Mitchell Johnson walked to the wicket at a moment when the SCG was more Pune than Paddington. Shane Watson had holed out to deep square leg, the Australia innings had stalled at the death and India supporters were rejoicing in anticipation of chasing something in the region of 310. A few overs before, the hosts and heavy favourites had been 232 for 2 and galloping, but now the quieter home contingent of supporters might easily have been in a library, so silent they had become. In years gone past, Johnson had been unnerved by crowds. In England his brain and limbs were so scrambled by personal taunts relating to his family that he went into something of a meltdown at Lord’s, just a few months from displays in lower-profile South African climes that led to him being named ICC cricketer of 2009. At this very SCG in January 2011 he was heckled all the way to the wicket and laughed all the way back, bowled by Chris Tremlett for a first-ball duck. This time Johnson walked out into a similarly intimidating tumult, knowing that Australia did not have enough runs and there was precious little time left to get them. They needed a late burst and Johnson took it upon himself to provide it. He had only faced 11 balls all tournament, six weeks in all, and been dismissed by two of them. Somehow Johnson found a way to cajole his first three balls, from Mohammad Shami, to the boundary.
In the final over Johnson struck again, clattering Mohit Sharma’s fourth and fifth balls for four over mid-off and then for six beyond wide long on. He walked off with 27 runs from nine balls to his name, and Australia had the sprint finish they so badly needed. Arguably, Johnson had just made his most pivotal contribution so far of a tournament at which he has sat behind Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood as the team’s third paceman.
It was after Australia’s reboot following the loss to New Zealand in Auckland that Johnson assumed the role of first-change bowler. He had been battered by Brendon McCullum with the new ball at Eden Park, though getting some of his own back by bruising New Zealand’s captain with one of the few balls he put where he wanted. Instead of setting the agenda, Johnson would exploit gaps opened up by Starc and Hazlewood or probe for his own should they fail to strike early.
Johnson bored in on Kohli and the vital extra kilometres of pace he had been missing in his last Test match meeting with India proved the undoing of their No. 3. The tactic did not work against Sri Lanka in Sydney, when Tillakaratne Dilshan pulled off the trick of cuffing Johnson for boundaries every ball of an over. But there were no protests, no expressions of irritation that he did not get the new ball, and no sulks. Johnson was here to help win the tournament in whatever way he could. The runs at the back end of Australia’s innings against India proved that beyond doubt, but he would add two spinal wickets to their number before the night was out.
During the India Tests, Johnson had slipped back a gear or two in pace as an acknowledgement of how flat the wickets were and how Australia needed him to bowl longer spells. It was an exhausted Johnson who was withdrawn from the team for the final Test with a minor hamstring strain, but also one who knew he could be faster again later in the summer. At the SCG it was his pace that would provide the difference Australia so desperately needed after Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan had made a fine start.
While Josh Hazlewood accounted for Dhawan, Johnson bored in on Virat Kohli, and the vital extra few kilometres of pace he had been missing in his last Test match meeting with India at the MCG proved the undoing of their No. 3. In December, Kohli had hooked and pulled Johnson with something like impunity. In the late March he was surprised to find the ball arrived faster and higher than before, a skied top edge plopping gently into Brad Haddin’s gloves.
Next over, Rohit was intent on regaining momentum lost by the earlier wickets. One short ball was swung lustily for six in front of square, returning the crowd to the ecstasy of late afternoon. Johnson, though, was as focused as when he walked out to bat. Unable to summon swing, he instead looked for variation off the pitch, bowling a delivery cross-seam that skidded on while deviating just enough to catch Rohit’s inside edge and his leg bail. That cheer for the six became a more guttural roar for the wicket.
Like the runs, these wickets were brief moments in a wider narrative. But they were as central to the tale as anything longer lasting. Michael Clarke said as much after the match, marvelling at Johnson’s resolution but also pointing out how he has been steeled by past experiences, whether they be in England, Sydney or two previous World Cup campaigns.
“I’ve always said Mitchell making runs gives him confidence with the ball, I think tonight was a good example of that,” Clarke said. “Mitch is a class performer. He probably hasn’t had the standout tournament everybody expects of him all the time, because he’s such a great performer you expect him to take five wickets every time he walks out on the field. But I think he’s done a fantastic job for this team throughout this tournament.
“He’s a wicket-taker, he’s an X-factor, but he’s got experience under pressure now. So a dangerous weapon to have. He’s an example of someone who always puts the team first – he would love to open the bowling but he knows it’s best for the team at the moment that he bowls first change. He hasn’t blinked once at it, it doesn’t bother him. He wants to win, that’s what’s most important.” Bowling first change, facing a raucous Indian crowd, pondering elimination, tiring at the end of a long summer. None of this fazed Johnson, as he made a contribution every one of his team-mates will remember. By the end of the night it felt once more like Australia’s home World Cup, and Johnson had played large part in making it so.