It's been a big week in sport, especially for cricket fans. After some monumental batting displays from Australia, New Zealand finally came to the party and we saw the highest total by an overseas batsman by Ross Taylor, and a real gem from Kane Williamson—who I consider one of the next generation of superstars, alongside Kohli, Root and Smith.
The Test also marked the retirement of Mitchell Johnson, the enigmatic left arm express bowler. There is no disputing his achievements, with 311 Test wickets and third place on Australia's all time Test wicket takers list he has a lot to be proud of. When he was in full flight there were few sights as intimidating for the opposition—or as thrilling for the crowd.
Falling just short
But, I suspect when we look back in twenty or thirty years, Johnson will be remembered as a very good cricketer who could have been one of the greats. He had it all—express pace, a disconcerting angle of delivery and a batting technique that many batsmen would have killed for.
With all that going for him he should have been our best all rounder since Keith Miller—if not better. The man just above him on the wicket list and a genuine great of the game, Dennis Lillee, tipped Johnson to be our greatest bowler ever. So what happened? Why do I think he fell short?
It always seemed to me that Johnson's problem was not one of talent or technique, mental. When he got his tail up he was unstoppable, but when the game was going against him he seemed to lack that ability to grab a game and bend it to his will.
Whether it was a batsman taking him on, or an unfriendly crowd, he appeared unable to block everything out and focus simply on the game at hand. His bowling action would fall away and good batsmen would feast on him, his speed only getting it to the boundary quicker.
Pressure and Messerschmitts
There is dichotomy at play in elite sports. A professional athlete needs to win, and take the game seriously, or why should they be paid to play? But, they also need to be able to realise that it is just a game and that—except in tragic, abnormal, circumstances—it is not a matter of life and death, and there is more to life than cricket, or any other sport.
Johnson is a product of generation of athletes identified at a very early age and brought up through age group sports and, in a way, sheltered from life outside the game. The reason why someone like Miller was such a great cricketer was that he was exposed to a world outside cricket, and had a sense of perspective about the pressures that sport can bring to bear—look up his famous quote about pressure and Messerschmitts.
Playing in a bubble
While that may be a dramatic example, even someone like Ricky Ponting—perhaps the last true Aussie cricketing great—shows the value of sportspeople existing outside the bubble of their sport. He learnt his game in the rough and tumble of seniors cricket, a boy amongst men, where it was sink and swim.
One of the observations often made about Johnson was that because he had grown up being told how to play his game, with a coach always at hand, when he got to the international arena and ran into problems he was unable to think for himself and work out how to get through them. He also always gave the impression hat he took everything far too much to heart.
Qualities of greatness
If you look at the great cricketers of recent years they all share a number of qualities regardless of whether they are batsman or bowler. The first is the ability to separate what is going on off the field from the game at hand—think Shane Warne during the 2005 Ashes.
They generally have experienced a major hiccup early in their career that has forced them to reinvent themselves—their journey has not always had an air of inevitability. And, last but not least, they show the ability to learn on the fly, rising to the challenges that present themselves as they occur.
Sadly, I am not sure that Mitchell Johnson possessed these qualities to any great extent, which is why—while he was very good indeed—he wasn't quite a great.
Saying that, I wouldn't want to have to have faced him!
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html