Had things worked out differently, Mitchell Johnson could well have been dodging bullets in Afghanistan rather than firing the opening salvo of the Ashes against England. It was a decade ago that the 27-year-old was first spotted at a bowling academy in Brisbane just as he was thinking of joining his schoolmates in signing up for the army. As things turned out, former Test pace great Dennis Lillee hailed the youngster as a "once-in-a-lifetime prospect" at the academy and there were no second thoughts on his career choices.
Following a difficult spell after such early promise, which included a battle against back problems, left-armer Johnson is now very much in the frame to lead the tourists' attack. "I grew up in Townsville, which had an army barracks there," the Queensland native recalled. "When I left high school, I had around half-a-year out - and a lot of my mates were joining the army. I was close to joining up as well. But then the opportunity came to go down to a fast-bowling clinic, where Dennis found me.
"One of my mates was a tank driver, and a couple of them have been to Afghanistan and Iraq - where they have been shot at - which is all pretty scary." Johnson was on the periphery of the Australian squad for the last Ashes series and cannot wait to get started this time where he is the only certainty among the bowlers as coach Tim Nielsen's worries increase. Against Sussex in the warm-up game, the amount of no-balls being bowled have been alarming and Nathan Hauritz, the lone specialist off-spinner in the side, has been totally off-colour on a spin-friendly wicket.
Nielsen was furious that 22 no-balls were bowled in the first innings. Brett Lee bowled eight no balls, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus on five occasions each and even Hauritz crossed the line three times. * With agencies