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“You either went out for dinner with one group of people or the other group of people. It didn’t bother me which group I went out with, but I knew it wasn’t going to be all together, it had to be one or the other.”
That’s a quote from a former teammate of Mitchell Johnson about what it was like, at times, to be part of the Australian side a decade ago.
All smiles in public: Mitchell Johnson with Michael Clarke at the MCG during the 2013-14 Ashes series.Credit: Pat Scala
Johnson’s weekend column in The West Australian rattled plenty of cages as far as the national team is concerned, even if its level of criticism left some wondering about what was truly behind the intemperance of the former fast bowler’s words about David Warner and selection chair George Bailey.
But in truth, it reflected the fractious and factional nature of the era in which Johnson played for Australia, a time when the national team achieved some great things in individual series or tournaments but could never hold it together for long enough to be considered a great team. They fell short of the standard set by the players before them and, as of their World Cup triumph in India two weeks ago, the current team that has followed.
Led for most of that period by the polarising Michael Clarke, Australia lost three consecutive Ashes series in England, plus one by a wide margin on home soil, were consistently spun out in South Asia and knocked out of the 2011 World Cup in the quarter-finals.
They also inflicted a 5-0 whitewash on England in 2013-14, won the World Cup on home soil the following season and meted out plenty of other thrashings of quality international sides when things were flowing for them, as they were in South Africa in February and March 2014, when both Johnson and Warner had outstanding series.
But the defining events of the period were less glittering ones, often marked by infighting and a lack of trust between teammates, the selectors, coaches and Cricket Australia’s hierarchy.
There was “homeworkgate” in India in 2013, a running feud between Clarke and his deputy Shane Watson (who was close to Johnson) and a falling out between Clarke and the selectors, including coach Darren Lehmann and selection chair Rod Marsh. That episode would have escalated further if not for its interruption by the traumatic death of Phillip Hughes in November 2014.
It was from this unsteady base that a young Steve Smith inherited the captaincy from Clarke, and struggled to manage the team amid bouts of poor on-field behaviour (many of them from Warner during his “attack dog” phase) and inconsistent performance. It all culminated at Newlands in 2018, the event for which Johnson suggests in his column that Warner should still be getting punished.
One of the most telling lines in Johnson’s column was how, when he asked some recently retired former teammates about how they handled their exits, he was commonly told that they were privately thinking and planning for the event for about a year prior.
Infamously, Mike Hussey kept his intention to retire a secret through his final summer – duly leaving a batting hole that had not been planned for by then coach Mickey Arthur. A pair of heavy series defeats duly followed in India and England.
Warner, Bailey and Australia’s current captain Cummins all lived through the era that defined Johnson, and are fiercely resolved to do things differently.
Warner’s public statement that he intended to finish playing Test matches after the Pakistan series that begins next week – if selected – is consistent with a more open and less factional era than those that came before.
“I think the points around the stats and his position in the team and him getting a bit of extra time were probably ruined a bit by the personal nature of it and bringing sandpaper back into it,” former skipper Tim Paine said on SEN. “Saying David was a person who used his leadership position for power and stuff like that, I played with David and he certainly didn’t do that.”
Similarly, Bailey’s choice to work more closely with the team as a selector, often helping out at training sessions while keeping up a constant flow of communication with the players, is indeed a big contrast to the distant figures Johnson knew selectors to be when he played.
As Bailey put it on Sunday: “If someone can show me how being distant and unaware of what players are going through and what the plans are with the team and with the coaching staff – how that’s more beneficial – I’d be all ears.”
Mitchell Johnson and David Warner in happier times.Credit: Reuters
One of the unfortunate hallmarks of the 2007-15 period was how the Australian team’s chances of success were often reduced by the fact that individuals within it were often thinking more of their own survival or progress than how the national side could best function collectively.
The new leaf turned over by Bailey, Cummins and the head coach Andrew McDonald has the Australian team winning consistently, behaving sensibly and thinking collaboratively.
It is a long way removed from Johnson’s own roller-coaster experience, which was reflected in the harsh tone of a column that posed as many questions about the left-armer’s personal playing career as it did about the team he was so ardently critiquing.
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