If Australia needed a symbol for the entire traverse of their fortunes after the retirements of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and that great side, they might not find a better one than Mitchell Johnson.
Johnson’s Test debut, in November 2007, was Australia’s first after Warne and McGrath. For nearly two years as Australia transitioned and lost more gold from that generation, they still managed a decent set of results.
Occasionally they stumbled, but mostly they continued to float on a cloud of their own self-belief and, crucially, dark clouds of their opponents’ lack of belief: some teams, like Pakistan, just could not believe that Australia were beatable, despite standing on the verge of beating them.
Johnson was outstanding in those early years, in an obvious way. Of course he was special: he was Australian, a product of an environment that was churning out greats. He was one tale that emboldened that idea of Australianness in cricket.
Eventually, though, gravity reasserted itself. Australia lost the Ashes in 2009 and gradually, like the delicate but random descent of a feather, began to come down, swaying here, buffeted there, but undoubtedly coming down.
Johnson was equally the face of this moment as well, his own steep decline mirroring – and partly causing – that of his side’s. Until the first Ashes Test in the summer of 2009, Johnson had taken 94 wickets in 21 Tests, averaging 28 with the ball and nearly 35 with the bat.
Since then, he has taken well under four wickets per Test, averages over 33 with the ball and just 16 with bat.
Generally there are few things in life more inexplicable than a malfunctioning Australian fast bowler: with that kind of history, that amount of help, those conditions, how can one go wrong? There were technical issues, though nothing sounded more alluring a theory than the sympathetic but revealing assessment of Ricky Ponting in his recent autobiography.
“I never questioned his work ethic and commitment, but for someone so talented, such a natural cricketer and so gifted an athlete, I found his lack of self-belief astonishing,” he wrote.
For much of the last two years now Johnson had been forgotten as a Test prospect, overtaken by a whole new breed of young fast bowlers and only figuring in four of Australia’s last 24 Tests.
As much as he is back now on the basis of what he can do, his return to the Ashes is compelled upon Australia by who he is not; that is, that horde of young pacemen Australia just cannot keep fit enough to play Tests.
Yet still the faith holds. A heady kind of excitement is being whipped up about Johnson’s Test return.
Echoes of Jeff Thomson and his infamous hokum-pokum fright line – “I like to see blood on the pitch” – are beginning to verberate; Johnson may not take too many wickets, is the message, but he will hurt the English.
It is still easy to see why this is. Given their recent record (seven losses in their last nine Tests) and recent Ashes record (three series losses in a row and four out of the last five), Australia realistically go into this series more with hope than belief that they can win it.
That is exactly what Johnson and his impact have been about for some time: hope rather than belief.
Also, in his last two one-day international series, Johnson’s bowling – to take from Lord Beginner’s wonderful 1950 calypso on the West Indian spinners Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine – has been superfine.
Both in England and India, there has been a real snarl to Johnson’s bowling.
Not only has he been very quick, but he has been so with intent; at a visceral level at least, the evoking of Thomson’s bloodlust has not looked misplaced.
The risk is that Australia – and everyone else – are judging him on the wrong format.
His red-ball form is, at best, unknown and, at worst, sketchy. In his Test decline, his inability to control situations and runs has hurt him as much as anything; in his last four Tests he has leaked 3.55 runs an over, though he has also picked up 15 wickets.
Invariably he will take wickets – he has only ever had two wicketless Tests – but against a risk-eliminating, grind-happy side like England, the cost for each will be the key.