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Fast and furious: Spencer Johnson’s rapid rise to Australian colours

Last updated on 29 Aug 2023 | 11:29 AM
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Fast and furious: Spencer Johnson’s rapid rise to Australian colours

150 kmph, wild celebration, humble background: Australia’s new pace-bowling sensation Spencer Johnson is raring to go

“He's an incredible talent. I faced him in the one-day final at the WACA and was blown away by his skill and his pace”

Mitchell Marsh couldn’t have found a better string of words attached together to describe Australia’s latest pace-bowling sensation, Spencer Johnson

But until a few months back, Johnson was as far away from the limelight as possible, trying to recover from the constant injuries that had plagued his career. 

On Tuesday (August 29), the left-arm pacer was confirmed as one of the three debutants for Australia, ahead of the first T20I against South Africa, alongside the highly talented Aaron Hardie and the opener, Matthew Short

Also Read: Decoding Matthew Short, Punjab’s latest recruit

So, who is Spencer Johnson, and what’s the story? 

It wasn’t all glory for Johnson early on in his cricketing career, having to bide his time before making it at the Big Bash League (BBL) level. 

At the age of 20, the left-arm pacer had missed almost two years with an ankle stress fracture, and returning from that injury was, at that point, a daunting task for the youngster. 

Forget bowling, for the first year, even running seemed a tall task following the injury, with even a couple of screws being put inside. Despite making it to the Adelaide Strikers’ squad, it wasn’t until his move to Brisbane Heat that he found himself in the playing XI. 

Having made his BBL debut, the left-arm pacer played as many as six games in 14 days after only playing three professional games over the previous 1,918 days.

"I've had a bit of a unique journey; 27 now and first crack at BBL cricket," he said of his debut year at the BBL and thus started a journey. 

Tell me more about his journey to the BBL?

"Hang on, so you're telling me the SACA (South Australian Cricket Association) have had a guys (sic) called Johnson bowling 150kph and haven't been playing him?" Joe Burns had tweeted back then in 2020. 

Johnson’s journey to the BBL level is unique, coming through the ranks at Queensland's new KFC T20 Max competition, where he played for the Redlands, which also happens to be Marnus Labuschagne’s club. 

In that competition, the left-arm pacer caught the attention of one and all, bowling quickly and economically (5 runs per over), which, in turn, earned him a contract with the Heat. 

Brisbane Heat head coach Wade Seccombe first spotted the left-arm pacer and immediately recognised the talent that was there. 

"Spencer is a promising left-arm pace bowler who has been on the fringes of the BBL for the past few seasons, but the decision he made to come to Queensland and play in the KFC T20 Max competition has been well vindicated," Seccombe said.

That’s fine, did that translate at the BBL level?

Oh boy, didn’t it? Johnson’s start to his BBL career is perhaps the biggest gain possibly for any player in BBL history. His rapid rise to the top is well documented, but what was more astounding was the fact that he bowled the tough overs for the Heat. 

Usman Khawaja, who led the Heat back then, threw the left-arm pacer into the deep end, asking him to defend 18 runs off the last over against Tim David (who was batting on 39). 

Not only did the left-arm pacer defend it, but he also only conceded five runs, earning the praise of his teammates. It was there where he also drew comparisons with fellow left-arm pacers - Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc.

Surely, it is a one-off thing?

Well, you wish. Days later, the South Australian repeated a similar feat against Marcus Stoinis, defending just 14 runs. The left-arm pacer only conceded nine runs against the Hulk and helped his team achieve a dramatic win. 

"I wouldn't say I'm a 'death bowler'," Johnson told the Unplayable Podcast.

"It's something I've definitely been working on and striving to achieve to get thrown the ball in the hard overs which I'm getting here, which is quite cool.

Not only that, but his bowling form and excellent returns suddenly helped the Heat climb up the playoff ladder quickly. While not being a proven wicket-taker, Johnson bowled the tough overs, picking up nine wickets for the Heat with an economy of 7.6. 

Six of his nine wickets came at the death, where his economy was the fifth-best for any pacer (min five overs). 

Interesting, so what happened next?

From there, the then 26-year-old was a sought-after name in Australian cricket and was viewed as a possible X-factor pick to the Australian Ashes squad for the 2023 series. Johnson’s incredible rise continued as he picked 15 wickets in his first two Sheffield Shield games for South Australia. 

The figures of his first two First-Class games read: 6 for 87 and 7 for 47. In the 130-year history of the Sheffield Shield, only two bowlers - Jack Ryder (20 wickets @10.8) and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith (19 wickets @11.53) - had scalped more wickets at a lower average in their first two games than Johnson, who picked up 15 wickets averaging 13.07. 

His genuine pace, coupled with bounce extracted by his imposing height and swing generated by his smooth action, earned him a call-up to the Australian A squad against New Zealand, with an eye on the Ashes. 

Co-incidentally, just before his trip to Canada, the left-arm pacer represented Los Angeles Knight Riders (LAKR) in the inaugural edition of the Major League Cricket (MLC), where he picked up two wickets. 

Wait, how is Canada a big leap?

When Johnson was playing for Surrey Jaguars at the Global T20 Canada league, he earned himself a call-up to the Australian squad for the three-match T20I series against South Africa.

On August 9, Johnson was at his impressive best two days later on his The Hundred debut for the Oval Invincibles. Until then, the left-arm pacer never had set foot in England, but a few days later, he became an overnight sensation courtesy of his performance against the Manchester Originals.

"That six-to-seven-metre length is what I bowl. That's my natural length, so I didn't have to think too much. It was cool!” Johnson told ESPNCricinfo post his The Hundred debut. 

Tell me more about that overnight sensation performance

Simply put, it was probably one of the all-time best bowling displays in a T20 encounter. In his first set (five deliveries), Johnson conceded just one leg-bye and had a close shout against Jos Buttler. 

During his second set, he conceded the only run off his spell on the night to Buttler before beating Phil Salt consistently. In his final set (ten deliveries), Johnson blew the Originals away with three wickets, bowling a total of 19 dot balls during his spell. 

It was the second-cheapest spell in any major T20 league and the cheapest spell in The Hundred history. That really made him a definite starter for Australia, considering Mitchell Starc’s absence. 

Just watch this video above.

Wait, tell me this: what’s with Italy trending with Spencer?

Glad someone asked me this. Yup, it is an interesting tale. Spencer Johnson almost played for ITALY!!!

He has dual citizenship - Australia and Italy - thanks to his grandfather being an Italian, which drove his desire to play for Italy in the 2024 T20 World Cup European Qualifiers. 

However, the left-arm pacer did not go on to play for Italy and instead opted to stay back in Australia to concentrate on his red-ball career when he was picked in the Australia ‘A’ squad. 

"Playing against Scotland and Ireland, they're two pretty good countries but now the Aussie A series is in there, it (Australia selection) is starting to feel a little bit more real,” said Johnson.

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