The 21st century Dennis Lillee!

At his best Mitchell Johnson bowled fast and true, rockets of 90 miles an hour and quicker that threatened toes and stumps, produced ducks and ended careers.

Mitchell Johnson waves to the WACA crowd for one last time at the end of the Perth Test.   -  Getty Images

Mitchell Johnson made batsmen tremble with his undiluted pace.   -  REUTERS

It was too late for Mitchell Johnson to be called Magic Johnson like the basketball star; instead he produced delivery after delivery of the highest class, when he terrorised opposing batsmen and when he deserved his place at the top of the fast bowling pantheon.

There were other days when he was limited, a waster of a new ball, wild and wide and an almost comical, performer, ready to take his place in the Big Top among the clowns and mocked for his failures by England’s Barmy Army who needed no second invitation to denigrate a man who caused them so much pain.

Happily he finished his career — suddenly, unexpectedly and, I suspect, on a whim — mentioned as a worthy member of the Top Four Australian wicket grabbers and that is rightly how history will remember this serious contender for all the great honours.

The truth about Johnson is that he only ever wanted to bowl fast, to be the 21st century Dennis Lillee, to scatter stumps and cause batsmen to leap in the air like startled kangaroos. I am sure he could not visualise himself slowing to fast medium, learning control and subtle changes of pace and swing, tempting the batsman to edge chances to slip, producing the inswinger just when it was least expected or controlling the run rate with line and length in mid innings.

At his best Johnson bowled fast and true, rockets of 90 miles an hour and quicker that threatened toes and stumps, produced ducks and ended careers. He had a moustache in the Lillee mould, not just to remind us that he was a product of the MRF Pace Academy under Lillee but to scare the pads off any batsman of less than elite quality.



Michael Vaughan, who faced him as England captain, looked up to him as a great impact player even if he fell short of the sort of quality that demands a place in an all-time Australian side. When he hit rock bottom, as he did in several points of his tours of England, the home fans rubbished his performances in song.

He bowls to the left

He bowls to the right

That Mitchell Johnson

His bowling is s****

All right, the conclusion is far from socially or politically correct, but when sport is at its fiercest, as it always is between England and Australia, the crowd are surely entitled to tell their opponents exactly what they think of them; especially when they have paid £1,000 plus to get to a match in Australia or £100 a day to watch at Lord’s.

 

Johnson’s first reaction to his treatment by the Barmy Army was to rush to a psychiatrist but, luckily for him, his sense of humour kicked in to save him from a complete breakdown. Perhaps it was because the humour was Australian; you might almost say he enjoyed the ribald nature of his accusers; he might even have wondered if he could join in the chorus.

In the end he had his revenge in the best possible way by sending England batsmen back to the pavilion to tremble, to wondering during a sleepless night if their careers were at an end, thanks to the undiluted pace of a clown in white.

His victims were not just those batsmen wearing a look of complete bewilderment trudging back to the pavilion as if they had been sandbagged. According to Vaughan he was the man who changed the face of English cricket by forcing the departure of Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower.

This Vaughan theory is only part of the story. Pietersen had already upset many of his team-mates — much as they may care to deny the fact now — and I am sure that Flower has both the resilience and the coaching skills to make a comeback during the long autumn of his cricket life. I am just as sure both will be pleased to see the retirement notices Johnson has inspired recently at the end of a spell in which one major player after another has announced his farewell from the Australian side.

Before the 2013-14 matches in Australia those two had been the men who set the standard in the England dressing room but long before the end of those five Tests it was clear their days were numbered — all because of a left-arm quick bowler with pace to spare.

There has never been a lefty like him as he honed in on the leg stump with a variation that sent the ball searing towards the slips and left the batsman groping, only to edge it to one of several predatory fielders. When he was on song he was beautiful to watch; even when he was having an off day you could not tear your eyes away lest he produce another piece of magic. Now the Barmy Army have lost their target but they will never forget the greatness that was in Johnson. His total of 313 wickets was the fourth highest in Tests by an Australian, behind Lillee who had 355 victims, Glenn McGrath who has 563 and Shane Warne’s 708.

Lillee tipped Johnson for greatness right at the beginning of his career but his final place among the top Aussie bowlers was not achieved without spells of appalling rubbish.

Johnson also scored 2,065 runs, including an undefeated 123 but it was his 37 wickets in the 2013-14 Ashes series that underscored his ability to win a series on his own.

He has retired comparatively early at 34, leaving a long stretch of life ahead. What will he do? Teach youngsters in Australia, New Zealand and India like his mentor Lillee? That is difficult to imagine. Concentrate on charitable works like McGrath? Perhaps. Turn himself into a media man like Warne? Unlikely as the TV gantry and the radio studio are so full.

I wonder — and I know a bunch of Barmy Army lads who think this is possible — if he can find a place in the circus, paint his face red, white and blue, buy a pair of size 19 shoes and make a living as a clown.