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From villain to national hero in less than a year

LEss than 12 months ago, Mitchell Johnson was one of four Australian players sent home from the team's hapless tour of India by his then-coach, Mickey Arthur, for failing to do what amounted to a homework assignment.

Mitchell Johnson has terrified English batsmen with 90mph bowling. Picture: Getty Sport
Mitchell Johnson has terrified English batsmen with 90mph bowling. Picture: Getty Sport

There was talk about his future - or lack of it - and, following the 4-0 mauling against MS Dhoni's side, Johnson was not even in the Test squad for the subsequent Ashes series which his compatriots lost 3-0. At best, he was an expensive luxury, notoriously prone to self-doubts and depressive bouts.

Fast forward 10 months and the same Johnson, complete with a moustache which outshines anything ever sported by Dennis Lillee or Merv Hughes, suddenly discovered the perfect storm of sheer pace, scintillating deliveries and sledging expertise, which crashed through England's resolve like the bouncing bombs of The Dambusters.

More significantly, perhaps, as he and his confreres lapped up the acclaim of the adoring Sydney public yesterday, in the aftermath of their 5-0 whitewash their talk to the media was dominated by words such as 'fun', 'enjoyment', 'jokes' and a 'united dressing room'. These were all the qualities which went missing under Arthur and which have been re-ignited by Darren Lehmann, one of the old guard of larger-than-life larrikins whose influence, since he picked up the reins last June, has been a minor miracle. While many ex-players have been left scratching their heads and muttering at the fashion in which England disintegrated, in this instance the statistics do not lie.

The tourists managed just one century in five Tests - from the fledgling Ben Stokes - while the Australians amassed 10, and England were defeated by more than 1000 runs in the four contests where they were left chasing targets and by eight wickets in the Fourth Test in Melbourne.

By that stage, Jonathan Trott had gone home with a stress-related illness; Graeme Swann had retired with a swipe at unnamed players; Matt Prior had effectively dropped himself in admitting to his myriad failings behind the stumps and with the bat; while the much-vaunted triumvirate of Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen were simply exposed time and time again by Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon: three-quarters of the same attack which toiled in Blighty.

There have not been too many more dramatic transformations than between these twin Ashes campaigns, but England deserve little sympathy, given the scale of their capitulation. They did not organise enough warm-up fixtures, picked far too many similar bowlers, oozed complacency going into the series, and never found any semblance of a Plan B once Johnson began tearing them to shreds.

Worse still, given their experience and ample remuneration, they did not appear to have any stomach for the fight, or attempt to learn from their mistakes. On the contrary, by the climax of proceedings, the side which not so long ago was the world's No.1 was reduced to a few desperate swings from the tail to pass 150, on a pitch with few demons for those prepared to graft.

Sir Ian Botham looked disgusted and said he felt "embarrassed" by it. He was not the only one.

Yet if Johnson was the chief destroyer, the seeds of England's humiliation were sewn last summer when they generally behaved as if retaining the Ashes was a pre-ordained formality. On paper, at least, the eventual 3-0 margin looked comfortable, but Michael Clarke's personnel were thwarted by the weather on one occasion and might have triumphed in the climactic tussle as well.

All the while, their bowlers were exposing deficiencies in previously indomitable performers in Cook, Trott, and Pietersen, and Johnson's belated arrival for the ODI series demonstrated the threat he posed throughout Australia's 2-1 success in the limited-overs format. In which light, the words of Shane Warne, in which he condemned the arrogance of some of the England players and predicted a series full of ugly moments and trash-talking, now seem uncannily prescient.

And he was right. There were explosive moments and expletive-strewn confrontations. But the important thing was that his countrymen won all the significant battles, with mouth, bat, ball and in the field. Cook, in contrast, became like a Thomas Hardy hero by the denouement.

"A vote of confidence [from the ECB] normally means, in football terms, you have two weeks and then you're on your bike," he concluded mournfully.

He will not be the only one fearful of ashes and firings going together.

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