ONE legendary Australia fast bowler has paid tribute to another as Jason Gillespie heaped praise on Mitchell Johnson following his retirement from international cricket.
Johnson stepped down after the second Test against New Zealand in Perth after what he called “an incredible ride”.
The 34-year-old was Australia’s fourth-highest wicket-taker in Tests, with 313 from 73 games, and he also captured 239 one-day international wickets.
Gillespie, the Yorkshire first team coach who remains Australia’s seventh-highest wicket-taker in Tests with 259, described Johnson as “a fantastic servant to Australian cricket and a man who deserves to have great words spoken about him”.
Gillespie also pinpointed perhaps the most pertinent statistic of all - Johnson’s strike-rate of 51.1.
“It’s testament to Mitchell and the type of bowler he was that he had the best strike-rate of any Australian bowler who has got over 150 Test wickets,” said Gillespie, whose own strike-rate was 54.9.
“You look at guys like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee - he’s got a better strike-rate than all of them.
“Mitchell was a massive weapon for Australia, and he’s a really nice lad too.
“He’s a terrific bloke and softly-spoken, but he’s also fiercely competitive, which partly explains why he was so successful.”
Amid the avalanche of acclaim that has poured in for Johnson, one attribute has been cited above all others - his electrifying pace.
For all the heart-felt good wishes in the last few hours from team-mates and opponents - not least from the New Zealand fielders at the WACA, who gave him a guard of honour - batsmen would not be human if, deep down, they were not glad to see the back of him, even if Johnson himself felt that his powers were starting to wane with advancing years.
Johnson famously terrorised England in the 2013-14 Ashes series - his return of 37 wickets in the five Tests at 13.97 was key to Australia’s 5-0 triumph and an enduring monument to his menace.
But Gillespie stressed there was much more to Johnson’s armoury than searing speed, with the bowler possessing many qualities.
“It’s easy to talk about the raw pace, but it would be foolish to say that was the only reason he was so successful,” said Gillespie.
“Yes, the raw pace certainly helped, but Mitchell was a very skilful bowler and I know from my own experience of facing him that he was really difficult to pick up with his slingy action.
“Because of that action, the ball came out unusually, and not many bowlers of his type can move the ball away from right-handers and also into left-handers.
“He was unusual in that regard, and he possessed skills that not many batsmen have to deal with.”
Gillespie also emphasised Johnson’s versatility.
“I wouldn’t underestimate some of the old ball work that he did either,” he added.
“He’d come around the wicket and angle it into the right-hander, and, with movement, the ball would then straighten, which became a very challenging delivery to face.
“When Mitchell got his wrist position right, his ability to bring the ball back into the right-hander was almost like a natural variation, and because the batsman wasn’t sure when it would swing, it made him even more dangerous.
“All of a sudden, a batsman would get a 95mph peach of a delivery that he couldn’t do anything about.”
As well as heralding Johnson’s cricketing skill, Gillespie highlighted Johnson’s mental strength.
That was emphasised by the way the bowler fought back from the 2009 and 2010/11 Ashes series, when he became a prime target for the Barmy Army as his form and confidence suffered on occasions.
“Mitch got absolutely hammered by the crowds in the ‘09 Ashes and admitted there were times when he let criticism get to him, which is why his subsequent reaction was so impressive,” said Gillespie.
“It would have been very easy for him to go, ‘Oh, it’s not fair’, and blame everyone else, but he just took it on the chin and went, ‘You know what, I’m better than this, I’ll learn from this and I’ll move on.’
“He had a bit of a laugh with it all and became a bit of a fan favourite towards the end of his career, because of his excellent attitude.
“The English crowds gave him some stick and he was always seen as a bit of a pantomime villain, but there was genuine respect there as well which came from longevity in the game and the way in which he conducted himself.”
Johnson certainly came a long way since bursting on the scene as a teenager under the watchful gaze of former Australia fast bowler Dennis Lillee, his mentor.
“I remember when Dennis Lillee first saw him bowl,” said Gillespie.
“Dennis watched him bowl for two minutes in the nets up in Townsville as a 16-year-old and said, ‘This kid will take 300 Test wickets’.
“Dennis recommended him straight into the Australian U-19 side, and the rest is history.
“The prophecy from the great man proved correct.”
Johnson will be hard to replace in the Australian team but Gillespie is unconcerned.
“Australia has got some good bowling stocks,” he said.
“I really like what I see.
“There’s some exciting talent there, and I’m looking forward to seeing the guys do well in the next few years.
“Mitchell will be very tough to replace, there’s no doubt about that, but someone will come through - they always do.”