ESPNcricinfo Awards 2011 ODI bowling winner: The sting of the sling
Every now and then, Mitchell Johnson conjures the kind of performance that turns even the weariest heads. On these days his rhythm is right, his tail is up, and his chest is puffed out with all the confidence of an athlete in command. The ball in Johnson's hands becomes the most dangerous of projectiles, humming out of his left hand with direction and swing, then skimming off the wicket at rare speeds. Batsmen can struggle to pick up his deliveries from a slingy release, and if they fail to read his cues the likely outcome is either a shattered wicket or a bruised body.
One such day arrived in Pallekele last August, Johnson's 100th ODI and the first of Australia's tour of Sri Lanka. Johnson had endured a difficult Twenty20 series, his bowling out of sync with the pitches and the batsmen, and admitted to nerves at the start of what promised to be a testing tour. But the arrival of Michael Clarke as captain, plus a few other familiar faces, helped him get comfortable, as did a few overs in the field while Brett Lee and Doug Bollinger took the new ball.
Clarke called Johnson into the attack for the 15th over of the innings, when the encounter was neatly balanced. A ripping Sri Lankan start had been tempered by the introduction of dual spin, Xavier Doherty and David Hussey nabbing a wicket each. But the men watching Johnson at the top of his mark were Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, the alpha and omega of the hosts' batting. The wicket was flat, the weather hot, the ball losing its shine. A quiet few overs of consolidation beckoned.
But quiet has never been Johnson's way with the ball. At his best or worst, he has always been worth watching. Dating back to the night he first announced himself to the world, with the wickets of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh in Kuala Lumpur's DLF Cup in 2006, Johnson has provided a talking point. His reputation has varied from continent to continent, based on his displays. In South Africa his 2009 efforts still draw hushed tones, whereas in England his name does not generate quite the same respect.
But if there is any place that has witnessed Johnson's best most consistently, it is the subcontinent. In India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, he has been Australia's most reliable ODI force for some years, and at the time of Pallekele his ODI average (20.41) and strike rate (25.60) in the region were world-class.
So when he raced in to Sangakkara for his first ball, Johnson had reason to be confident. His belief would be compounded in his first over, when a ball angled across Jayawardene prompted an airy drive and an edge behind, well held by Brad Haddin. He next reaped the wicket of Sangakkara, who pushed a slower ball straight to the short cover placed intelligently by Clarke. Johnson's variation is among the best in the game, an offbreak delivered with no perceptible change of action.
Sri Lanka's two major batting threats accounted for, Johnson found his very best to exploit the opening. At No. 7, Jeevan Mendis was no tailender, but he was made to look sheepish by a screeching yorker that reverse-swung treacherously late to splay the stumps. At this point Johnson had 3 for 16 in four overs, and he proceeded to work through the rest. He finished with 6 for 31, the fourth-best figures in Australia's ODI history, and the catalyst for a comfortable victory.
Reflecting on his display, Johnson suggested that his delayed entry into the attack had made him extra keen to perform. "I didn't know if I was getting a bowl today," he said. "But that was what was needed at the time. Sri Lanka got off to a very good start with the new ball and the spinners came on and slowed things up a bit. It gave me an opportunity to use my skills. In the end the result was the more pleasing thing."
There would be greater tribulations awaiting Johnson, a freakish foot injury in Johannesburg ending his summer before he had the chance to contribute to Australia's growing sense of purpose and direction. But the momentum had begun in Sri Lanka, in a match shaped irrevocably by Johnson's speed and sling. Pallekele witnessed him at his best.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here