Brydon Coverdale, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, October 2016, where the title runs “ Mitchell Johnson’s ups and downs”
…Recalls how he was plucked from obscurity by Dennis Lillee
As a kid, Johnson had been more interested in tennis than cricket, but by 17 he was rattling a few batsmen in Townsville’s club cricket. His own club, The Wanderers, paid his airfare to travel to Brisbane for a pace-bowling camp at which Dennis Lillee would be one of the coaches. It took only three balls for Lillee to identify Johnson as a “once-in-a-generation” quick; immediately and excitedly, he phoned Rod Marsh at the Academy in Adelaide. “I’ve found one,” Lillee said. Only once before had he rung Marsh with a similar comment. On that occasion the bowler had been Brett Lee.
As a rare cricketer who had not come through the age-group system, Johnson had no idea how his life was about to change: “The next day I flew back to Brisbane and caught a plane across the country to Adelaide. It was the first time I had ever been outside of Queensland.”
…Reveals how he almost punched Kevin Pietersen on the 2009 Ashes tour
The pressure of his first Ashes campaign was significant enough, and the last thing Johnson needed on the eve of the first Test was a family-related controversy. But that was exactly what happened when his mother, Vicki Harber, who Johnson described as “naïve about the media”, gave an interview in which she complained about her son having moved to Perth to be with his then girlfriend, Jessica Bratich. Johnson said he was very protective of his mother, but the developing news story of a “rift” between he and his mother left his mind scrambled.
Events came to a head as the teams warmed up on the morning of the first Test, when Kevin Pietersen, hitting balls in the direction of the Australians, made some comments that Johnson believes to this day “crossed the line”. Only the cool head of Stuart Clark prevented a punch-up.
“He got really personal and I’m not going to dignify his comments by repeating them. The red mist descended and I stormed in his direction with every intention in the world of hitting him. This was all being played out in full view of spectators who had arrived early and the media. Stu Clark saw it all happen and came rushing over just as we came together and jumped between us.”
…Admits that the Barmy Army got under his skin in 2009
There are times when the Barmy Army might seem like a 12th member of England’s team, and Johnson certainly struggled to block them out. They had two main songs directed at Johnson: “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson, his bowling is shite”; and another based on the Addams Family theme that played on the perceived squabble between his mother and his girlfriend.
“England knew they had their foot on my throat and they weren’t going to let me up. When I batted, the close fielders sang the Barmy Army songs. I found out later that Matt Prior had texted the leader of the Army and told them to keep at me because they could see it had got under my skin. He was right. The songs had got into my head. Even though I hated them, I found myself singing them. It was almost like I was taunting myself.”
…Tells of the change in atmosphere after Ricky Ponting’s retirement
Johnson was first in the Australian squad under Ricky Ponting’s captaincy back in 2005-06, and Ponting was always a big supporter of Johnson. So Johnson was pleased to be recalled to the Test side at the WACA in 2012 for what Ponting announced would be his final Test.
“Even when he wasn’t captain Ricky steered things and kept them on the straight and narrow by force of his presence. He was a strong guy and would always speak up. He was the last of that era to say what was on their minds and be happy for others to do it. After that, people got more reluctant and bit their tongue a little bit more.”
…Explains how rifts in the team emerged in 2012-13
After Tim Nielsen resigned as coach, Johnson told people Australia should get Mickey Arthur, who had been his coach at Western Australia. But, Johnson said, it was disappointing the way things turned out, with too many factions inside the team. “It seemed like there was a young clique who were the ‘in’ group and the rest of us were outsiders”.
It all came to a head in Chandigarh in 2013. After losing the first two Tests, Australia’s players were told to write down a few ideas of where the team could improve. Johnson, not much good at “doing assignments”, thought he should just go and tell the team management his ideas, but forgot to do so. He was soon told he would not be picked because he hadn’t done his homework. “I had a chat with Mickey as well, for maybe an hour. I had lost respect for him and told him and he didn’t like it; he was gutted by it.”
Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja and James Pattinson were also suspended for a match for failing to do their homework. Johnson believes Watson was being punished for speaking his mind too often. “Mickey told me I spent too much time with Watto and that was the real issue here. I was told we were too close, like we were a faction or something. I am sorry but you can’t help but be close to a bloke you have been playing cricket with since you were 19. Usi and Patto got caught in the crossfire. Watto was being punished for speaking his mind about some of the things that were going on and we all went down with him. The problems between him and Michael Clarke were well known and it just seemed to get out of hand on this tour.”
…Underlines Darren Lehmann’s role in Australia’s 2013-14 Ashes whitewash
Johnson had considered his cricket future during the hard times, but there remained a burning desire to prove his doubters wrong. That was certainly what he achieved during the home Ashes triumph in 2013-14, when he was named Player of the Series. Johnson writes of how things just felt right ahead of the series. Lehmann had been named coach earlier in the year, and told the players this was supposed to be the best time of their lives, and that they should just enjoy themselves. “Nobody was walking on eggshells anymore. It felt like the approach we had when I started with Queensland and I was good with that.”
…Admits that he was never the same bowler after the death of Phillip Hughes
Johnson was in Perth when the news came through that Hughes had been struck in a Sheffield Shield match at the SCG. In the coming days as it became apparent how grave the situation was, he jumped on a plane to Sydney. When Johnson landed and switched on his phone, he learned that Hughes had died. “I just sat there with my cap pulled down and cried as everybody got off the flight”.
The emotional aftermath put cricket into perspective, and Johnson said he was not alone in struggling to commit to the game following the death of Hughes. As a fast bowler who was expected to intimidate batsmen, the ground had forever shifted. When Australia played the delayed first Test against India and Johnson struck Virat Kohli on the helmet with a bouncer, he felt sick.
“I couldn’t summon up any aggression and I don’t think I bowled a whole-hearted bouncer for the rest of that game. I struggled in the following game, too, and I am not sure if I have ever bowled one in the same way since. You have to mean it when you do it. You bowl the short ball to intimidate people. You want them to take evasive action and you want them to be frightened of getting on the front foot after that. Those are the facts of the situation and in the aftermath of what happened to Hughesy it seemed almost impossible or irresponsible to have that intent.”
…Expresses his dislike of the move to day-night Tests
Johnson announced his retirement mid-series last summer, after the second Test against New Zealand in Perth and before the final Test of that series – the inaugural day-night Test at Adelaide Oval. He had played in a pink-ball Sheffield Shield game earlier in the season, and said he “didn’t enjoy it at all”.
“Every time night fell, the game would shift and you started another contest … the pink ball goes soft so quickly and while it is hard to score with, it is ever harder to bowl with. All you do is set a ring field and go through the motions as best you can.”
Johnson was “really unimpressed” by the day-night concept, and believes a better move would be to bring Test cricket in to four days, which would force curators to prepare better pitches that would offer a fair competition between bat and ball.
Resilient, published by ABC Books, is available now
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale