Taking in the view from outside the home team’s dressing room at the WACA Ground, Mitchell Johnson can still visualise the moment that now effectively defines a career that has known spectacular success littered with the occasional bout of doubt-inducing lows.
Gazing, unblinking, into a perfect Perth morning he can’t help but smile as he recalls the final delivery of his most recent Test match at his adopted home ground.
The short ball fired into the ribs of England tailender James Anderson, the resultant catch that bobbed to George Bailey stationed just beneath the batsman’s right armpit, the moment’s hesitation as realisation of what it all meant slowly sunk in, then unbridled joy as Johnson and his euphoric teammates welcomed back the Ashes after they had spent five years in the hands of their arch rivals.
It was a spontaneous eruption six months in the planning, and one that Johnson doubted he would ever enjoy.
Especially after his experience in India nine months earlier when Australia’s most revered and celebrated bowler since the retirement of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne earnestly but regretfully believed life as an international cricketer was no longer something he wanted to pursue.
That awareness came to him in the wake of the now infamous ‘homework’ episode that led to four Australian players – Johnson included – being stood down from the third Test of the 2013 series against India for failing to complete a written assignment set by team management.
It’s a subject that has drawn endless scrutiny and prompted even more debate given that it ultimately led to the sacking of then coach Mickey Arthur and the installation of Darren Lehmann.
And it’s one that Johnson, whose naturally quiet-spoken and unassuming demeanour is at odds with the fiery fast-bowler character he has learned to play, volunteers to revisit when asked how noticeable was the change in Australia’s dressing room under the different regimes.
“I could feel it straight away,” he said when cricket.com.au caught up with him recently.
“I guess I go back to when it first started in India, with the homework issue as it became known.
“That was probably one of the lowest points of my career.
“I didn’t actually want to play cricket at that time. It was quite depressing.
“It didn’t feel like I was wanted and I had the feeling that I was being moved on.
“Deep down I felt like I still wanted to play for Australia, but I didn’t want to play in that environment.
“I’m not sure if I would have walked away from it, but I was definitely talking to my wife and to a few of the senior guys about it as well.
“It was pretty ordinary, it wasn’t enjoyable.
“That’s why you play the game and that’s what Darren (Lehmann) has brought back to it.”
The cultural change instituted under Lehmann was first telegraphed to Johnson, via text messages from senior players within the Test team, during the 2013 Ashes series in England.
When, on the strength of performances for the Mumbai Indians during last year’s IPL season that followed Australia’s disastrous Test tour of the sub-continent, Johnson was subsequently recalled to the national one-day line-up in England the pieces quickly and securely snapped into place.
“The one-dayers in England when I came back in was when I first noticed it, but I really noticed it during the (Australian) summer,” Johnson recalls.
“The training sessions that we had, there was meaning behind them.
“And then enjoyment on the field – everyone enjoys each other’s company.”
By the time the return Ashes series at home rolled around, Johnson was not just feeling a sense of belonging, he was more excited by what he saw than at any stage since he first joined a star-studded Australian touring party as a shy but clearly gifted 24-year-old in 2005.
“Let’s face it, playing cricket for your country is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it only happens for a short period so you have to enjoy it,” he said.
“When I first came in (to the Australian squad) I remember how exciting it was playing alongside guys I had looked up to, who are legends of the game – Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee, Matty Hayden, Justin Langer, guys like that.
“It was so awesome. And Darren has brought that back in, that excitement in the game.
“I never had any doubt that I could perform like that (the 2013-14 summer) but I would never have gone so far as to say I could get 37 wickets in an Ashes series - that’s a huge bonus.
“The bowling unit that we had in that series was a huge part of me being able to get those wickets, we just worked so well together.
“It was probably the best that I’ve felt in a bowling unit since I began playing for Australia.”
This article is part one of a three-part feature series Andrew Ramsey has written from a recent interview with Mitch Johnson.