The Mitch-Lotto jackpot


“Buy the ticket, take the ride” – Hunter S. Thompson, who obviously had Mitch Johnson on his mind

“…while this itself were a good thing like all good things it was also a danger” – Cormac McCarthy

“Predictions are for mugs” – E. Regnans, Footy Almanac


If we accept the notion, admittedly arguable, that we are in any way represented by our politicians and media, Australia has recently become less welcoming of outsiders. As Alistair Cook and the remnants of his touring party contemplate the wreckage of the last three months they would no doubt agree. They must also be pondering how it was that until so very recently things were so very different. England didn’t see this disaster coming. They weren’t alone.

Cricket is a team sport unusually dependant on individual performance. Bowling plans, esprit de corps, ‘partnerships’, all these things matter. But the game essentially boils down to a batsman facing a bowler. The power of one amongst eleven can be overwhelming if the one seizes control of that essential contest. What odds could you have got three months ago that Australia’s transformative one would be Mitchell Guy Johnson? The biggest gamble Australia’s selectors took at the start of the summer reaped the biggest reward.

The figures bear repeating – 37 wickets in 5 test matches at 13.97 runs apiece. A wicket taken every 30 deliveries. Those figures more properly belong in under 14’s cricket. Brad Haddin rightly had his supporters for Man of the Series, but there’s no doubt who will inhabit English nightmares for years to come.  The enduring images of this Ashes summer will be a mongrel mo framing snarling white teeth, and balls exploding towards throat and glove with violent intent and deadly accuracy. And to think Mitch had often seemed a bit too nice to be a fast bowler. No bowler has sustained such levels of genuine physical menace on Australian soil since Curtly Ambrose was at his scowling peak.

How to explain the transformation of Mitch the muddler into Mitch the laser-guided assassin?

The easily forgotten truth was that Mitch didn’t begin a muddler. His was a talent spotted early by no less a judge than D.K Lillee. He decimated the South Africans both home and away before the slide began in England in 2009. This begs an obvious question. Did the elaborate structures of the modern Australian cricket environment help or hinder? Craig McDermott seems to come down decisively on the hinder side. His instructions since resuming the reigns, such as he’s admitted, have amounted to keep it simple. No more theories about the needing an inswinger. No more tampering with the run up. Just bowl fast and touch ‘em up.

The balance of evidence in the case of Johnson suggests Australian cricket spent a lot of resources and money to achieve a worse result.

Of course, individual character is always a factor. The Johnson mind must have been susceptible to clutter. Some are best left to do, not think. This makes the Johnson resurrection more commendable. Nothing can clutter the mind like the sort of ridicule he has endured. It will either break the man or build a resolve. In his redemption Johnson has shown much greater resolve than we knew existed.

The other inescapable question of the summer is what happened to England?

If the tests of the English summer were characterised by Australia’s inability to handle the decisive moments, this summer saw a complete shambles from the visitors. Dunkirk was tidier. This whitewash is worse than those preceding because the opposing Australians had not the talents that either Warwick Armstrong or Ricky Ponting could command. Even allowing for the Johnson shock factor, something went seriously amiss in the visitors’ change room. Previously sturdy figures looked by series end like the disconsolate survivors of a cricketing concentration camp. That is if they emerged at all. A couple famously didn’t see out the journey.

Hindsight suggests that we caught England at a most opportune moment. Backing up for a further five Ashes tests was a bridge too far for a side relying on methods that had run their course. What had seemed to be steadiness had tipped over into complacency and lack of adaptability.

In Brisbane, events suggested arrogance also. When, in Australia’s second innings, Cook set the field back for Warner to get Clarke on strike to Broad, England was goading Australia’s best player  in a most obvious and public manner. If there was to be any doubt about the steeliness of the Australian captain’s resolve it ended at that moment. Having thrown down the gauntlet, England was shown to be all talk. Cook’s tactical limitations now came to the fore. With the game no longer coming to him on his terms he lacked the imagination to influence events. By day three in Adelaide, when Johnson routed them on a flat wicket, the fox was well and truly in the hen house. The chooks remained headless for the duration.

Not the least of questions now facing England is whether Alistair Cook will adapt or perish.

As dollar values rather than cricket values continue to dictate scheduling, the impact of exhaustion – mental as much as physical – on Australian summers requires consideration. Over successive summers we have seen India barely go through the motions of four tests, South Africa begin sluggishly in three, and England fall apart over five. Australia is an unforgiving place to arrive tired or off your game. Tours now offer scare opportunity to find form, and little recovery time if you start poorly. England are but the latest reminder that crashes will be inevitable.

While the visitors lick their considerable wounds, the victors are left to evaluate what it all meant. With expectations exceeded beyond all measure, Cricket Australia seems poised to move from panic to hubris in one effortless leap. Success has many fathers, at least by claim.

James Sutherland, discussing the appointment of Boof Lehman, opined “it sure seems like a good decision now” with no small air of smugness. In fairness, James, yes it does. But it also seemed like a good decision when you appointed Mickey Arthur. Sometimes you just never know how things will turn out.

Even Don Argus has been seen doing “I told you so” interviews in the aftermath, as if he’s conveniently overlooked that many key recommendations of his titular report have already been binned. Captain and coach as selectors? That appeared to work wonders for team harmony. Primacy given to Shield performance?  Try telling that to Phil Hughes or Marcus North. That is, if anyone can remember when the last Shield game was played. And has anyone heard from “Informed Player Management” lately?

Despite this summer’s unexpected bounty, big questions still face Australian cricket. The risk is that this success will provide camouflage for complacency.

Fortunately, Clarke and Lehman seem likely to maintain perspective. For Clarke, the imminent prospect of South Africa’s quicks is no doubt a sobering factor. Darren Lehman has been much lauded for his achievements. Some of the praise has even concerned areas he might have influenced. What he confidently can lay claim to is restoring a belief that victory is possible to a playing group that was fractured before his arrival. He will not kid himself about the quality of opposition England offered up. Nor where his team of veterans stands.

Those veterans, who seemed like stop-gap selections in many cases, have contributed mightily to a wonderful victory and given Australian cricket followers a much better summer than they anticipated. For that we should give thanks. A generation of cricketers who looked likely to carry the ignominy of Ashes failure into retirement now have glorious memories that no one can take from them, no matter what the future may hold.

And of that future? Who’s to say Lehman’s veterans mightn’t have more glory ahead? The standard of test cricket in general is presently suffering. You may not have to be that good to get to number one, at least for a short while.

South Africa sit atop the pile by dint of being the only team with respectable away form. But an insecurity lies at the heart of their post-Apartheid cricket, as represented by their recent epic draw against India. Approaching 458 in a fourth innings chase, history beckoned. Three wickets in hand, 16 runs to get, three overs left, they declined to risk defeat to achieve immortal victory. They may justify the decision by pointing out they won the series, but it’s hard to see an Australian team making a similar choice. Particularly one led by Clarke.

The Saffas look the superior team, but Australia has exploited the chink in their armour before. And they of all teams will be aware of the damage Mitch can do.

But your correspondent has officially withdrawn from the prediction game after this summer. I will follow the sage advice of m’colleague E. Regnans, and be content to savour what has been, and relish the promise of what might be.


Addendum *

Sing along Barmys:


He bowls to the left,

He bowls to the right,

He stuck it so far up you,

You can only dream to shite.


*Let it never be said Cricket Australia holds mortgage on hubris in our wide brown land.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. The quality of your analysis is only exceeded by the quality of your writing JB. I particularly liked the line about the deification of St Boof sometimes even relating to things he had influenced.
    The subtlety of your rapier had me reading the line twice.
    Australian cricket is twice as good as we thought we were, and half as good as we think we are.

  2. Outstanding report JB. I think the Aussies are still a work in progress. There are gaps aplenty. The South Africans might kindly highlight them. But the basis of a good team exists: confidence to win.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great summary JB totally agree re scheduling the dollar rules the game the stupidity of it all will make away test wins worth more than the crown jewels . Cook tactically was abysmal . South Africas attitude may give us a chance then not going for the win in the record run chase outlines there mental weakness is still there Thanks John

  4. Peter Schumacher says

    Surely the Saffas can’t keep choking. I think that they will win easily because out top order is so brittle. Loved your analysis though.

  5. John Butler says

    Thanks for commenting gents.

    Peter, logic would suggest you’re right. The Saffas look the better team, although they’ll miss Kallis. But their batsmen won’t relish our bowling. You would expect it would be a tough series for batsmen all round.

    But after my forecasting this summer, wise men will disregard any prediction I might offer.

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Great read John. If Mitch and co. bowl like they did this Summer against a South African team without Kallis and with DeVilliers in doubt we are a huge chance.

  7. Hi JB.
    What a lot of ground you’ve covered and in what a beautifully written style.
    I remember that “predictions are for mugs” line – in reference to a pitch being declared a 300/400/500-run-pitch. Chuffed that you’ve included it in your fine piece.

    I agree with your point, as Dips and PB have before me, that large holes can be found in the Australian Test team without too much scrutiny. Yet that was the case all through the recent series against England, too.
    Magic could be afoot.

    Good call on the roles of DS Lehmann and CJ McDermott in the “Keep It Simple” domain. MG Johnson would not be the first to precipitate his own downfall through over-analysis and over-complication. As John Lennon apparently once said: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”
    Just have a crack.

  8. Yvette Wroby says

    Dear John and fellow commentators,
    loved reading this John. You are a fabulous writer and great analyst of this summer and all the characters, cricketers and hot air that went with the Test and One Dayers. I think it will be tougher in South Africa. I have a question for you more knowledgeable cricket buffs. Is it getting harder and harder for a visiting team to win? There was chatter a while back about home countries preparing their own wickets to suit their own teams…is this true and if so, will South African wickets be something our boys can adjust too?

    I also subscribe to the “keep it simple, stupid” principle as well as just taking life on. I wish them well in South Africa and wish you John would write as much as possible while they are over there!

    Love to all from frozen USA (west coast)

    Be back in time for the footy


  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Yvette no visiting team won a test match in 2013 ( Sth Africa def Pakistan at a neutral venue ) the main reason in my opinion is the scheduling issue due to cricket being all about money and India in particular holding the balance of power in world cricket
    ( another story in itself ) there are a lack of proper warm up games so visiting countries don’t adjust and it manifests itself from there and visiting teams like England just fall away dramatically . I fear and am angry for the tour of SA that our players are playing
    20 20 crap and 1 dayers at present followed by 1 warm up game in SA at least before the ashes 4 out of our top 6 batters were playing shield cricket as preparation
    Home nations can prepare what ever wickets they like which has always been a huge weakness in cricket ( Pathetic ICC again another story in itself ) England prepared dry wickets to help Swan and aid Anderson re reverse swing but both SA and Aus strength is there pace attacks re so this series I don’t think doctoring of wickets will come in to it
    Good luck with the cold weather Evette , 41 c in Adelaide today a amazing difference

  10. John Butler says

    E Reg,
    I recalled our discussion of your Adelaide report. At that stage England were teetering but we still expected a fight back. Two days later Mitch rolled them and the series was virtually over. It was a shock how easily they capitulated. Mind you, Mitch and co were superb on that flat deck.

    Luke, you were rightly more optimistic about Australia’s chances than I. Who knows re South Africa? If it becomes a fast bowlers’ shoot out anything could happen.

  11. John Butler says

    Yvette, you are, as always, very generous.

    I think Malcolm has comprehensively covered the away pitch question. This becomes a self perpetuating cycle – the more you doctor your home wickets to suit, the less prepared you are to tackle foreign conditions. This has been a factor in cricket since well before the ICC existed.

    Are you in the Pacific North West? If you are anywhere near Portland Oregon make sure to check out Powell’s books on Burnside (I like to think they named it after RL). Heaven on earth for book lovers.

  12. Great stuff, JB.
    Loved the seamless transition from the fox being in the henhouse to the chooks remaining headless for the duration.

  13. John Butler says

    Let no cliche go homeless Smoke. :)

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