'They were all scared': When Mitch Johnson crushed England

A decade on from one of the most dominant individual performances in Test history, we trace the origins of Mitchell Johnson's remarkable comeback

Every Mitchell Johnson wicket from the 2013-14 Ashes

Stuart Broad is standing in the middle of the Gabba, midway through day two of the opening Ashes Test of 2013-14. Public enemy number one, Broad has thus far handled the vitriol hurled his way from the enthusiastic locals impressively, taking 6-81 in Australia's first innings of 295. 

Now, with bat in hand, he has survived a hat-trick ball and negotiated his first 11 deliveries – all from off-spinner Nathan Lyon – for four runs. 

He has also spectated from the other end as Joe Root and Graeme Swann have fallen in quick succession, becoming Mitchell Johnson's third and fourth victims and leaving England in all sorts of bother at 8-91.

Now it is his turn to face up to Johnson, who is bowling rapidly, and has teamed up with Lyon to force a remarkable collapse of 6-9.

Once a source of mirth on the other side of the Ashes divide, there is nothing humorous about the left-armer from an English perspective right now. 

Broad takes guard.

"His first ball is round the wicket – tough angle, bumper," Broad tells "And I remember thinking: I haven't seen that. If that was dead straight, that was just hitting me.

"It was a blink-of-an-eye thing, and (wicketkeeper Brad) Haddin took the ball."

A short time later, he is struck on the helmet. He continues hopping around the crease, but ultimately survives as Johnson aims a sustained spell of short-pitched bowling at the England tailender, who even manages to cobble 10 runs from the 17 balls he receives. He is the last man out, to Peter Siddle, as England fold for 136.

From the Vault: Johnson destroys England at the Gabba

In their second innings, Australia build an enormous advantage, then Johnson again dominates with the ball, this time taking 5-42 and dismissing Broad from the first ball he bowls to him as the hosts wrap up a 381-run victory. But it is that first spell that sticks with the veteran England quick. 

"I hadn't experienced that sort of pace before," he says. "It's quite cool, in a way, to go, 'I've faced one of the quickest spells of all time' – because you've got Ian Bell, Joe Root coming in and going, 'Wow, that's rapid'. But also, no interest in doing it again."

* * *

Trace the Johnson arc back two years from that Ashes Test, to late November 2011, and the enigmatic paceman was cooked. 

With his mental state in even worse shape than his severely damaged left big toe, and a bowling action that barely resembled the one on which he had built his success, the 30-year-old had come home from a tour of South Africa and decided – albeit briefly – he wanted nothing to do with cricket.

Practically speaking, surgery on the toe and a 4-5 month recovery period meant his hand was forced, but Johnson was relishing the opportunity to take some time away from the game. In the 18 months prior, he had been a shadow of his once world-beating self, taking 35 Test wickets at 45.71. 

Soon enough however, his competitive instincts kicked into gear once again. A home summer out of the game had left him stewing on a feeling of unfinished business. There were others, too, who believed he still had more to give Australian cricket. 

One such figure was Western Australian legend John Inverarity, who had just been installed as the national chairman of selectors. The timing of that was fortuitous for Johnson. Inverarity had been standing next to Rod Marsh on Adelaide Oval No.2 around Easter 1999, when his former WA teammate took that now mythical phone call from Dennis Lillee, who had spotted Johnson at an underage talent camp in Brisbane. "I've found one," Lillee told Marsh of the scruffy teen from Townsville he would soon label a "once in a generation" talent. 

"The next day we were doing some batting drills," Inverarity recalls, "and he had just the most beautiful bat swing; when he played well he was a beautiful batsman, too."

John Inverarity chats to Johnson at a training session at the MCG in 2012 // Getty

As well as knowing Johnson's backstory intimately, the selection chair had witnessed the more recent history of the left-armer ripping through England's middle order at the WACA Ground in December 2010. He was also in the loop as to Johnson's state of mind at the time.

"I actually went to Johannesburg for that Test series (in November 2011) as part of my transition into the role," Inverarity tells "I was on the same flight as Mitch's wife, Jess, who was going over to surprise him because he was so down."

While some were already looking ahead to the exciting new generation of quicks emerging, led by James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins, Inverarity firmly believed Johnson had plenty left to give. To ensure that happened, he knew who he needed to speak with. 

"Dennis had been instrumental early on with Mitch, and he was an absolute expert on him," he says. "I was able to help get them together again."

Lillee had watched his protégé in South Africa, and had not liked what he'd seen. He remembers receiving the call from Inverarity, as he details in Johnson's autobiography, Resilient. 

"He said, 'Can you help Mitch?' I said, 'I am sure I can, I know his action like the back of my hand. It's gone to pieces'."

Lillee, though, didn't see the point in offering his expertise until Johnson was super fit. The time off had cost him in that regard even if it had helped refresh him mentally. Yet Johnson had never been afraid of hard work. In what proved a decisive move, he joined The Mill Gym in North Fremantle, found both inspiration and perspective from the ex-SAS officers who worked there, and got the results.

Dennis Lillee with James Pattinson at the WACA Ground in 2013 // Getty

"I was jumping out of my skin by the time (Lillee) agreed to work with me in the nets," Johnson wrote in Resilient. "I was fitter than I had been in all my life."

Yet with the Perth summer rolling into autumn, an availability of turf wickets around the city became the next problem. 

Inverarity, a former headmaster at Hale College, contacted his old school and arranged for a centre wicket with a net around it to be prepared for the returning quick. 

"And that's where they worked together," he smiles, "and the close bond re-emerged between the two of them." 

"The work I did with Dennis was invaluable," Johnson wrote. "Pretty soon I reckon I was bowling 10kph faster than I had been for the past 12 months."

In May 2012, when Inverarity announced the Australia ODI squad for a series in the UK summer, Johnson's inclusion was labelled a "shock" by the national media. 

Yet the selection chair knew what others didn't.

"I've seen him bowling in the nets recently," he said. "We have very high expectations that he will come back, and come back extremely well."

* * *

In a hotel lobby in London, in June 2013, Inverarity and Johnson had an important discussion. The ICC Champions Trophy had just finished, and an Australia A squad for a multi-format tour of South Africa and Zimbabwe across July-August was set to be named.

Johnson had played four Tests in the previous nine months but just one in the marquee series in India, and he hadn't been named as part of the squad for the upcoming Ashes battle. 

"Cricket Australia was keen to send him to South Africa," Inverarity recalls. "I said to him, 'The options are you can go, or you can be at home with your wife and your little child, get yourself fit, and spend some more time with Dennis. Which do you want to do?'

"He wanted to go home, so I pushed hard for that to happen, and I think he was grateful for that."

It was another crucial call that paved the way for what was to come. Johnson spent six weeks at home. When he returned to the UK for a one-day series against England, he was fresh. Intent on proving a point to those who had doubted him – and perhaps even to himself – he was also formidable. 

Johnson celebrates dismissing Jonathan Trott for a duck in an ODI in September 2013 // Getty

"I bowled really fast in that series and I used the short ball better than I ever had in England," he wrote. "I got inside their heads and it was glaringly obvious that Jonathan Trott really didn't know what to do when I pitched it short … there was talk that he'd lost his nerve and couldn't face me again.

"I didn't get a lot of wickets in the series but I bowled with real aggression and everybody could see that the batsmen didn't like it."

In October, Johnson spent three weeks in India for an ODI series. On batter-friendly pitches, he again bowled with express pace, and his teammates lined up to praise him.

"Mitch is a lot quicker than he was," said Haddin. "He's at the height of his game at the moment. In India he was very, very quick."

Added Ryan Harris: "I think he's back to his best. Speak to any of the batsmen – bowling at the pace he does, no-one likes it. He's moving the ball a bit as well, so if he gets it right (in the Ashes), he's going to take a lot of wickets."

Australia's new head coach Darren Lehmann felt the same. Johnson was pulled out of India early so he could play a Sheffield Shield match against South Australia, a move that confirmed Lehmann and his fellow selectors had him squarely on their radar.

On November 6, he lined up at the WACA Ground for his first first-class match in almost eight months. Across the four days, he got through 37.4 overs, took five wickets, and had another five chances dropped.

Sam Raphael trudges off after being dismissed by Mitch Johnson in a Sheffield Shield match in November 2013 // Getty

"I faced a decent amount of him in that first innings, and he was bowling fast," recalls Sam Raphael, who was opening for SA. "'Hughesy' (opening partner Phillip Hughes) was just like, 'You've gotta be on against him – gotta be sharp'.

"In the second innings, I wasn't quite sharp enough. We had to come out late in the afternoon, and Hughesy pulled rank and I had to take the first pill.

"Mitch came steaming in, and he blew my front pad off before I even knew what was happening."

For Johnson, it was another box ticked on the way to something bigger.


And so back to Brisbane. Skipper Michael Clarke has seen more than most of Johnson's gradual return to top form, and he raises eyebrows when, in the build-up to the opening Test, he suggests he won't be surprised if the tearaway finishes the Ashes as player of the series.

By then, the brains trust already has its plan in place. Clarke has a specific way he wants to use Johnson – short spells of fast, frightening bowling – and it aligns perfectly with how the paceman believes he can be most effective.

Saturday Seed: Fiery Johnson crashes Cook's stumps

"When I came back (from his toe injury) I had said to myself that I was here to bowl fast and to intimidate batsmen," Johnson wrote. "Guess what? They wanted me to bowl fast and hard. They wanted me to rough up the Poms, especially the tail."

The UK press, perhaps still buoyant from a 3-0 Ashes win at home in the northern summer, seems less convinced than the Australia captain. 

"At the moment, Johnson's confidence is considerably higher than his bowling arm (which for all the guff talked about it, looks scarcely more elevated than ever it was) but were that to be dented, it could leave Michael Clarke bereft of the control that even fancy field placings could not rectify," wrote Mike Selvey in the Guardian. 

"There is still some doubt too about Johnson's capacity to produce his pace throughout a Test match day."

On November 22, the second day of the series, Johnson makes a mockery of such concerns. Steve Smith senses he has gone up another level during his first three-over burst, which is fast and a little wayward. 

"The ball was coming out quick," Smith tells "He was fiery, he was up for it."

Johnson returns for three more overs before lunch, but with Trott at the crease and the interval only minutes away, Clarke tells him to bowl another.

Johnson celebrates the wicket of Trott on day two at the Gabba in 2013 // Getty

It takes one ball. Trott ducks inside the line and edges down leg side, through to Haddin. England are 2-55 and the Johnson Plan is away.

"When he got Jonathan Trott out off the glove down the leg side," recalls Smith, "you could see the ball zinging through and you just thought: Wow, he's bowling some good pace here. This is going to be uncomfortable for them."

Standing at point, Nathan Lyon senses it too. 

"I felt something move at the Gabba," he tells "Just his body language. The energy he was putting on the ball. It was something pretty spectacular."

In the England dressing room, the tension mounts as it becomes clear the best of Johnson has re-emerged. 

"He had found himself," wrote Kevin Pietersen in his autobiography, KP. "He had found an inner peace, and he knew that he had control. He knew the power of his aggression. He knew we feared him being nasty. He knew not to switch it off.

"I was sitting there thinking: I could die here in the f---ing Gabbatoir. How could 'Trotty', this calm, collected buddy of mine, play like that? Get hit like that? Get out like that? I was really worried."

Australians remember Mitch Johnson's Ashes

Beside Lyon, at gully, David Warner can't help but enjoy the show. 

"I was laughing my head off," he grins. "They were all scared."

Johnson is player of the match with nine wickets as Australia win the Test.

"My pride was dented," Pietersen wrote. "Trotty was in shreds. The tail-enders were scared. 'Cooky' (Alastair Cook) was dithering. It was clear that Johnson was already a weapon that we had no answer to."

Ten days later, there is more of the same in the second Test in Adelaide, as Johnson rips England apart with a first-innings haul of 7-40. And so it continues through to Sydney, where a 5-0 whitewash is completed and Clarke's prediction comes to fruition regarding the player of the series, who has taken 37 wickets at 13.97.

"'Johnno really stamped his authority on that series in Brisbane," Warner remembers. "He set the tone … and it just flowed on from there." 

A strong England side is left to pick up the pieces. None of Trott, Graeme Swann, Matt Prior or Joe Root play the whole series. Pietersen never plays Test cricket again. Head coach Andy Flower resigns. And much of it has to do with Johnson. 

"He was incredible," Broad says. "Quite comfortably, the quickest prolonged spell of bowling for five Test matches I've ever seen."

Mitch Johnson’s thunderbolts at the Gabba, 2013