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How much has Mitchell Johnson got left in the tank?

The Roar logo The Roar 20-08-2015 Glenn Mitchell
The end of Johnson’s career may well come quickly. © Sam Bagnall - AMA/Getty Images The end of Johnson’s career may well come quickly.

“I was sitting there, thinking, ‘I could die here in the f***ing Gabbattoir.” So wrote England batsman Kevin Pietersen in his autobiography KP, released late last year.

The thoughts entered his mind as he was watching Mitchell Johnson’s frightening assault on England number three Jonathan Trott, on the second day of the 2013-14 Ashes series Gabba Test.

“You very seldom hear people in your own team saying that they are physically scared, but our tail-end batsmen were scared,” Pietersen wrote.

“I heard (Stuart) Broad, (James) Anderson and (Graeme) Swann say they were scared. When you’ve got that, you know that a bloke in the other team is doing damage.”

That series ended in a whitewash, just the third time in the famous little urn’s history. Sadly for England, they have been on the receiving end each time.

The first two occasions were at the hands of great Australian teams – Warwick Armstrong’s 1920-21 side and the Ricky Ponting led side of 2006-07.

In 2013-14, Australia rode to a clean sweep on the coattails of Mitchell Johnson, who singlehandedly dismantled England’s batting – and in the process got into the minds of every one of their batsmen.

His performance provided a redolence of the 1974-75 Ashes series, when Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson destroyed England.

From the opening Test at the Gabba, where Johnson captured 9-103, the tourists had few answers.

His man of the series award was a fait accompli – 37 wickets at 13.97 across the five Tests, with three five-wicket-hauls, a best of 7-40 and a strike rate of 30.5.

It was an effort that sat comfortably in the pantheon of cricket’s greatest solo performances.

Johnson had become England’s nemesis, and he carried that form to South Africa in early 2014, where he captured 22 wickets at 17.4 across the three Tests.

Having arrived in the Old Dart on the back of averaging 18.6 with the ball in the twin-Test Caribbean series in June, he was once again on the lips of England’s fans, and no doubt its players too.

The broad-shouldered, moustachioed left-armer landed on English soil on the cusp of 300 Test wickets.

But would he provide the same menace? The man himself said “yes”.

Johnson was keen to start the mind games before the series began, saying in the Daily Mail of the last encounter, “You could see their batsmen scratching around at the crease, you could see the different movements in them and you could just sense something different about their blokes.

“The plan was to go hard at them and it worked. The short stuff made an impact.”

Mitchell Johnson of Australia celebrates after taking the wicket of Ben Stokes of England during day two of the 3rd Investec Ashes Test match at Edgbaston in Birmingham, United Kingdom. © Ryan Pierse/Getty Images Mitchell Johnson of Australia celebrates after taking the wicket of Ben Stokes of England during day two of the 3rd Investec Ashes Test match at Edgbaston in Birmingham, United Kingdom.

Last Australian summer, against India (where he averaged 35.5), the short ball and the outright hostility was largely missing from Johnson’s game.

He admitted prior to the current Ashes series that his pace last summer and through the Caribbean was down as a result of the Phil Hughes tragedy in November last year.

“We were definitely underprepared at that time and my pace was definitely off,” Johnson told the ABC. “I probably wasn’t fully right, fully mentally right at that time.”

He declared in the lead-in to the opening Test at Cardiff that he was ready to return to the tactics that had made him so devastating 18 months earlier – namely by bowling quick, with fire and menace.

Yet, on balance, through the opening four Tests of this series we have only seen glimpses of the Johnson of old.

Coming off match figures of 2-180 at Cardiff, the venom seemed to return during the second Test at Lord’s, with the likes of Ian Bell and Moeen Ali really given the hurry up.

In the third Test at Edgbaston he produced two snorters in the one over, with steepling deliveries clipping the gloves of both Johnny Bairstow and Ben Stokes en route to wicketkeeper Peter Nevill.

But the moments of outright pace and menace have been generally lacking, especially when you consider that the last two Tests have been played on pitches that have given the bowlers something, with both matches ending in two-and-a-half days.

Johnson is very much a confidence bowler. How he starts often determines how things will go. He is not the sort who can necessarily work his way back into the match after a flat start.

His success is also predicated on pace. And therein lies a problem for the selectors, as his numbers on the speed gun have fallen this series.

Johnson is not like Lillee or Richard Hadlee, who became masters of swing and cut in their later years when the rigours of the game saw their speed diminish.

Johnson is a bowler in the Thomson category – the key to success is outright pace. Both men also share the trait of not always knowing where the next ball was heading.

Johnson turns 34 in November, which for a bowler whose game is centred around pace, is old.

The end of Johnson’s career may well come quickly. When his body can no longer summon consistent pace, his main weapon will have been stripped away.

The final Ashes Test at The Oval will be played, by all accounts, on a pitch that will again provide the quicks with solace. Johnson will enter the match with 11 wickets at 39.8 from the series, and best figures of 3-27 at Lord’s.

He and the selectors will be hoping that he makes an impact.

The career of Mitchell Johnson is not yet over, but the signs perhaps are there.

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