Mitchell Johnson enjoyed many career highlights, none more so than infiltrating the English batting order with a magnificent bowling performance throughout the 2013/14 Ashes series in Australia as the twilight of his Test tenure loomed – perhaps much to the surprise of cricket fans around the world.
Behind Johnson being dropped from teams, his string of injuries, and brash media statements was a “once-in-a-lifetime-talent”, hand-picked by the great Dennis Lillee himself.
To those unconvinced by the pedestal that Johnson fans place him on today, you only have to read his new book, titled Resilient, to know that Johnson was a special type of cricketer. In spite of everything Johnson was labelled as by cricket fans and the relentless sports media worldwide, Johnson was somebody who never gave up, no matter what the cause.
Resilient tells the story about the Mitchell Johnson a lot of us never knew about. Beginning as a shy, down-to-earth teenager who just played cricket for fun, he became a remarkable player in the Australian cricket narrative. Some would argue that there are much more talented, reliable and accomplished bowlers that selectors should have focused on, but that argument can simply be quashed by the fact that Johnson didn’t have to work hard to catch the eye of Dennis Lillee that day – he was born with a natural talent.
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The Queensland-born cricketer took a liking to tennis before succumbing to cricket, touring around the Sunshine State as a teenager with a dream to play at Wimbledon. It wasn’t until his later teenage years that he decided to “throw it in” and try something new.
In Brisbane on his book tour, Johnson recalls the moment he was hand-picked by Lillee at a Queensland bowling trial, putting his start in cricket down to one thing: pure luck.
“I was always missing [cricket] trials because I was playing tennis. At that stage, though, playing tennis was on the outer and cricket was cricket,” Johnson says.
“I played on the weekend and had fun with the boys and never expected anything out of it. I feel like I was so lucky to get that opportunity [at the trial] because not many people get that chance where one day you’re bowling and Dennis Lillee takes notice of you.
“Two months later I was playing in England with the Under 19s. It was a whirlwind and a great experience but I was very lucky. I still pinch myself because it could have gone either way, I could have been in the army or been in Townsville still doing who-knows-what.”
Things weren’t always in favour of the former Aussie quick. Johnson was dropped from the Australian team and lost his contract with Queensland Cricket after battling a string of back injuries which went hand-in-hand with low-standard bowling performances.
The media, harsh in their judgement of the young cricketer, penned articles that would motivate Johnson to play cricket more than ever before and soon, he regained his state contract.
“Being dropped from Queensland was the biggest moment for me, I went home for a month and back to Townsville and spoke to my dad and he said, ‘you don’t want to have any regrets, go and give it another crack’, because I was pretty down at the time,” he reveals.
“I had four stress fractures and was told I possibly needed an operation on my back. It was a big turning moment for me. I realised then that I’m going to need to work hard here and I definitely grew up after that and saw the light I guess.
“I saw some of the Aussie players like Matty Hayden coming back from training and doing extra training and wondering why. Then I realised that that is why he plays for Australia because he does the extra stuff.
“But losing that contract and working as a delivery driver for a plumbing company was something I enjoyed at the time but at the same time it made me realise that that’s not what I want to go back to. It’s not me.
“I worked really hard in the mornings and went back to training in the afternoon. I had to be really patient and just make sure I got everything right to get back into the team because I had that goal to get playing for Australia again. I think there’s a couple of things that definitely drove me to regain my contract and media was definitely one of them.”
After breaking into the Australian Test side during the 2007/08 summer, and starring in home and away series against South Africa a year later, Johnson was selected to play for the 2009 Ashes series in England.
The English side completely white-washed the Aussies, with the British media lapping up the opportunity to throw shade at the Aussie players, with Mitchell Johnson bearing the brunt of their vitriol. The tearaway who had raced to 100 Test wickets in just 23 matches struggled to deal with the overwhelming scrutiny.
Johnson’s says he’s happy to finally tell his side of the story of what really went through his mind during the ’09 Ashes period.
“Cricket and sport is based on performances, and as a bowler, you’re looked at as getting wickets, you need to get wickets – that’s the whole goal but it’s not always the case.
“The 2009 Ashes series were where things started to kick off with the English journos and that was part of it. That’s what the Ashes series is all about, but the Ashes is about the off-field stuff as well.
“It can get to you, it definitely got to me. I definitely felt like a lot of it was personal and it certainly was, and that’s what I didn’t like about it, that it was more the personal stuff more than anything.
“As I grew as a player and a person I was able to understand the media a lot more. I was definitely believing things early on and I got over that hurdle. It’s nice to be able to tell my side of the story.”
After another humiliating Ashes series for Australia during the next home summer and a tirade of negative stories published about the bowling attack, Johnson had an up-and-down couple of years and was left out of the side to tour England in 2013.
But he was recalled for the 2013/14 Ashes squad, where he had a final opportunity to show the British and their Barmy Army exactly what he was made of in the first Test in Brisbane at the Gabba.
“I love how the book starts because it starts with what was going through my mind during the Ashes series and I was pretty nervous but confident as well,” Johnson says.
“I had to keep that positivity up and I was really excited to be playing again but there was a little bit of doubt in the back of my mind. I tried to block it out the first three overs and it wasn’t that it didn’t feel good, it was that it didn’t come out the way I wanted but it was a pretty big moment to come back in my second spell.
“That’s when it really started to kick off. I squared Jonathan Trott up early with the short ball and that got my flow going early before the break. I always say the bowling group we had was awesome because we all did our part, we all stuck to it the whole trip.
“I always go back to Peter Siddle and what he did because he didn’t get the amount of wickets or the amount of accolades that he should have got because he did a really good job throughout that whole series and didn’t complain once. He just stood up to the mark, did his job, worked hard and got the rewards and Lyon and Harris as well.
“It was a huge bowling effort and that’s what I’m proud of the most, it allowed me to do what I did.”
Johnson’s 37-wicket haul in the five Ashes Tests wasn’t the only thing spectators were talking about. He sported an aggressive, Lillee-like moustache to give him an extra boost of confidence in order for the quick to unleash the bowling he had been working on since his previous Ashes appearance. The mo’ fast became a famous icon of Aussie cricket that summer.
“Ever since I grew that mo’, that’s where everything changed. I decided to actually tell myself, ‘I am the best bowler’.
“It sounds a bit full of yourself but you have to give yourself a pat on the back and that’s what I did, I kept believing in myself and just went out there and played my game.
“I bowled the way I wanted to bowl. If it didn’t work out the way I had wanted it to, I still would have been happy with it, but fortunately, it worked.”
The retired cricketer says in his book that there is a lot more that goes into a wicket than we see on the screens, attesting that more statistics should be shown to the general public for them to get an understanding of the process it takes to get wickets.
“People might get more of an understanding of the process that the guys are trying to work on,” he says.
“There are situations when I was told just to bowl short and told not to worry about getting wickets but rather to be really attacking. You might pick up a wicket but there’s guys like Ryan Harris or Peter Siddle at the other end bowling just to try to get the nicks.
“There’s a lot of talk about statistics and sports science in this area – but I think we’re not using all of the statistics.”
Johnson played on for another two years – including a World Cup triumph in Australia and a largely disappointing Ashes farewell in England in 2015 – before retiring with two appearances against New Zealand back on home soil last summer, leaving behind a record of 313 wickets from 73 Tests and one memorable Test century.
Mitchell Johnson played his final international match in November 2015. pic.twitter.com/ZqBPkPPEem
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It has given him time to concentrate on writing Resilient, but he admits that writing a book was never on the cards. Johnson says it was Ricky Ponting who persuaded him mid-career to keep a diary of memories from tours.
“I definitely didn’t think about writing a book in my career.
“I remember Ricky Ponting mid-way through my career saying to me that I should write down everything that goes on on tour, or little things that have happened because I won’t remember anything, and I said, ‘well I’m never gonna write a book’, and he said ‘you’d be surprised!’
“So it was probably about two years ago that it came about and like I said I’m glad it came about, I was finished my career and I could get everything out.”
Signed to play for the Perth Scorchers in the KFC Big Bash League this season, Johnson reflects on what he will be doing next.
“I’ll hopefully play a couple of club cricket games but playing for the Scorchers is on the cards now.
“I spoke to Justin Langer about playing for the Scorchers early on in the year and he was really keen on having me around the team and play and even if I don’t play then just to be around the team.
“It’s weird for a bowler to have such a big break because last time I bowled was in April 2016 in the IPL so I haven’t bowled for a long time and as a bowler you need to keep bowling. I need to keep bowling.”
Johnson hopes that his book can help future cricketing generations see things from his point of view, and ultimately find the courage to tackle hurdles that come their way.
“I hope the next generation can read this book so it can hopefully help them in some way and give them an understanding of what playing professional cricket is like – that’s what it’s all about.”