There was much made of Mitchell Johnson’s psychological state after he was left out of the Australia team for the second Test against England in Adelaide. Well, if he was, and is, as a broad range of pundits agreed, so mentally fragile, then the rest of us should probably be sectioned, strapped to a dolley by a butch porter straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and have delivered to the temporal lobe a bruising dose of electro-convulsive therapy.
In one sense those pundits had every reason to presume that what was coming out of his mind was not calibrated with what was going in, but they were wrong in tracing it to one wayward performance at Brisbane, where the supposed firebrand of the home team’s attack disappeared for 170 runs from 44 overs in which he was barely able to set a trap for a potential victim let alone snare one and take it home for grilling on the Mitchell family barbecue.
It was more the panicky response of the Australian selectors, desperate for a scapegoat after a lacklustre performance by the team at one of their strongholds, that had the press pack poking about for the really dark stuff amid Mitchell’s grey matter.
First, there were rumours that he was to be left out of the squad for the Adelaide Oval altogether, then that he had been dropped – or rested, you choose how you perceive it – from the final XI; then he was paraded in front of a press conference to explain his situation, the assumption being that he would be directed to remedial work in the nets or discharged to regain confidence in Shield cricket in Western Australia. Instead he was wheeled out as twelfth man midway through the second Test where, barring a spot of nimble footwork and upper body athleticism to pull off the unexpected dismissal of one of England’s run-greedy batsman, it was impossible for him to improve his standing.
Exposed, in the midst of his misery on the long-on boundary, to the prying eyes of 40,000 spectators at the ground and millions more watching on television this lost soul of an Australian sportsman appeared to be the cricketing equivalent of a hungry ghost.
That would be enough to knock the toothy grin off even the most stoic of sporting faces.
But far from running sobbing to the funny farm, the toothy grin remained firmly fixed as the focal point of the Mitchell visage and redemption remained firmly fixed in that much-maligned mind.
For the truth is that Johnson, an easy target perhaps because of the simpleness of his smile, perhaps because of the troublesome aesthetics of his action and perhaps, more tellingly, because of the smothering mothering that is so regularly played out in public, is not so much a casualty of mental fragility as one of technical fragility.
Statistics may not always support your argument as readily as you would like, but even a hurried perusal of Johnson’s figures lend at least some vindication to the view that his every bowling breakdown is repaired swiftly by his internal RAC.
The evidence m’lud: in his fourth Test, against India in Sydney, match figures of two for 181 and an associated strike rate of a wicket every 144 balls, gave way to returns of five for 144 and six for 159, at respective strike rates of 46 and 53, at Perth and Adelaide; subsequently bowling that brought him five wickets in total at a cost of more than 250 in Tests against the West Indies in Jamaica and Antigua were somewhat offset by figures of five for 113 at Kensington Oval.
More remarkably, returns of four for 165 and one for 106, with respective strike rates of 66 and 276, against India in Delhi and Nagpur in October and November 2008, were counterbalanced by figures of nine for 69 and five for 85 against New Zealand and 11 for 159 in the first match of the home series against South Africa only weeks later. When Sydney and Melbourne brought much slimmer pickings, Johnson got back on his pick-up truck to take eight for 137 as the two teams crossed continents to South Africa.
Most consequential, though, for England fans, who laughed him out of Lord’s last year on the back of a lamentable return of three for 200 from 38.4 overs and an only slightly improved two for 92 at Edgbaston, was his response in Leeds, where his pace and bounce ripped out the home side to give him six for 99 and put the destination of the Ashes in serious doubt.
Now, it appears, he has done the same at Perth, admittedly one of his better stamping grounds, figures of eight for 66 with, conceivably, five more England wickets to be added to that tally, helping to put the rigours of Brisbane and Adelaide behind him.
Yet if pace and bounce were his allies in that towering victory of 2009 at Headingley, it has been the rediscovery of the late swing that we were told was so pivotal to Australia’s series victory in South Africa – and which, I confess, I had, until the first innings at the Waca, failed to acknowledge was truly a part of his armoury – that has re-established him as one of the key figures of this Ashes winter.
That he was able to put the ball on a length and line to begin with, rather than spraying it wide of Brad Haddin on too many occasions, must have convinced him that the mechanics of his technique, so often unwieldy, were in improved working order.
From that base, he began to swing the ball viciously, and terrifyingly late, to dismiss the cream of the England batting. And yet it dipped and swerved not from an orthodox seam position and with little regard for the position of the shiny side of the ball. That must have confused the tourists, who watched a ball, delivered regularly with a cross seam, wobble awkwardly before jagging back in in defiance of at least a few of the laws of the physics.
It signaled that it was time for Mitchell to come off the anti-depressants and enough to leave England addressing their own issues of mental health.