Dennis Lillee called him a "once in a generation bowler". Mitchell Johnson is Australia's new pace sensation and has marked his presence on the big stage. After McGrath's retirement, he has been a regular fixture in the Australian team and has the armoury to trouble the world's best batsmen. He is a rare commodity in Australian cricket: a left-armer with genuine pace and the ability to swing the ball. Mukesh Kumar talks to the rookie pacer.
Your best ever Test performance came recently against the West Indies team in the third Test match. Are you happy with the way things have gone so far?
Ya! I am happy with the way things have gone so far. I guess the start of the West Indies tour wasn't going the way I was expecting it to go. I felt I put myself under pressure to get wickets but in the game where I picked up four wickets, I was more relaxed and just went out there and enjoyed myself. It was pretty exciting as the game was balanced and the quick wickets helped to bring the momentum back to our team. I am happy to have done my job successfully for the team.
The great fast-bowler Dennis Lillee identified you as a "once-in-a-lifetime" prospect and asked Rod Marsh to help you join the Australian Cricket Academy. It must be the turning point in your career?
I would not call it as a turning point as I was only 17 years of age when I was first picked up. It was a big breakthrough for me as a youngster to have a legend of the game to pass a comment like that but I think it also put a little bit of pressure on me to perform. For the last couple of seasons I have actually started to perform and hopefully I will live up to Dennis' comments one day and make Australia and myself proud.
Is it true that you wanted to make it big in tennis and not cricket during your teenage years and and you also drove delivery trucks?
Ya! I drove delivery trucks because I had lost my contract for Queensland team and then I worked my way back to club cricket in Australia. I had to work hard to get back in to the Queensland side. It was a tough time and a very good one for me as well. In a way it took my focus off cricket and I could do something other than cricket. It was a big step towards where I am now today. Tennis was something that I wanted to play when I was younger and it was my dream to go to Wimbledon but I have also had the dream of playing cricket for Australia.
After McGrath's retirement, Brett Lee has spearheaded the Australian attack. How does it feel to share the attack with Lee?
It's an awesome feeling to bowl with Brett. We have often spoken about bowling together on the Boxing Day. Opening the bowling for Australia is amazing. You run out there knowing that Brett Lee at the other end is bowling fast and short and its my turn to bowl in front of 80 to 90 thousand people, is something that I want to continue doing for a long time. Hopefully, I will get more opportunities and would love to bowl with him.
You figure both in the Australian Test and ODI attack. How have you evolved as a player over the years.
I guess, I am getting more experienced playing at this level. I have been able to play with some competitive teams like India and Sri Lanka. Playing against Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sangakkara gave me the confidence that I can bowl to these players and get them out. It's been a wonderful experience for me to play against such strong teams and I just want to do my best at this level and keep improving while I am playing.
What is Mitchell more comfortable with: opening the bowling spell or bowling with the old ball?
I prefer bowling with the new ball in ODIs but I am also happy bowling with the old ball as well. With the old ball I try and hit the deck a lot harder and get it through to the keeper. It's something I have worked on since playing for Australia. I have been bowling as a first or second change which has been a very good experience for me but I would definitely love to bowl with the new ball whenever I have the opportunity.
Your back injury has been a major concern for you. At one point you even wanted to walk away from the game?
Ya that's when I lost my contract for Queensland and spoke to my family and friends. I had about a month off and I wanted to prove myself. Then I drove delivery trucks and worked really hard in gym with my fitness. I also worked on my batting and bowling and made through the grades to Queensland. It was a crucial and turning point for my career.
The DLF Cup in Malayasia must have been a dream outing with a series of big wickets, including Tendulkar, Dravid and Lara?
It was very exciting moment for me to play in the DLF Cup and the pitch in Kuala Lumpur had assistance for the pace bowlers. I remember that I was able to swing the ball and had the prized wickets. Its something that I want to do on a continuous basis. During the Test matches I haven't been able to do it consistently as much as in the One-dayers. It is something that I want to improve on. Getting Tendulkar and Lara out was a proud moment for me as they are true legends of the game.
Australia have formidable pace strength in the form of Lee, Clark, Bracken. Even Shaun Tait is ready for a comeback. How competitive is it?
Everyone works together and we are a strongly close-knit team. I often talk to Brett Lee, Clark, Bracken about my bowling. We all back each other together even if we are not playing or are not picked for Australia. We are always trying to improve as a bowling unit and help each other which creates a good atmosphere in the team.
Johnson comes firing and hits the deck hard with his effective swing to counter the batsman. What is the hallmark of your bowling?
I hit the deck as hard as I can with good bounce to the keeper. I am an aggressive kind of bowler and like to swing the ball, if it is not swinging I like to use off cutters, leg cutters and the slower ball. I try to bowl with some variations especially in the ODIs. In Test matches I need to be more patient and consistent. I am starting to get to that stage where I need to be in terms of line and length. We also have plan set for each batsman and I try to bowl as per the plan and help the team to win as many games as possible.
IPL saw a majority of Australian players participating in the event except you and Michael Clarke? Can we expect you to be the part of second edition of the IPL?
Not now, I am pretty happy playing for Australia and with our schedule it's going to be quite hard to play in the IPL. In the long term, it's a possibility. May be three or four years down the track, when we have some time, depending on form, it is certainly an option.
Of late you have been batting well and you showed the glimpses in the Border-Gowaskar Test series against India with some lusty blows. Are you workng on your batting?
Yaa! I love my batting. I really enjoy whenever I get an opportunity to bat. It is one of those things that I work during the nets. With our strong batting line-up it's hard to get batting sometimes. I think, if you spend some time at the crease you will score at the end of the day. So I am working on batting as well to contribute to the team in some way.
India–Australia encounters have taken over the charm of Indo-Pak encounter. How do you see this rivalry?
I think it's great. India is a tough and competitive unit in both forms of the game. They have world-class batsmen and a strong bowling attack and it's a challenge to play against them. I enjoy playing against younger guys like Yuvraj, Sreesanth, Irfan and India in particular. The last time India visited here, they played fantastic cricket. With the Test series coming up it will be tough and competitive and I am looking forward to it.
Who has been Mitchell Johnson's most prized wicket and the toughest batsman to bowl to?
Tendulkar and Lara for sure, as they are the legends of the game. It was very exciting to bowl to them but to get them out was a proud moment for me. There are plenty of guys around the world who are hard to bowl to on their day. Jacob Oram, who can smack you out of the park. Kevin Pietersen is also a dangerous and hard batsman to bowl to.
India's tour to Australia witnessed competitive cricket but the racial slur controversy was something that could have been handled more carefully. Do you agree?
It's a tough one to answer but it did get out of control at one stage but I believe it's up to the ICC, Cricket Australia and BCCI to sort those things out. I wasn't involved at all, I didn't hear what went on so I can not say anything more on that. To be honest I don't really think about the incident too often.
Sledging has been a part and parcel of the Australian team. Lately there has been a lot of debate regarding curbing sledging. Your comment.
All the teams around the world sledge at one point or the other. Most players know the boundary and they don't take it beyond a point. I haven't had any bad experiences and so long it's not personal it's fine.
There have been a lot of speculation over team and players participating in the Champions Trophy. What is your view?
I don't know what's happening there (Pakistan), it is up to Cricket Australia to enquire about the security arrangements.
If the Champions Trophy venue is Pakistan would you go over there?
If it's safe to go, I can't argue. Can I?