After being identified as a “once-in-nine-lives” by Australian Test legend Dennis Lillee at the age of 17, Johnson’s younger years were marred by recurrent back injuries. Despite this, he established himself as one of the most exciting fast bowlers at Shield level and was chosen to represent the Test side for the first time in 2007.
Within two years of his debut, Johnson had claimed the prestigious Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy off the back of a season of performances that cemented him as the spearhead of the Australian fast bowling attack. Amongst many of cricket’s key personalities, he was seen as the best pace bowler in the world.
The cracks began to form soon after however, as his 2009 Ashes tour of England showcased the wobbles that would characterise most of his Test career to the world. ESPN journalist Alex Brown simply described his showing at Lords as “too short, too wide and too easily dominated by England’s openers”, forcing his withdrawal from the attack after just three overs.
A number of private issues in Johnson’s life that had bubbled to the surface in the brightest limelight possible in the lead-up to that series are partially credited with causing some of his erratic performances. These only exacerbated the glaring holes in his technique that had been resoundingly punched by cricket media around the world.
He would struggle to recapture the form that had prompted acclaim from all corners for the next few years, falling in and out of the Test team for up to 12 months at a time. The opening Test against England in November of 2013 would mark just his third appearance of the calendar year, the previous two of which had yielded three wickets.
Looking back on the 2013-14 Ashes series with the benefit of hindsight, there was nothing to suggest that the Mitchell Johnson that had continually frustrated Australian fans with his mountainous peaks and rock-bottom troughs would not appear in a baggy green once again. He had just turned 32 years old, hardly an age that would lend itself to the sporting renaissance of an inconsistent star.
With a clean bill of health and sporting an eye-catching handlebar moustache to raise money for Movember, it should have signalled to cricket fans that Johnson was a different man to his most recent toothless performances in the Test arena. Soon enough, his form on the pitch would back this up.
Thunderbolts upwards of 150km/h have become a rarity in the modern game and were certainly not thought to be part of Johnson’s arsenal coming into the series. That he managed to bowl around that mark consistently at the beginning of his spells proved to the cricketing public that he was indeed the real deal.
This was not only to do with his pace, however, despite the fact that Australia’s new nuclear weapon actively struck fear into the England line-up. Johnson had significantly tuned his radar to the point that England’s batsmen had very few free strokes to make use of; every ball had the chance to hurt or dismiss them, and it appeared the English had subscribed to that mindset too.
It is easy to forget that Australia were on the ropes for much of the opening day of the series at the Gabba, falling to 6/132 before Johnson combined with Brad Haddin to bring the team to a respectable total of 295. Johnson added a crucial 64 runs to the scoreboard, stamping his importance on the match before he had even bowled a ball.
The real fireworks were still to come, though, as four wickets in the first innings and five in the second helped to skittle England for scores of 136 and 179. Australia claimed a crucial 1-0 series lead with a crushing 381-run win at their Brisbane fortress, setting the tone for the English bloodbath to come in the next four Tests at Johnson’s hand.
Perhaps the enduring image of the series, and one of the most iconic in Australian cricket history, was a moustachioed Johnson staring down long-time Ashes tormentor James Anderson at Adelaide Oval after uprooting his middle stump courtesy of a violent in-swinger. The dismissal was one of his seven wickets for the innings at the cost of just 40 runs, including five in the space of 24 balls.
Match hauls of nine, eight, six, eight and six across the five Tests were instrumental in handing the Urn back to the Australians in the most emphatic fashion possible. Johnson’s 37 wickets at an average of 13.97 proved the difference in an Ashes not dominated by batters, standing 15 scalps above second-leading wicket taker Ryan Harris and two more than the combined tallies of Nathan Lyon (19) and Peter Siddle (16).
Johnson was the deserved man of the series after scooping three man of the match awards (in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne). The blistering pace and wild movement he was able to conjure wreaked havoc on the Old Enemy and claimed ninth spot on the all-time list of most wickets in a single Ashes series, boasting the third-best bowling average and best strike rate (30.5) of the top ten.
He continued his hot streak into Australia’s next Test series, a hard-fought 2-1 win in South Africa which is perhaps underappreciated given the strength of the Proteas at that time and their recent record against them. His 22 wickets across three Tests, including 12 in the First Test at Centurion Park, dwarfed the totals of all bowlers around him and was once again crucial to the Australian cause.
At the age of 33, against all odds, Johnson had returned to the summit of international cricket. He won his second Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy in 2014, five years after his first, joining a list of dual winners that only contained Australian legend Ricky Ponting and has since added Indian powerhouse Virat Kohli.
He retired from all forms of international cricket only a year later on 313 Test wickets, the fifth most by an Australian bowler and third most by a fast bowler. He also passed 2,000 career runs, making him just the thirteenth man in Test history, and second Australian behind the legendary Shane Warne, to do so while also taking over 300 wickets.
When reflecting on Mitchell Johnson the Test cricketer, the mere numbers betray the complexity of his eight-year career. The sheer weight of wickets he accrued does not accurately represent the highest of highs and lowest of lows he experienced on the cricket field.
The reality is that one summer of cricket permanently altered the public perception of this supremely talented, yet seemingly enigmatic, individual. The Australian public are hardly a forgiving group, and arguably scrutinise and debate the national cricket team more than anything else in the country.
Yet through eight Tests of purely electrifying fast bowling, Johnson was able to prove all the doubters wrong. The man from Townsville almost single-handedly renewed hope and interest in Test cricket off the back of a disappointing Ashes series in England, with perhaps his most notable achievement making handlebar moustaches fashionable again for a brief period.
For long stretches of his career, Mitchell Johnson was an outcast and a public enemy. Now, more than five years removed from the Ashes series that revived his career, he lives as an sporting icon who embodies the hard-working Australian spirit. It is hard to point to one performance by an individual that has had as much of a lasting impact on his country’s culture than Mitchell Johnson’s, and for that he deserves every ounce of credit he gets.