“It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem so small
And the fears that once controlled me can never get to me
“Time to see what I can do
To test boundaries and penetrate…
“Let her go, let her go.”
The Ashes have the power to make or break cricketers.
Mitchell Johnson knows this better than most.
His Ashes story is one of sport’s greatest tales of redemption – and contradiction.
In the 2009 and 2010-11 series at times his bowling was so hard – it was hard to watch as an army of Parmesans.
He began a chant to the tune of Sloop John B, the most famous of which was recorded by the Beach Boys: “He Bend Left, Bend Right”.
It ended, Johnson joked, by describing his bowling as “fine”. If only. The expletive used was less printable and more damning.
Sports fans aren’t always known for their accuracy. This time, however, Barmy’s army, unlike Johnson’s, was spot on.
The song seeped into the Australian psyche. An echo echoed in his head He is lying asleep And while he was tearing in the crease.
These poems could be an elegy to Johnson’s Ashes.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d ever play again,” Johnson says, looking back at the end of 2011, when a foot injury added to the indignities.
“I had absolutely no interest in cricket and didn’t miss it.”
His story could have ended there. Instead, the stage was set for one of the most surprisingly repetitive feats in Ashes history.
In April 2023, the softly spoken Johnson sits down to be interviewed by BBC Sport for the recently released documentary How to earn ash.
“Before the 2013-14 season, the Ashes series was pretty unnerving to be honest,” he says. “I wasn’t really sure which way to go.
“I missed the check for  Chain of Ashes in England.
“At first I was a bit upset, but also relieved at the same time because I was really nervous about going back to Test cricket.”
Johnson knew that when he got back, that song, and a chorus line of mental gremlins, would be waiting. He couldn’t avoid it, so he chose to drown it out instead.
“I actually remember playing a series one day before and wanted to test myself to see how I mentally turn off the noise,” Johnson continues.
“I had ‘Frozen Let it Go’ in my head because of my daughter.
Everyone laughed at her, but when she was really young I listened to her and it all really made sense.
“Let it go were two things – let the ball go and let all the noise go.
“I was able to use that when I was on the border, when someone was giving it to me in the crowd. I didn’t have any negative thoughts.”
Fresh from a Perth beach, Johnson muses, he’s soft-spoken, down-to-earth, almost introverted.
What followed in the 2013-14 series against England was the exact opposite – one of the most harrowing fast bowling displays of all time.
Getting to the point of zero negativity was an incredible victory for Johnson.
Former Australian captain Ricky Ponting once said of the left-armer: “For someone so talented, such a natural cricketer and so talented sportsman, I found his lack of self-confidence startling”.
Born in Townsville, Queensland, Johnson actually grew up wanting to be a professional tennis player.
Pete Sampras, 14-time American grand slam champion, famous for his record serve, was his hero.
Johnson always struggled for anything close to the consistency and confidence of Pistol Pete.
Johnson took 15 wickets, more than any other Australian, in the 2010-11 series. But, his wild and dangerous deliveries were more evident than the occasional hack as England sealed the series 3-1, winning the Ashes away for the first time in 24 years.
When he went out to bat for the last time in the series, England fans serenaded Johnson with this familiar song.
Chris Tremlett’s first delivery was a full straight and fast. The ball flashed between the bat and the pad, smashing Johnson’s stumps. As he walked a golden duck, and Australia headed towards an innings defeat, Parmi’s army sang their song again.
Watching the match from the press box at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Guardian goalkeeper Kevin Mitchell He wrote this line about Johnson: “There are irrevocable jokes at the nearby Randwick Racecourse that are more reliable. At times, he has the demeanor of a haunted artist, a Van Gogh without his brush.”
Mitchell got the Mitchell spot.
said Johnson, who has since spoken out He suffered from depression then and throughout his career.
“I’d think too much rather than let that happen.
“I was just thinking I was performing terribly the whole time. It got me down and I couldn’t recover from that.
“There was quite something going on behind the scenes for me and I started to bring that into my cricket.
“I couldn’t throw the ball where I wanted to shoot it. I struggled with everything.
“It was a bit of a slippery slope. I got injured later in 2011 and didn’t want to play cricket for a while.”
Such indifference was anathema to Mitchell Johnson who made his Test debut for Australia against Sri Lanka in 2007. Johnson was 26 at the time, and was late for Test cricket.
Four stress fractures earlier in his career led to him losing his Queensland contract and spending time driving a plumbing truck.
Glenn McGrath, the Australian fast bowling kings, gave Johnson his first bag of Baggy Green in 2007 at his home, Gabba in Brisbane.
“I actually slept the first night,” he says. I’m not sure about Jess [Johnson’s wife] Did he like it?
“I don’t think it really fits me to be honest. It’s kind of a weird-looking hat that sits on your head, almost like a conductor’s. But yeah, it was very special.”
Channeling some of that early awe and wonder through a long period of injury dictated by injury helped him rediscover his love for the game, his radar and his Frozen-inspired zen.
“I had about nine months out of the game,” says Johnson. “I had some plans, and I wanted to eat quickly. I wanted to do it my own way.
“I have felt before that I might be being asked to do things that I might not have been able to do. I just wanted to eat quickly. That was it.”
When England returned to Australia for the 2013-14 series, Johnson was different.
The visiting batsman did not know how Johnson hooked on the top six inches, but they could see what he did on his upper lip.
The look of a clean shave is gone. Instead, Johnson sported a bushy mustache resembling legendary Australian bowlers of the past such as Denis Lilley, the man credited with spotting 17-year-old Johnson’s potential.
Johnson credited his new look for giving him “That’s a little extra aggressive.” It was part of a broader approach his team had adopted.
The collective plan for Australia was to be “nasty” for England, forgoing the usual small talk and finesse, and not speaking to an opponent before or after matches.
When Johnson was at his terrifying best, there were a number of subtle reasons why he was so difficult; He produced a late swing with an old ball and his left arm hitting angle was a challenge batsmen rarely see.
In the end, though, his hunch was right. Bowling speed was adequate.
England opener Michael Carberry was making his Ashes debut in the First Test at the Gabba.
In the recently released BBC Sports Documentary how to earn ash, Carberry is wide-eyed when describing Johnson’s sheer pace. “Mitchell Johnson started shooting the grenades,” he says. “This ball was flying through.”
Australia’s continuing vow of silence towards England was broken only to engage in sledging on the pitch. One of the most famous subjects, when a microphone was picked up, was Johnson’s pace Australia captain Michael Clarke warns James Anderson His arm would soon be broken, with an expletive added for emphasis.
England batsman Kevin Pietersen later He admitted that he and his colleagues were afraid To counter this version of Johnson, who refused to be bothered by England’s attempts to skate.
Even Johnson’s teammates were scared: “It was intimidating,” says fellow Australian Basketball player Peter Seidel.
Johnson finished that first Test with nine wickets to his name in 381 runs in a defeat of England.
But he was just getting started.
“People thought he bowled fast at the Gabba, let me tell you, he bowled the fastest at the Adelaide Oval,” Carberry says.
“Mitch sent that guard down and I remember him flailing inside [wicketkeeper] Brad Hadden gloves. I looked at the scoreboard and it was flashing red.
“I was thinking to myself, 160 kilometers is 100 mph. He just sent it at 95 mph, second ball of the day. WHAT?!”
Johnson finished that first innings at Adelaide Oval with seven wickets, including a six-wicket haul spell of 16 runs in 26 balls with which he appeared for the first wicket.
He did not slow down – figuratively or literally – throughout the series, taking 37 wickets at an average of just under 14 runs per wicket. He was predictably named Man of the Series in the only third 5-0 Ashes whitewash in the series’ 140-year history.
The Ashes have the power to determine jobs. Johnson embodies that.
The 2013-14 series was the high point of his career, in the same way that 2009, 2010-11 and 2013, when he wasn’t even selected, were among his lowest stretches.
Of his 313 wickets, 87 came against England – 23 more than any other team.
“What does the ashes mean to me? The history is really important,” says Johnson. “Australia vs. England. I think it was just those fights over the years before me. And the fights that happen after my time too.
“I find them really, really exciting. There was always this tension too. It’s very hard, very mentally exhausting, physically exhausting.”
“After the 2013-14 series, when we walked off the field in Sydney after the last Test, I just remember saying to my fast bowlers – Peter Seidl and Ryan Harris – ‘I’m very tired, physically and mentally’.”
And they said, “We’re perfectly cooked, too.”
“I think the mental aspect comes from the build-up of the Ashes, the weight of the country behind you. You’re just in that bubble for that period of time when you’re playing that series. And you’re just so focused on that.
“One goal – that is to win.”