Australia's Mitchell Johnson bowls to England's Ian Bell on the third day of the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval in 2015.
Australia's Mitchell Johnson bowls to England's Ian Bell on the third day of the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval in 2015. Tim Ireland

Dark times made Johnson wish he was injured

FOR most people when they think of Mitchell Johnson they see a moustachioed fast bowler terrorising English batsmen as the Australians cruised to a 5-0 Ashes whitewash in 2013-14.

But it wasn't always like that.

In fact, there was a time in the now-retired fast bowler's storied career that he didn't even want to play the game, let alone bowl for his country.

As strange as it may seem now, in 2011 during a particularly tough tour of South Africa, during which there had been calls for a misfiring Johnson to be dropped, the left-arm quick admitted he was wishing he would get hurt just to get him out of the game.

In his autobiography, Resilient, he recalled how he would sit in his hotel room in Johannesburg and hope to get injured.

This wasn't the first time there had been self-doubt. During the Ashes tour of 2009, Johnson was at the mercy of the Barmy Army after stories appeared in the press that he and his mother had fallen out over his move to Perth to be with his soon-to-be wife Jessica Bratich.

He added fuel to the fire by not performing at his best.

"They were two different periods really,” Johnson told ARM Sports Bureau about his dark days.

"2009 was the start of it and it was funny because I look at it and I actually didn't perform badly overall. I got 20 wickets and my average was 32. It wasn't horrendous.

"It was the really bad performances, like Lord's, which really let me down.

"I actually went over in good form and I didn't expect all the media attention. You hear about it but never expected it and that was one thing I really struggled with.

"The family stuff ... that's what really got me.

"The England players definitely played on that a little bit - certain players ... Kevin Pietersen being one.

"I probably let myself down there. I wasn't focused.

"It was pretty rough and you can't hide from the crowds over there. You can hear every word that's being said as a bowler.

"You got back to your fielding position at fine leg and people are telling you things and you start to believe all that stuff.

"Even the Barmy Army song, I started to sing that in my head - 'he bowls to the left, he bowls to the right'.

"My focus wasn't there. I had a good performance in Headingley and that was nice to be able to do that.

"But I knew that I was still struggling at that stage.”

Australian cricketer Mitchell Johnson with his wife and daughter after his final game.
Australian cricketer Mitchell Johnson with his wife and daughter after his final game. DAVE HUNT

Fast forward to South Africa two years later and despite surviving the Ashes tour and keeping his place, Johnson's thoughts once more turned to whether he was good enough to play at the highest level.

This time he took himself to a more desperate place.

"It was a little bit different in 2011 (in South Africa) where I was mentally and physically drained ... wishing myself an injury, which is unusual, but I just wanted to get away from it,” Johnson admitted.

Be careful what you wish for, they say, as Johnson did get injured, damaging a toe.

But instead of throwing in the towel he managed to help Australia to a remarkable Test win in South Africa, batting his side to victory before being forced to take time out.

"I was probably going to be dropped anyway but the toe injury came along, which was probably better because if I had been dropped I would have gone back to Shield cricket and the same stuff would have happened,” Johnson explained.

"It was the best thing for me.

"For the first month I had no interest in cricket at all.”

Gradually, Johnson recovered his drive - and his career - with the help of Dennis Lillee, the man who called him a "once-in-a-generation bowler” at a bowling academy in Brisbane when Johnson was 17, and members of the SAS.

Lillee worked on his bowling, while Victoria Cross winners Ben Roberts-Smith and Mark Donaldson put Johnson through his paces to get his fitness levels up at the SAS base in Perth.

The soldiers gave Johnson a new perspective on life as they put him in situations at their training base he had never been in before.

"I was able to learn from that,” he said. "It was never compared to war. It's definitely not life and death for us (cricketers).

Australian teammates chair Mitchell Johnson from the field after his retirement.
Australian teammates chair Mitchell Johnson from the field after his retirement. DAVE HUNT

"He (Roberts-Smith) was a real inspiration to me through the dark days.

"That was a really good period of my life and I had to work really hard to get back into that Australian team.

"I had to be patient but being told at 30 years old you're done and dusted, I think that was a motivator as well.”

Another two years later and a rejuvenated Johnson had turned into the bowler all Aussies loved and batsmen around the world feared.

In eight Tests against South Africa and England he grabbed 59 wickets at 15.23, giving batsmen from both teams nightmares.

Not surprisingly it led to Johnson winning his first Allan Border Medal, and at the age of 32 he was finally achieving what Lillee thought he could all those years before.

No one who watched it will forget his spell at Brisbane in the opening game of the Ashes series where Johnson proved he had finally conquered his demons, or the first innings of the Adelaide Test in that Ashes series, when, on a supposedly flat track, he cleaned up England.

The Aussies went on to regain the Ashes 5-0, Johnson was at the top of his game and after a roller-coaster ride he had redemption.

Finally Johnson had no doubts. He was the best and everyone agreed.

Young Johnson dreamed of Wimbledon, not Lord's

IF THINGS had been different, Australian sports fans might now be looking back at the career of Mitchell Johnson the tennis player.

Growing up in Townsville, Johnson was more than competent with a racquet in his hands and his dream at that stage was to win Wimbledon.

But as he looked back on his career in cricket this week, he said he had no regrets in how his sporting life panned out.

"I can't complain,” he said. "I always loved playing backyard cricket or school cricket and eventually got into club cricket. I always enjoyed it.

"Most kids have that dream of playing for Australia and there was definitely a dream there but it was more to play Wimbledon.

"I don't have any regrets. I wasn't good enough to play tennis. I needed to make a move to a bigger city if that was going to happen and it's a pretty tough game to get into.

"I am glad I got into a team sport because there can be some lonely times there in a solo sport.

"There were times early on in cricket when I had doubts that there were guys around Australia bowling better than me and whether I should be actually playing for Australia at that time. I think that's natural.

"But I always put more pressure on myself than I should have, but once I matured I understood my bowling and what I was to the team - because the guys (teammates) always had faith, whoever you played with - because you get to that level for a reason.

"I just had to believe in myself in the end - I think Ricky Ponting says that in his book, that he couldn't believe such a talented sportsman didn't have that belief.

"He always backed me even in my worst times. He had that belief that I was good enough.”

Johnson has plenty to occupy his time in retirement, including wife Jess and children Rubika and Leo.

"Just spending some time with family and little business ideas - it's a really exciting time in my life and I am looking forward to the next step,” he said.

He is set for a season in the Big Bash with the Perth Scorchers and might even head to the Indian Premier League.

Johnson, who had plenty of problems with stress fractures in his back early in his cricketing career, has also, with the help of former Australian team fitness trainer Jock Campbell, developed an app called Bowlfit.

"I hope that comes out around the Big Bash,” he said.

"Hopefully it will help young cricketers. It's for all ages really but look for these young cricketers coming through ... there's a lot of back injuries and that sort of stuff, so hopefully we can give guys a chance to stay as fit and strong as possible.

"There's a lot of sports science out there right now and there's obviously a bit of an issue with cricketers not bowling enough, being restricted, so hopefully this app can help young guys.”

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