Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson – Hyperbolic Nonsense?

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Before we steam headlong into the World T20, we’ve got a change of pace for you. Over the next few weeks guest writer Sam Cox will be asking whether certain cricketers are worthy of a place in cricket’s hall of fame. He kicks things off today with a piece about  Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson. Were these recent Ashes foes truly ‘great’ or will they live forever in the shadow of the great Australians who preceded them? Enjoy.

Australian Cricket took a rough hit back down to ground when they lost the 2005 Ashes, and the most dominant side in cricketing history never truly recovered from losing to those Poms.

The following series in 2006/7 allowed to of the games all time greats to walk out with their heads held high, as Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath demolished an England side in total meltdown. Injuries reaped chaos amongst an England squad that had lost its baby face shine of just 18 months before. Warne and McGrath’s cosy home in the hall of cricketing brilliance is without question, but the extraordinary hyperbole surrounding two of the stars who succeeded them is more questionable.

Mitchell Johnson and Michael Clarke have both retired to a fanfare of admiration. Stats were brandished around like numbers have just been discovered. Some of the sport’s biggest names in the media wrote eulogies as if we had lost two of the greatest players to walk onto Lord’s square.

‘Spirit of cricket’ is the most deplorable buzz-term you can imagine, but these two regularly pushed the boundaries of what is right in the gentlemen’s game. This alone does not question their quality as players, yet it has been conveniently overlooked. Instead Australian coverage has created a shrine for two of their recent retirees.

Mitchell Johnson, for instance, before his broken toe in 2011, was nothing more than a scatter-gun slinger. He’d failed miserably to live up to mantel of Gillespie, McGrath and Lee. Johnson’s 2009 and 2010/11 Ashes series were enough to end most players’ careers. In fact, if it wasn’t for the weakness of the other bowling options down under at that time, the left-armer would probably have never been seen again.

The pantomime villain of test cricket had enviable star quality through. Fireworks so often ensued when Johnson was steaming in from one end, or when he would walk to the wicket and throw the willow around like a madman with a chainsaw.

Johnson’s test bowling average of 28 and a strike rate of a feather over 50 is unquestionably impressive. Dennis Lillee knew he had seen a star when he scouted Johnson at the age of 17. However, Johnson’s turbulent career doesn’t compare to the true icons. He had spells of unplayable, hostile missiles, but his career was largely patchy. Most people would be happy to take over 300 career wickets and be ‘patchy’, but does he really deserve a seat in the precious test hall of fame alongside Lillee, Thompson or McGrath?

Clarke, on the other hand, did show a lot more consistency across his career before it was inevitably ended by back problems. Many of the truly brilliant players are taken away prematurely through injury, Andrew Flintoff the most notable of late.

The former Australian captain also gained plaudits for his captaincy. ‘Wacky’ fielding positions, aggressive team batting, or glorious swing bowling always seemed to be credited to Clarke. The contribution of individuals was often overlooked in an Aussie side that decimated England in 2013/14.

The last ember from Australia’s 2005 side, Clarke’s batting was at its metronomic best during 2012. During that calendar year, Clarke scored a double and triple hundred in one series, became the number one batsman in the world, and scored 1595 runs at an average that even Donald Bradman would envy.

As a captain, Clarke was attacking, inventive and bold, but the short-term success he enjoyed does not begin to rival the iconic captaincy of Steve Waugh or Allan Border. Ultimately, Clarke’s captaincy might have looked bold and extravagant when Mitchell Johnson was terrorising batsman, but he was still the man who led his country to consecutive Ashes defeats in England. Johnson’s erratic, fearmongering left-arm missiles were as integral to Clarke’s successes as captain as Clarke’s intelligent decision making or gambling on an extra slip could ever be.

It is unfortunate for Clarke that his atrocious final series as a captain and batsman ended his career on such a low ebb. Stuart Broad’s Trent Bridge massacre was the final nail in his Ashes coffin. If it wasn’t for his run of almost binary batting during that series, Clarke would have finished his career with a test average of over 50.

Overall Clarke, unlike Johnson, seldom won Ashes tests. Clarke sometimes built the foundations but his Ashes average of 41 was relatively modest. Although undoubtedly a run-machine at his best, the elegant blonde bombshell we saw in 2005 rarely lived up to the hype.

These two Australians, in contrast to the greats who preceded them, will not go down as true Aussie legends. Partly because of the comparative weakness of the sides they played in, partly down to their own frailties.

Johnson’s patchy record made him the ultimate hit and miss bowler. Meanwhile Clarke’s stellar batting record is not out of the ordinary in a generation when bat has dominated ball like never before.

Sam Cox

15 Comments

  1. Its very difficult to compare players from different eras, especially looking at their stats. I have been lucky enough to see a lot of Clarke for Hants and against England and I dont think I have seen any better in the flesh.

    I would Johnson ahead of Brett Lee and on a par with early career Jason Gillespie just for the utter shock he was able to deliver to a batting line up.

  2. James Morgan on

    I suppose it all depends how one defines ‘great’. Is it better to be consistent but unspectacular (but very productive over a long period of time), or somewhat inconsistent but absolutely brilliant on one’s day?

    Johnson was ‘great’ on his day. A match winner. Quite a lot of sportsmen are like that, and they’re often the most entertaining people to watch.

    Kevin Pietersen, for example, was hardly the most consistent batsman but absolute brilliant on occasion. Perhaps Mitch was a bowler of great spells (rather than a great bowler) just the same as KP was a player of great inns (rather than a great batsman imho).

    Personally I’m not sure what to make of Clarke. I’d probably put him in his own bracket in-between ‘hall of fame’ and ‘very good’. He was undoubtedly a very fine player indeed, but there was always something slightly vulnerable about him from an England supporter’s perspective. He scored 7 hundreds against us, but there were many more failures when his team really needed him at crucial junctures.

    I think I can sum it up thus: Clarke was often on the wrong end of iconic Ashes moments, like that Steve Harmison slower ball in 2005 (the last ball of the day) and then when KP’s occasional off-spin also claimed his wicket on the last ball of the day in 2010/11. Both incidents swung momentum to England. Perhaps such moments define a cricketer? I dunno. Obviously other countries will have their own opinions of Clarke based on how he played against them.

    • I would contrast Clarke with Kallis – great player and all rounder but i cannot recall anything about his test career. Huge innings ground out in an unmemorable fashion. With Clarke, KP, Johnson etc there was always colour and excitement.

    • Defining a great also works differently nationally and internationally, I think, as well as current and all eras.

      You mention KP – I’d say he was an England great, you would have to go back a few decades to find a better middle order batsman for us, and a great of his era. When you start thinking about all nations and all eras though, I would be leaning towards the ‘player of great innings’ definition.

      For Clarke, he’s possibly seen as better internationally. Nationally, Australia have been ridiculously blessed with batsmen over the past few decades and they obviously achieved a huge amount of success, some of which Clarke shared in. Batsmen in whom there is no shame in being second best to. And then internationally, any team would have loved to have had a player of Clarke’s ability and record, a player relativley unloved by Australia until Hughes’ death. So I’d say a great of his era but unsure if he is an Australian great mostly because of the competition, whilst the Ashes losses hurt him too. Despite that, he was probably a consistently better player than Pietersen, though there’s not much of a gap.

  3. I’m not too keen on Halls of Fame – but if we’re going to go there, I’d like more consideration of players’ records in the round and not just in away Ashes. MJ, for example, had 180 wickets at 29 before breaking his toe in 2011 and had won a series in SA (when they had Smith, Kallis and Steyn) almost single-handedly and yet is dismissed as “nothing more than a scatter-gun slinger” in that period. What about their records in Asia? (Rightly unquestioned all-time great Dennis Lillee took all of three Test wickets in Asia). What about their ODI records? Both won a WC and MJ in particular had a great ODI record in an era when the dice were being loaded against bowlers.

    Michael Clarke’s record does suffer from how much better he was batting at No.5 in Australia. His low average batting higher up the order was a mystery. Although he was better at home (averaging over 60) Clarke still averaged over 39 everywhere away where he played a decent number of Tests.

    If both have something of a reputation as ‘home track bullies’, it’s worth noting Michael Clarke played in 24 away Test wins. Only twenty players in the game’s history have more and the highest for any Englishman is 16. MJ played in sixteen which is more than, to take some random examples, Benaud (14), Lindwall (14), Anderson (13), Willis (13), Donald (12), Botham (11) and Broad (10).

    Then there are things stats don’t show. MJ was box-office and you wanted to be watching when he clicked. His twelve wickets against SA at Centurion in 2014 was only bettered by Michael Holding at the Oval in 1976 as a display of fast-bowling in my cricket-watching lifetime. Clarke’s elegance and style were too easily taken for granted (although the assumption from many commentators that he was a great player of spin because he used his feet, when in reality his record in Asia was not that great, got a little irritating). Clarke’s fielding was also a delight and quite remarkable given his back trouble. Finally, but most of all, there was the class Clarke showed after Phillip Hughes’s death and the way he spoke for a team and a nation in mourning.

    • downwiththeecb on

      Simon and I are like the North and South poles on cricket but I agree pretty much with what he’s put.

      Clarke for me was one of the last top line batsmen in world Cricket. Kallis was also part of that last generation who have simply not been replaced.

      Clarke
      Kallis
      Sanga

      Last in a really top line of genuinely top class/world class batsmen, there are none about getting close. I will say I can see the class in one player in current world cricket but I’ll keep that name to myself for now 🙂

      Bowling stock wise, who out there can match MJ for sheer fast bowling ability on his day?? Broad.. don’t make me laugh.. Anderson.. pfft… Only person (who is past his peak anyway) is Steyn. There is Tait who is a true scatter gun but he only plays hit and giggle so can never produce MJ’s theatre in that format.

      Again, last in a line of bowling stocks..

      Simon Jones (sheer class in 2005 even with a broken body!)
      Mcgrath
      Lee
      Flintoff (I’ll accept he was only top class consistently in 2005 and then in his last series in patches)
      Johnson
      Steyn

      Again, I am seeing only one bowler who ‘may’ become good but he’s years away from even being put into that potential bracket tbh

      • Mark Eldridge on

        I find it hard to accept that Flintoff appears in your list of bowlers. 5 wkts in an innings three times and never 10. Broad at 29 has taken half again as many wickets, has power to add and has 15 5-fors and twice has taken 10 in match – all at a much better average.

        Clarke more worthy of mention than Tendulkar? Jayawardene could play a bit, too.

  4. Jeff Thomson doesn’t deserve to be considered alongside Lillee and McGrath any more than Johnson. Actually there are a lot of parallels between Thomson and Johnson – bowlers of great spells who had a couple of stellar series (Thommo took 6th of his Test wickets in the 74-5 Ashes series), both lightning quick when they got everything together but wild as hell much of the rest of the time, both took their wickets at around 28 apiece. I’d actually rate Johnson slightly more highly because he had a bit more longevity, but neither can be considered “greats”.

  5. Mitchell johnson will be one of the best bowler in the world. His pace is and bounce of his bowl is better then others. In this world cup 2016 Australian Cricket team one of the best team in the world. In 2016 Australia will be Favourite.

  6. I’d have Johnson in the “played some great cricket” category, rather than “great cricketer”, along with, say, Flintoff, Harmison and KP for England. Awesome on his day, and on the right pitch. Other than Steyn there are no truly great fast bowlers around at the moment (though there are a few with potential, Rabada being the most obvious). My test of whether a fast bowler is “great” is “would he be considered for the 1980’s West Indian team?” If you answer yes he is a great fast bowler.

  7. Harmison, really? Flintoff, really? No, for me MJ was awesome but frustrating, however his batting and fielding made him “special”, but not great.
    Annoyingly Broad is the “red wine”, getting better now he has hit 30. Hazelwood is going to be great I think, seriously, and if he can bowl those spells in tandem with Starc, then Australia have a great few years ahead – the problem lies with the current infirmary of fast bowlers.
    Michael Clarke never endeared himself to the Australian public, which unfortunately will be part of the judgement.
    Dare I say it again (last year) – Steve Smith, world class, world number 1 and……….future “Hall of Famer”!

    • Madaboutcricket on

      BeIng world no:1 now isn’t what it used to be. Smith isn’t really as good as ponting, kallis, sanga etc. He’s good but only because of the modern trend for lesser quality , flatter wickets etc

      Same with many other current players tbh

    • Johnson’s fielding made him made him special for a quick. About the most consistent player Aus had in the last decade for running opposition batsmen out.

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