'Banana bender' dons his Superman cape in hosts' one-man show

The Australian angle
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The Independent Online

It was the day Test cricket regained its reputation as a ruthless struggle for supremacy.

It was the day the series came back to life. It was the day Australia rejected the meek in favour of the mongrel. Most of all, it was the day a tall, fragile and hitherto wayward speedster convinced England that he was no mere myth.

Like all the best storms Mitchell Johnson's burst came virtually without warning. Certainly, a few promising signs had been observed. On the previous day the "banana bender" had scored 60. As a rule his batting moves in harmony with his flinging. Clearly, he was feeling good about his bowling and therefore himself.

At his best Johnson has a scything action and sends the ball down from a hand reaching towards the heavens. At his worst his arm almost collides with the umpire's ear and the ball follows an erratic path. On the first evening he produced a hint of inswing rather as a recipe might require a hint of basil.

When play resumed Australia's already shaky position rapidly deteriorated. Supporters despaired as an edge flashed between keeper and slip. None of the bowlers looked dangerous and the visitors advanced confidently to 78 without loss.

Australia urgently needed something special from its most frustrating and potent operator. Before the match it was obvious that Ricky Ponting and Johnson carried the hopes of the side. The captain had fought hard and it took a stunning catch to remove him. It was up to Johnson to respond. It was time for Clark Kent to put on his uniform.

Hitherto England had formed an understandably low opinion of the lefty. All too often he had been gobbled up. Certainly, he had failed to take charge of his patch of ground in the manner of the true competitor. Even advocates were aghast at his inconsistency. It's hard to think of any other experienced competitor in any sport capable of flying so high and sinking so low and with so little in between.

From the moment the Queenslander took the ball he looked fluent, streaming to the crease with the smoothness of a 400-metre runner. Still, he needed the fillip of a wicket. Alastair Cook had been England's immovable object. What about him?

And it happened. Johnson pitched the ball up, swerved it a fraction and drew a drive from the tall left-hander that lacked the precision of his best work. Michael Hussey took the catch at gully and the hosts felt hope stir in their souls. Johnson held up his arm. He sensed it was a beginning, not an end.

Relieved that his work in the nets had been rewarded, the paceman now approached the crease confidently and hurled the ball down with conviction. Jonathan Trott immediately felt his wrath as the bottled rage suddenly found its outlet.

Johnson surged in again and sent down a delivery as sinuous and slithery and spitting as a snake. Trott shuffled across his crease and too late realised that the ball was changing course. The swinger thundered into his pads and Australia celebrated.

Suddenly the match was wide open. England had not seen the attack coming. Kevin Pietersen took guard, another batsman in superb form, another tormentor from the first two Tests. He lasted a single ball. Again the speedster surged in, sent down a singeing swinger and shouted as Pietersen was beaten by pace and movement. The champion batsman trudged off, a Lamborghini reduced to a Skoda.

It had been an astonishing transformation. Previously incompetent and scarcely worth his place, Johnson was irresistible. Australia's strategy of withdrawing him from the front line and nursing him through his troubles had proved correct. In hindsight it was a bold move, taken in full knowledge of the backlash it was bound to provoke.

Thanks to their enigmatic speedster Australia secured a sizeable lead. Ian Bell produced another superbly crafted innings that reinforced impressions that he plays the ball later and has the soundest technique of any batsman in the series. But he stood alone.

Appropriately, Johnson took the last wicket. Australia's top order failed again and England clawed their way back into the match. But ultimately it had been a one-man show.