Mitchell Johnson: Australia’s beguiling beast

For one last time at the WACA on Tuesday, Mitchell Johnson made the ball talk like he always does © Getty
For one last time at the WACA on Tuesday, Mitchell Johnson made the ball talk like he always does © Getty Apart from sheddin

Apart from shedding a tear when his teammates lifted him aloft as he fare-welled the WACA faithful, Mitchell Johnson felt comfortable and at ease in his final moments as an Australian cricketer. You could sense the burden and overwhelming pressure being lifted from him.

One of Australian cricket’s most beguiling and brilliant careers ended during a fairly staid final day on what was a rather bland WACA Test. Truth be told, it would have been altogether a forgettable affair had it not been for Johnson’s retirement.

But the final day will always endear thanks to a treasure trove of Johnson images. When he came out to bat, as a small WACA crowd collectively rose to their feet and hollered, New Zealand paid tribute with a guard of honour followed by Brendon McCullum, the skipper, shaking Johnson’s hand. The firebrand paceman, known for his aggressiveness on-field, was taken aback by the gesture. It was a telltale sign of Johnson’s overwhelming contribution to the game, and spoke of the reverence opponents had for him.

It was like he realised how universally respected he was in the cricket fraternity. Johnson produced a few trademark aggressive shots. He was always a powerful hitter, with a knack of striking the ball cleanly even though his feet were basically glued to the crease.

Even though Johnson has scored a Test ton, and probably had enough natural talent with the bat to become an all-rounder if he so desired, it was of course, his bowling that everyone was anticipating. Everyone at the ground, bar the New Zealand team, wanted a Johnson throwback performance. Even though an Australian victory seemed a long shot, you just never know when Johnson has the ball. He had the rarefied ability to change the course of a match in a matter of deliveries. Johnson was the ultimate white hot bowler; when he was in rhythm and everything synchronised, he was virtually unplayable.

Time, rain and the stout bats of Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor curtailed any chance of a magical fairytale send-off for Johnson. But somehow, maybe through a kind nudge from the cricket gods, the pitch surprisingly started playing tricks. Johnson was able to make the ball talk like he had memorably done, so many times throughout the years. The crowd was clapping every time Johnson steamed in. There were chants of “Johhnooo is a legend” and other assortments throughout. Buoyed by the encouragement, Johnson steamed in like he had transformed back into the beast that possessed him so memorably in 2013-14.

Johnson picked up both New Zealand openers with trademark brutish short balls, summoning his fearsome best for one last push. He wasn’t snarling like those famous images of yesteryear; this was a more comforted Johnson. When he was on the fine leg boundary, Johnson took time to take selfies with fans. He was relishing his final moments of international cricket.

The game ended rather abruptly and somewhat in an anti-climax, fittingly considering the drab Test, with play ending due to bad light. There was no last Johnson over that everyone at the ground hoped for. Johnson left the WACA, and his international career, on the shoulders of his teammates and basking in the adulation of the adoring throng of fans.

In the post-match press conference, Johnson looked contented. He looked like he was at peace with his decision. Apart from when he paid tribute to his wife, Johnson’s voice never wavered. He knew his time was over and he could live with that. “I really enjoyed myself today,” Johnson said. “The weight was lifted off. I soaked it up and I was only emotional when the boys picked me up…I didn’t want them to do it.”

Innuendo was rampant after the fourth day’s play that Johnson was set to retire. He had laid breadcrumbs, revealing before the first Test that he had contemplated retirement. During New Zealand’s rampant first innings, Johnson jarringly lacked intensity. He was ambling into the crease, trudging around like someone who had been sleep-deprived for days. Subsequently, he produced some of the worst bowling of his career finishing with the macabre figures of 1 wicket for 157 from 28 listless overs, rivaling his most notorious performances that were infamously ridiculed by the Barmy Army back in Johnson’s dark past.

At the end of day three, Johnson knew he was done. He hadn’t always been reliable; there were times when he frustratingly couldn’t control the ball. But Johnson always was a competitor. He loved competing and summoning his best against adversity. He always wanted to face his fears and conquer them.

Even trying to find a way to dislodge the impregnable Williamson couldn’t motivate Johnson anymore. He revealed his decision to his wife at the end of day three, and then told his team-mates a day later.

Johnson said he no longer had the desire to play international cricket. “I was down on pace in the first innings, but that was mental not physical,” he said. “I just had enough. I didn’t want to continue. I lost the hunger. It was not fair on the team. I had always given 100 percent.”

Johnson bows out gratified because of his late career renaissance, which peaked during an incredible Ashes in 2013-14 where he claimed 37 wickets to eviscerate England’s spirit. Before that stunning rebirth, Johnson was likely to be remembered as a player who underwhelmed; a maligned and somewhat tragic figure. A continual punching bag for the Barmy Army.

But Johnson stunningly took 59 wickets over 8 Tests in the ultimate purple patch in 2013-14, a stint of bowling that may be the greatest of all time. Johnson was also a key plank in Australia’s ODI World Cup-winning team earlier this year, to further underline his successful second coming.

Johnson said his late career comeback was cathartic. “The Ashes 2013-14 is what I’m most proud of,” he said. “I would have had regrets in my career (if not for the renaissance). I felt like I hadn’t given it my best. I enjoyed the challenge of testing myself. I became more confident and happy with my action.”

Johnson ends his career on 313 Test wickets. Only the hallowed names of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Dennis Lillee have taken more Test wickets for Australia. It’s an incredible achievement for a player who was delicately perched on the crossroad so many times.

He was the ultimate enigma. Johnson was mercurial; you never knew what to expect when he was bowling. But his lethal concoction of bowling conjured some of cricket’s most visceral images.

Johnson was a paradox. He was maddening but marvellous. Exhilarating but exasperating. Frustrating but fearsome. Brilliant but bewildering. Whatever your sentiments, there is no denying Mitchell Johnson made cricket more entertaining and compelling when he played.