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Magic Mitchell Johnson back to brutal best

December 26, 2012

mitchell-johnson-bowlingPeter Lalor, in The Australian, 27 December 2012

A HOSTILE Mitchell Johnson gave Australia the upper hand against the touring Sri Lankans yesterday but his top-order teammates were less than convincing on the first day of the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. With the game prised wide open by what is almost a third-choice Sri Lankan pace attack, the first three Australian batsmen had the chance to inflict even further misery on the visitors, who had only 156 runs to defend.

By stumps, Shane Watson (13) and Michael Clarke (20) were the unbeaten batsmen, with the score on 3-150, but Australia’s position could have been so much better after stunning the tourists with the ball earlier in the day. Dave Warner was ominous and hard to fault in his brave, but not crazy, dash from zero to 62 in 46 balls. Sticking to his tried and tested “see ball, hit ball” mantra, he peeled off eight fours and a six and had a century there for the taking before he fell for a pull-shot trap set the ball before.

Warner is in good shape – yesterday was his third half-century in as many innings. And while he may be viewed as a one-dimensional slogger it is worth remembering that in the second innings in Hobart his run rate was less than half of yesterday’s. He is much more than a crash-and-bash merchant. That he didn’t cash in at the MCG should bother him, but he won’t have as many regrets as Ed Cowan and Phil Hughes. Both will feel frustrated by what happened.

Hughes was on 10, stationary and ball-watching, when Cowan ran past him for a short single off a misfield. It’s the second time the recalled batsman has been involved in a run-out in as many Tests, but in the last game it was Warner who paid the price for the misunderstanding.

When you are trying to rebuild your career, as Hughes is, you cannot afford those sorts of dismissals. Having two wickets fall in reasonably quick succession, the onus was on Cowan (36) to hang around, but he was gone before another run was added, slicing a cut shot straight to Mahela Jayawardene at second slip from the bowling of Dhammika Prasad. It wasn’t that bad a shot, but it was that good a catch.

Cowan is in good form, but is leaving runs out in the middle uncollected. He has a century and two 50s from the previous four Tests this summer and should have helped himself to a bit more of that action yesterday.

Australia will look to establish a big lead today. Earlier, the new-look Australian pace attack had romped through a half-hearted Sri Lankan batting attack.

Mitchell Johnson celebrated his second recall of the summer while Jackson Bird did his best to make Mitchell Starc feel all the more miserable for missing out. The paceman, who finished with 2-32, made sure his debut was one to remember, removing opener Dimuth Karunaratne (5) with just the 10th ball of his Test career.

Johnson took the new ball, pitched up early and made the next breakthrough, removing Dilshan Tillakaratne (11) with a delivery the batsman played all around. “That was the ball I wanted to bowl to him,” the left-armer said later. “I think I have got him out playing that same shot – he swings pretty hard at it – that was the ball I was trying to set him up with.”

Kumar Sangakkara (58) was the only Sri Lankan batsman to offer any resistance or show any sustained ability to chose the right shot. On the way to his half-century he became the 10th and equal-fastest batsman to 10,000 runs (195 innings).

At one stage, he cover drove Johnson for a series of fours and, while the bowler said he would prefer a full delivery to a short one finding the boundary, shortened his length in the second session and picked up three more wickets. The last of these, Sangakkara, gave him his 200th in Test match cricket.

“Later on I thought I could use those shorter balls,” Johnson said. “The wicket was a bit tennis-bally and, speaking to Michael, he said to use the short ball a little more often and get that fuller ball up there for the drive. It worked for me today, but I think we worked well as a bowling unit.”

Sri Lanka coach Graham Ford said after the match the side was disappointed to be “back to playing catch-up” and admitted his batsmen were indecisive about when to “defend, attack or leave”. He dismissed suggestions a pre-Test clash between Sangakkara, the team manager and the board had impacted on the performance.

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