The third coming of Mitchell Johnson: a new beginning or a false dawn?

I have been one of the many critics of the selection of Mitchell Johnson in the Australian cricket team this summer. The “Toughsticker Turncoat” I have called him on twitter and it would be fair to say I have not had a positive word to say about him.

Johnson’s selection to bat at number 7 in the coming test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground has given me a moment of pause and caused me to reflect on whether the return of Johnson to test match cricket and his installation as a bowling all rounder into the Australian team is really the new beginning for him (and Australian cricket) it seems to be.

Let’s start with the statistics: 49 test matches, nearly 1500 runs at an average of 22.77 and 202 wickets at an average of 30.63 does not make for bad reading although any cricket fan will tell you that the great all rounders have batting averages higher than their bowling averages.

In the two tests he has played this summer he has taken 12 wickets at an average of around 20 and has scored 102 runs at an average of 51 (92 not out at the MCG in the last test obviously assists that average).

Those statistics considered: why do we (or I) malign him so? Are we (or I) punishing him unduly for the very obvious poor performances in his career to date where he has shouldered the burden of leading the Australian attack and failed? I think the the answer to this last question is that fans do remember those poor performances and, for some, they are performances that will never leave the memory because they were so disappointing.

Is it more than that though? Tracing Johnson’s career through statistics and match reports is just not enough to get a whole picture of the player that he is. I watch a lot of live cricket and have watched a lot of Johnson playing the game. Part of what has bothered me since the disaster of the 2009 Ashes and the performances from Johnson that have followed are two things. Firstly, the body language of Johnson when things go bad on the field is often suggests a mix of indifference and of not having any answers. Secondly, one of the few things about the performances of Johnson has been the consistency in his inconsistency. All too often a grand performance (Perth 2010 comes to mind) is followed by a series of mediocre performances.

Now the Australian cricket team faces a year of 10 test matches against a presently cockahoop English team as well as a tough tour of India. Once again off the back of one excellent performance Johnson seems to be in the frame to tour with the Australian team to England and elsewhere and is touted as the cure to the team’s all rounder ills. I, for one, am worried about when the bubble of Johnson’s performances will burst and whether Australian fans will again be subjected to performances like the Ashes in 2009 and the first Ashes test at the Gabba in 2010.

The other concern I have about the selection of Johnson in the long term is the road block it creates not only for Mitchell Starc, the excellent young left arm swing bowler from New South Wales, but also the other bowling all rounders who might be knocking on the door. Ben Cutting, James Faulkner and Nathan Coulter-Nile all are performing in red ball cricket in Australia this summer and all could be seen to comfortably fit into a role batting at number 7 or 8 for Australia whilst bowling 20 overs of pace an innings.

When all is said and done I remain firmly in the camp that questions Johnson’s ongoing selection for the Australian team albeit I am able to concede that on the numbers alone his spot in the team probably makes sense. My feet sit in the “non-selection” camp now more because of the possible impact his selection may have on the next bowling all rounder to come through the ranks or, for that matter, Mitchell Starc coupled with my fear that the bursting of his performance bubble, based on the recent past, is closer than many may expect.

For Australian cricket’s sake I hope one of two things happens: either this genuinely is a second coming for Mitchell Johnson and he serves me up a big piece of humble pie with excellent and sustained performances or Johnson is jettisoned and one of the young future stars I mention above is given a shot to make the position of bowling all rounder there own.

I, like all Australian fans, want the best Australian cricket team to take the field every time it plays and, probably more importantly, to win back the Ashes this year. I am unsure whether the benefits that Johnson brings to the team are outweighed by the prospect that a couple of bad performance by him could be a deciding factor in the urn staying at Lords. I will be watching with interest as events unfold at the Sydney Cricket Ground tomorrow.

Cricket Australia announces 2012/13 contract list: an emphasis on test cricket apparently

Today Cricket Australia announced the list of centrally contracted players for the coming summber (2012/13).  The following are those who received contracts:

Michael Clarke, Patrick Cummins, Xavier Doherty, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris, Ben Hilfenhaus, David Hussey, Mike Hussey, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson, Ricky Ponting, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Shane Watson.

The move to reduce the contracted player numbers to 17 players and to, based on the Argus Report, focus on test cricket is something I wholeheartedly support.  I am not sure however that the new contract list does that though.

The glaring inclusion in the list is that of Mitchell Johnson.  Based on form over at least the last 12 months of test cricket he has played and in his return to first class cricket after his toe injury he surely can not be Australia’s top 17 players available for test match selection.  On the assumption that our test team will only ever include 3 fast bowlers, I can not imagine that he is ahead of any of Cummins, Harris, Hilfenhaus, Pattinson, Siddle or Starc on form and, indeed, recent reputation.

I am also surprised that Doherty has received a contract.  Based on recent selections he is behind both Lyon and Beer in the spin bowling pecking order.  Indeed he has a bowler ahead of him based on test squad selections, in the form of Beer, who bowls in precisely the same fashion as he does.  This is a strange inclusion if test cricket is your focus.

I have made much on twitter about Cowan’s exclusion however I confess that I can see the logic in not including him based on his form to date.  Equally, I would have though that if Cricket Australia considers him important enough to the Australian set up to make him captain of the Australian A team touring England this winter, they really should have thought him within the core of Australian players who received a contract.   Could it be that the plan is for Watson to open with Warner in the Ashes?

I will be interested to see if David Hussey’s inclusion in the contract list means he is the next in line for a test match spot.  I would find it surprising if that is the case with calibre of young batsmen waiting in the wings.  Shaun Marsh seems to have done himself out of the running after his troubles in the Border-Gavasker Trophy.  That said, Peter Forrest has done everything asked of him and was in the squad for the Frank Worrell Trophy whilst Liam Davis, Tom Cooper and Bob Quiney set the Sheffield Shield alight last summer.  If our next test batsmen is supposed to come from the contract list then the selectors have missed the mark.

I should say here that I do not dispute that players in other forms of the game ought also be recognised and receive recompense for their services.  In the context however of an alleged focus on test cricket from Cricket Australia in these contracts then players who are specialist short form players seem out of place.

A final comment: the Sheffield Shield champions from last year have only managed to have one player considered in the top 17 players in the country.  If nothing else that much show that the days of the Sheffield Shield and form shown in domestic cricket being the principal basis for selection in Australia’s national squad are fast disappearing.