What gave Mitchell Johnson his Lakshya?
Let the mind games begin – this slight modification to the popular adage is extremely apt when a big ticket series is about to kick-off, the upcoming India-Australia Test series being no exception. The enigma named Mitchell Johnson has been ‘rested’ for the remainder of the ODI series against South Africa, to keep him ‘fresh’ for India, in what can only be a not-so-veiled threat issued to the tourists. After blowing away most opposition in recent times, Johnson now trains his focus on a country which probably kick-started an unbelievable turnaround in his career that was going nowhere a couple of years back.
It’s no secret that Johnson’s Test career has been mercurial, definitely so in its early stages. In fact, a few parallels can be drawn between the enigmatic left-hander and the protagonist of a popular Bollywood movie, Lakshya. The character, akin to a rudderless boat, flits through life without any seriousness, joins the army for the heck of it but runs away in the middle of training. The epoch event which transformed him was being dumped by his aspiring journalist-girlfriend, and the humiliation spurs him into sharp focus. The man returns to the army, accepts punishment for indiscipline, excels at training and in an edge-of-the-seat climax, leads a successful mission against extremists (inspired by events of the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan).
Getting back to Johnson, the man was always an exceptional talent, impressing one and all with raw pace when he burst onto the Australian domestic scene in 1998-99. The southpaw’s tendency to be inconsistent made him wait eight more years before making Test debut in 2007. Despite being one of the quickest bowlers in the world, his attitude was questionable, and the focus seemed missing.
Even by his erratic standards, Johnson’s record was abysmal between 2011-IPL 2013, where he averaged 40+ with the ball even in helpful conditions. In hindsight, the 2013 Indian Summer was the epoch event in Johnson’s career, which transformed him into one of the most potent weapons in Test cricket today.
Despite being a part of Australian squad touring India for the 2012-13 Border Gavaskar series, Johnson was ignored for the first two Tests in favor of younger players like James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Moises Henriques. Then came the famous ‘Homeworkgate’ saga, where he was officially axed by coach Mickey Arthur for the third Test, along with Vice-Captain Shane Watson, Pattinson and Usman Khawaja, for failing to submit a presentation on points to improve upon, after defeats in the first two Tests.
The incident may well have been the girlfriend-dump equivalent of the aforementioned movie, because Johnson was absolutely devastated. In an interview with cricket.com.au, the Queenslander called it the lowest point of his career and revealed his apathy towards playing cricket at that time. The shock-treatment may well have galvanized him into a more focused unit, replacing his alleged casual approach with steely grit. There was no Bollywood-style immediate redemption though, as he went wicket-less in the fourth Test, and like most of his teammates, was left licking wounds of a 0-4 humiliation.
About 10 days later, IPL 2013 kicked off – and the story began to change. As part of the Mumbai Indians, Johnson was able to ideally channelize the pain emanating from his bruised ego. Easy access to cricketing greats like Sachin Tendulkar and newly appointed mentor Anil Kumble must have played its part as well. Johnson startled with his pace and accuracy on benign tracks, emerging as the 3rd highest wicket-taker in the tournament, with 24 scalps, at 19.12 apiece. He was particularly impressive during the business end, and was instrumental in driving the franchise to their maiden IPL triumph.
Johnson has played 10 Tests after IPL 2013, and a comparison with 10 Tests immediately before the tournament (dating back to Jan 2011) presents a staggering contrast:
The southpaw’s destructiveness against England in the 2013-14 Ashes is well documented – 37 wickets in 5 Tests at a below-14 average are phenomenal statistics. Beyond these numbers, he struck fear in the hearts of the Englishmen, practically ended the career of one of their best batsmen, and was the subject of recurring nightmares in the English dressing room.
The fiery quick was almost as lethal against South Africa in their own backyard, winning the much-touted pace battle against Dale Steyn with ease and inflicting a rare series defeat against the Proteas at home.
Johnson even walked away relatively unscathed from the recent mauling Aussies suffered at the hands of a resurgent Pakistan in UAE, finishing as the highest wicket-taker among quicks on either side.
While it’s difficult to identify the exact moment of his turnaround, a concoction of bad-cop-good-cop (Mickey Arthur would definitely be his bad-cop while seniors at Mumbai Indians undoubtedly provided the balm) injections in quick succession, in addition to deep introspection post Homeworkgate, surely helped the man find his Lakshya.
The last time Johnson played a Test series in Australia, he blew away everything in sight. This time around, the Australians are seeking redemption on multiple counts. Redemption from the 0-4 thrashing the last time these teams met; redemption from the 0-2 surrender against Pakistan. They are bound to come hard at the Indians. At the heart of the onslaught will be a man possibly at the peak of his physical and mental abilities. A man wired into sharp focus by a heady cocktail of shock-therapy and clever mentoring. A man India cannot afford to take lightly.