Reborn Johnson evokes Lillee
Mitchell Johnson (AP Photo)
Sydney - The astonishing revival of Mitchell Johnson has put Australia one win from the reclaiming the Ashes and evoked the bygone era of lethal quicks Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson 40 years ago.
A popular saying during the 1974-75 series was, "Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust, if Thomson doesn't get ya, Lillee must", such was their destructive impact on Mike Denness's visiting England side.
Roll on to the current series and Johnson, the left-armer with Lillee's 1970s-style moustache, is enjoying a similar role with 17 wickets at 12.70 in back-to-back man-of-the-match performances.
Johnson snatched nine wickets as England crashed to a 381-run defeat in the first Test in Brisbane, and in the second Test in Adelaide, he produced one of the great Ashes spells.
Johnson ripped the heart out of the England first innings with a spell of six wickets for 16 off 26 balls, on the way to taking seven for 40 and a 218-run victory for Australia.
With England now 2-0 down in the five-Test series, Johnson has largely precipitated England's demise as they scramble to stay alive this week in Perth.
It has been some turnaround for Johnson, 32, who is now Australia's 10th all-time Test wicket-taker with 222 and the promise of more to come in the remaining three Tests.
On England's last tour to Australia, Johnson was left out of the second Adelaide Test after spraying the ball around the Gabba in a wayward display that drew taunts from England's Barmy Army fans.
Johnson admits the goading dented his confidence, but now the wheel has turned and he is putting the frighteners on England with his hostile, short-pitched bowling.
Lillee, who once described Johnson, then a raw 17-year-old from Townsville, as a "once-in-a-generation bowler," works closely with his protege.
In one example, Lillee has encouraged Johnson on long jogs to build the fitness needed for the lengthier run-up he has used since returning last year from a career-threatening toe injury.
While Lillee has been a key element in Johnson's development, it's been a group effort getting Johnson to fulfil his undoubted potential.
Adam Griffith, his bowling coach at Western Australia, has been working on getting him to run in straighter, staying tall at the crease and remaining high in his follow-through.
Terry Alderman, who took 41 English wickets in the 1989 Ashes, gave advice on his wrist position, while Troy Cooley, head coach at Cricket Australia's Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, has been concentrating on his run-up.
"He's running in nice and hard now, and he's relaxed. It's his game sense now, and he's got himself very fit again. He's taking good responsibility for himself, and that's why he's bowling so well," Cooley said.
"This is him. When he's fit and strong he bowls beautifully."
Johnson could be the fastest bowler in world cricket at the moment. He has frequently broken the 150 kilometres (93 miles) per hour mark during this series, and could go even faster in Perth with the prevailing 'Fremantle Doctor' breeze coming in over his shoulder.
"When I sit back and look at it, I felt like my run-up rhythm was the best it's ever been. I've lengthened my run-up since coming back from my toe injury," Johnson said.
"That's made a big difference. I just feel like I'm getting better momentum through the crease and being able to hit those speeds without applying myself or forcing it. It feels pretty good."
Australia captain Michael Clarke has also been using Johnson in shorter spells, which has allowed him to bowl at a higher intensity.
"He has always been an X-factor, with bat and ball. He's as good an athlete in the field as you'll see," Clarke said.
"Mitch has always had that. It's just about working out how to use him best in your team."
Another remedial factor are changes in Johnson's personal life. Shy off the pitch, his struggles away from cricket were well known.
Two years ago a public feud with his mother ended with her being excluded from his wedding to Jessica Bratich, a former karate athlete.
Now, bridges rebuilt, he has a wife who understands the pressures of elite sport and a young daughter, Rubika, who provides the perfect escape.
Thomson, whose bowling style Johnson's most resembles, likes what he is seeing from the dynamic paceman in this Ashes series.
"It really was shades of 74," Thomson said after Adelaide.
"I was really pleased for him. He was superb. The Poms (England) are used to playing on flat decks but they are not used to having to play backfoot cricket and he exposed that.
"He made the rest of the bowlers look like medium-pacers. It's great to see a bit of feeling back in the game. It was old-fashioned cricket."