Mitchell Johnson – role model

Weird.

It’s the most disdainful insult (short of cursing) used by the youngsters I know.

Weird.

It’s the term they most fear being attached to themselves.

Mitchell Johnson was weird.

For all but a minority of extrovert youngsters, fitting in is the state they ardently seek, through the games they play, the clothes they wear, the way they speak, the company they keep.

Mitchell Johnson came to cricket late. Drawn away from tennis in his late teens, he would have shown up at nets attended by a tight group of young cricketers with a background of seasons together, nicknames and shared stories. The quiet teen Johnson would have waited his turn to bowl, standing 5 metres to the right of the knot of right-armers. Reaching the crease, without an athletic bound, arm swinging through far from the purist 12 o’clock, Johnson probably flung a few of his early deliveries into the side netting.

Weird is how his new teammates, apprentice bullies for careers in the tough world of grade cricket, would have viewed him. They probably stifled laughs and nudged each other when he bowled wide – maybe nervously, though, given the speed he could already attain. While he had his back turned, padding up, they may have dared each other to impersonate his run up and action.

Whether his peers accepted him, coaches did, including Dennis Lillee. Not committing to the game until his late teens, he was playing for his country before twenty. But like his mentor his progress was slowed by back injuries.

Johnson’s emergence as a senior international cricketer came when we might have expected a lull in Australia’s fortunes following the retirements of many of the team that white-washed England in 2006/07. Johnson seemed to bring to the team something that none of his eminent predecessors offered – a dynamic all-rounder. But it was what happened in the second phase of his Test career that renews my interest in him as a role model.

On the 2009 Ashes tour, Johnson’s pre-series billing as Australia’s spearhead was quickly quashed. As he struggled to bowl straight, expert opinion moved swiftly from the vulnerability of his slingy action to the fragility of his confidence. He was an introvert experiencing intense public scrutiny of his shortcomings. By the second Test, he was spared the pressure of opening the bowling. As each underwhelming, wayward spell passed, the thought occurred that dropping Johnson from the team might be an act of mercy, but also an exit without prospect of return. If only his rhythm could return.

Johnson’s rhythm was weird. At his best, bowling looked effort-ful. His run-up, as his career progressed, became less like the series of movements one would choose to proceed rapidly over grass. It looked like an action adopted from overuse of a cross-trainer gym machine, modelled on Nordic skiing. Johnson’s delivery was force, unembellished by grace. Javelin throwers, belted and bandaged around waist and knee, pour it all into six or eight throws each competition. Johnson flung, with no less commitment, more than 70 of his spears each day spent in the field.

Johnson battled through the tour, and back in the southern summer again took wickets with pace. But a year later, facing England again, Johnson’s bowling deteriorated. The undulations of his career were becoming more abrupt. He was dropped after one Test, returned for the third Test where he bowled Australia to victory, then lost whatever it was he needed for the rest of the series.

And this loss of form had its own musical accompaniment. An Australian quick, on home turf, had the unique humiliation of being sung about in a derogatory, gloating fashion by visiting spectators. Johnson later acknowledged that the “swings to the left, swings to the right” choruses got to him, which is an unusual, but honest admission for an active sportsman. He also said he felt it was a compliment that he was targeted. It’s probably better that he is allowed to think this, although I find it unlikely: he was targeted because he was vulnerable, not because he was feared.

Injury followed and Johnson had a slew of young, quick bowlers whom he would have to displace to get back in the Australian Test team; as well as having to convince that it would be correct to give him a place alongside another bowler much closer to the end than the beginning of his career: Ryan Harris. Johnson did play, but not regularly.

Intimations of what would follow came at the end of the English summer of 2013, when Johnson appeared as a limited overs specialist. While many extrapolated from England’s 3-0 Ashes victory that summer to an easy victory for the visitors in the return series, those who watched the discomfort with which the England players faced his bowling in the one-day series, must have begun to consider how secure England’s hold on the Ashes really was.

That Australian summer Johnson soared. Used by Michael Clarke inflexibly in four over spells, time and again that was time enough to puncture a hole in England’s batting order. Johnson conquered injury, self-doubt and public ridicule. Sporting an extravagant moustache he bristled and attempted to intimidate the England batsmen in his follow through – his least role model-worthy behaviour and entirely superfluous given the grip his bowling had on the opposition.

Johnson is not a cricketer I have enjoyed watching. He has made too many of the batsmen I want to see succeed flinch and duck and succumb. The deepest pleasure I get from watching cricket is see batsman score runs. I have loved to see Johnson hit for runs – the ball tears to the boundary. The camera focuses on his face. The defiant glare doesn’t look genuine. There’s perhaps bemusement, helplessness. Johnson knows what it is like when his form deserts mid-match and that doubt, the potential for another low, is humming quietly.

It is for his weirdness, for not fitting in with our aesthetic expectations of the fast bowler, for being a quiet man performing and flopping on centre stage, for his prevailing over public humiliation, for his return from injury to bowl his arm almost out of its socket for 24 balls at a time that I commend him as a role model. He has shown as much courage as any of the batsmen that have faced him, kept in line, ducked the bouncer and attacked anything loose. And, as we know, he bowled frighteningly fast.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

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