no wickets, made no runs, and dropped a catch. For the next Test he was either dropped, in his words, or rested, in those of Cricket Australia.
There was a moment during the next Test when Johnson was in the Adelaide nets as England smashed his team on the field. During his session, a ball got wedged into the top corner of the nets. Johnson spent the best part of ten minutes trying to get this ball dislodged. He threw balls at it, he shook the net, he tried to climb up, he used a bat, but nothing would do it. He was supposed to be looking to rekindle his magic, and instead he was doing the job of the support staff. And he couldn’t even do that right.
There must have been a part of him that thought he was an impostor. Even at his best, destroying South Africa with bat and ball, it was as if Johnson never believed in himself as much as everyone else did.
Impostor syndrome can hit anyone. Every single person in the world can tell you how good you are, they can praise you, they can idolise you, but some people can’t process it. Can’t accept it. Keep waiting to be found out. Think their success was all luck.
They say it comes from childhood, that sensitive children who are overlooked and then become successful never truly accept it. That even when they win, it all feels like it is a mistake and no one must find out. That the pressure to not be found out almost becomes the problem. They start to believe that because they had no control over their success, they have no way of finding it again.
Not that Johnson wasn’t trying to find it. Whether in the nets, or much more noticeably, out on the ground, Johnson was in a near-constant state of trying to fix his bowling. This didn’t look like a Test bowler who had led his nation. It looked like a teenager hoping that something would fix him. It was far more common to see him trying to fix his action on the walk back to the mark than it was seeing him terrorise batsmen.
The Amla inswinger pressure had never gone away. Being the guy who led an unsuccessful Ashes attack was part of what defined him. Now he had been dropped, one Test into his next Ashes. The pressure and failure was all around him. Johnson couldn’t be what Australia wanted, and worse, he looked like he didn’t even know how to ever do it.
The call was made to Dennis Lillee. Johnson had already spent the week working with his bowling coach, Troy Cooley. He had already watched his spell from 2008 against South Africa to psyche himself up. Now the big gun was needed. Lillee would come and see Johnson in the nets the day before the WACA Test. Lillee wasn’t even sure what he could do for Johnson, so he told Johnson how great he could be.
At the WACA, Johnson was great. His pace was great, his swing was great, and even his batting was great. Sixty-three runs, nine wickets and one Man-of-the-Match award.
But in the press conference he seemed to shrug and suggest the ball swung a bit luckily. The next Test was Boxing Day, and the luck wasn’t there.
The MCG gets into full voice like other stadiums dream of. That sort of guttural, communal, sweaty chorus of echoes. It’s the middle-aged man whose life has never been what he wanted it to be, bellowing at the moon while half cut. They had done it for Lillee. They had chanted his name, turning him from a cricketer into a beam of pure light.
For Johnson the accent of the chants changed. He wasn’t the alpha and omega but the punchline. In his own country, he was a musical joke, a wreck. Even in cricket’s biggest ground there was nowhere to hide. It was overcast during that Test, but the clouds over Johnson seemed the darkest.
After Perth, Johnson only got two massive English innings to bowl in – 2 for 134 and 4 for 168. He had played more than half the Tests he would ever play, and he was still no closer to finding out how to get the best out of himself. He was still bowling to the left. He was still bowling to the right. And now their chanting kept him up at night.
The mental problems weren’t all of it. People can claim it is the all-round skill, the sling action, or even the left arm that makes Johnson exciting, but it’s the pace. That raw, uncontrolled pace that makes the best in their game look slow. That makes tailenders cry. That makes commentators scream. Fans jump. That pace.
That pace was going. There was the odd spell, but mostly he was a fast-medium bowler with questionable control who didn’t seam or swing it. It was at its worst when he played against South Africa in Johannesburg. Johnson seemed to fall into medium pace. Slower than he had been as a teenager using his dad’s golf spikes. At the other end Australia had found their newest pace bowler, Pat Cummins. Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson were around as well.
Johnson was battling injury, form and belief.
In almost three years since the last Ashes in Australia he’d managed nine Tests. His body and mind weren’t right.
This time he couldn’t go to the army and shoot guns. He couldn’t move back to Townsville. He couldn’t drive a plumbing van. He was Mitchell Johnson, and for all the baggage that came with, it also came with something pretty damn special. And Johnson fought for that.
With a stable home life as a new father, a chance encounter with an SAS vet and a career-affirming net session with Lillee and John Inverarity, Johnson started to get himself right. All those people played a part, but it would have meant nothing if he didn’t put in the effort. For the first time, he believed.
The first people to see this were the IPL folk. Then a few teams got glimpses in ODIs. People, Sachin Tendulkar included, started to talk Johnson up again. And, for perhaps the first time ever, so did Johnson. His words didn’t sound hopeful, like they had done earlier in his career. They sounded like a threat, like premonition. As if he saw the summer of Mitchell Johnson before us.
At the Gabba, Johnson started with the new ball. A full toss down the leg side. More full tosses followed. More balls down the leg as well. After three overs of the 2013-14 Ashes, Johnson had been dragged from the attack. There were times when that would have been enough. It wasn’t.
Second spell: Jonathan Trott faced Johnson. First ball, he hit him. He glared. Johnson had never had a good glare. No matter how old he was, he always looked young, fresh-faced, like a boy playing tough. The tattoos didn’t make him tough, nothing did. But this was different. Even without the charity moustache, just looking at his eyes, there was something going on in them. This wasn’t an empty glare. Trott and England felt it. So did every single person at the ground. Every single person at every single ground that summer.
Mitchell Johnson believed. Oh, didn’t we get to see what that meant. All that frustration, all those flirtations, all those false starts, all those injuries, all those chants, all those headlines, all those punchlines, all those days that he felt like a fraud, a lucky bastard, an impostor, they came out of his hand like the devil himself.
There is no way to properly explain what it felt like to see Johnson in full flight in his summer. You can talk about the noises, the fact that for every ball in that Test and the seven that followed, it felt like he was on a hat-trick. About the blood- and stump-lust that took control of you. That at times he looked like he was actually in flight, like some fighter jet roaring through the crease. That in Melbourne the entire ground, the entire city, shook for him like it had for his mentor. That in Adelaide he was one ball away from destroying the entire Adelaide renovations. In Sydney the fear, the excitement, that desperation to see his every ball was still there, still so strong. People were rushing to have grandchildren just to tell them about it. You could feel the pain of England like every wicket was being tattooed on your body. No one dared blink when he had the ball. Smartphones were in airplane mode. Fun times were on pause.
None of that gets it across, the fear, the danger, the pace, the excitement, the carnage. The everything. It was a roller coaster through hell. Like his hands were made of dynamite, like the world had found a new demon soundtracked by an endless death- metal musical.
No, this still isn’t doing it. These weren’t spells of bowling, these were physical experiences. There ain’t no TV that could do it justice, you had to be in it, feel it, live it, survive it, smell it. You weren’t watching it, you were part of it, some great big throbbing muscle thrusting him through the sound barrier. No, still not right.
Sorry, it can’t be fully explained. You weren’t there, man.
It was a once-in-nine-lives summer. Dennis Lillee was right.
And unlike the best of Australian summers, it didn’t end in Australia, it kept going. When Johnson destroyed England, a meme started online. It was a picture of Dale Steyn, pointing down the lens, and the writing said, “You beat the Poms 5-0. How cute.” Steyn had held the title of world’s best bowler for so long it had barely been a decent conversation starter for half a decade.
The old Johnson might have overthought it. Worried about it. This Johnson just bowled. At South Africa, through South Africa.
Hashim Amla almost lost his head. Ryan McLaren his consciousness, Graeme Smith lost his career. Steyn threw everything he had back at Johnson, but even Steyn, the greatest bowler of his generation, had to sit back and watch as another man shook up the world.
When the summer of Mitchell Johnson was over, so were England as a team, South Africa as the undisputed champions. This broken-down non-believer hadn’t just reached out and touched the sun, he had grabbed it and bounced someone with it.
Stuart Broad saw something. Perhaps he just didn’t want to look at Johnson. Not square in the eyes, at least. He pointed to a shiny bolt and turned a ravenous crowd into a screaming beast.
Johnson was already in his dream over with two earlier wickets. He had already bowled his dream ball to Cook the night before. He had already played his dream Test the match before.
Broad wasn’t delaying a ball, he was delaying inevitability. Certainty.
Johnson delivered a fast ball on leg stump. There were days, whole seasons, perhaps even whole years, when the same ball would have been flicked to the boundary. Broad would have fidgeted with his gear while Johnson put his hands to his head.
Now England believed every ball would be a wicket, and so did Johnson, so did everyone.
Broad hopped away from the ball, Broad’s leg stump hopped too.
Mitchell Johnson ran frantically down the pitch. Like he was in the world’s greatest dream.
No one watching this spell could actually believe he was doing this. Let alone the bloke bowling it. He couldn’t believe how easy it had become.