For a man recently accustomed to dominating matches, Mitchell Johnson’s World Cup has cast him in a support role. He’s played without the aura that made him so feared.
With Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood variously taking the new ball, Johnson has routinely bowled first change.
Aside from four wickets against Afghanistan, he’s been the guy chipping in with one or two per game. He hasn’t had the pitches to terrify batsmen.
He has been vulnerable on occasion, going for 62 from nine overs against Sri Lanka, and 68 from six when New Zealand chased 151.
There was no way that Australia could have been expected to defend that score, but there was still the disparity that while Mitchell Starc’s bowling meant they nearly pulled off a win, Johnson’s ensured they couldn’t.
The scorecard for Australia’s semi-final win against India may not show Johnson as its star – 27 runs and 2/50 are not by their own virtue figures that will echo down the years. But in a game that wavered in the middle of the arm-wrestling table, Johnson forced it to his side.
While Australia batted, the struggle went back and forth all day. India got David Warner early. Steve Smith steadied things with Aaron Finch, but Finch was awkward and subdued, surviving a dozen dodgy moments and soaking up deliveries. With him at the crease India were in the game, but he still managed to build a substantial platform.
From 1/197 in the 35th over, Australia were set for over 350. But India fought persistently: removing Smith, seeing Glenn Maxwell tee off, getting rid of he and Finch in consecutive overs, removing Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and James Faulkner beginning to plunder, then removing them as well.
At 7/298 with two overs left, India were a chance to keep Australia to around 300. Brad Haddin played a dot ball and a single. Ten balls left.
Enter Johnson, with that thwacking drive whose arc is his sovereign trademark. The first ball vanished over mid-on. The next over cover. The third over slip.
A single to end the over, a two and a one to start the next. At that point Haddin drove in the air to deep cover. A catch and India would be in the frame to bowl out one more World Cup side.
They got a drop instead.
More important was the run. Johnson slammed the next ball down the ground for four, the next over midwicket for six. A single to close the innings and he had 27 from nine.
India’s target had blown out to 329, their good work undone. In minutes, Johnson had punctured them.
Then India batted and momentum grew. Early overs were negotiated. Johnson’s second ball, a fast bouncer, was hooked way back into the stands. “Rohit meets fire with TNT!” cheered Cricinfo.
Faulkner was mashed for 16 from an over, 13 from the next. Shikhar Dhawan was out with the score at 76, but with a brisk start on the board – something Brendon McCullum has proved the value of. India’s key man, Virat Kohli, had with that a platform to build on.
Kohli’s first six balls from Johnson yielded one run. His seventh was the bouncer that has served Johnson so well – a slight left-arm slant, seeming to come at the body but heading towards off stump, rising fast.
Kohli hooked. The angle and pace undid him, the top edge inevitable, rising grandstand-high before meeting Haddin’s gloves.
In Johnson’s next over it was Rohit Sharma, again pulling, again smashing into the crowd. A brutal shot, a bold one, Sharma coming off a quarter-final century and standing up to the menace, telling Johnson that India would not be intimidated while he was around.
The next ball was pitched up, scrambled, jagging into him, past the edge and into the stumps. The hissing sound was India, now at 3/91. In minutes, Johnson had punctured them.
As anyone who has dealt with a headmaster’s tyres knows, there’s the kid who does the deflating and the rest of the gang looking on. Johnson doesn’t have the ego issues of most fast bowlers. He’s not slighted by bowling first change, not frustrated by short spells, hasn’t appeared threatened by Starc’s emergence.
But this performance reinforced his potential for primacy.
In sending Australia into a World Cup final, Johnson also resumed centre stage. Smith and Kohli play the same role, each his team’s tyro, the players with the time and space and ability and surety beyond even the other outliers who make up international teams.
In their semi-final contest, Smith made 105. Kohli made 1. India lost by 95. That tells you all that you need to know.
A version of this article was first published on Wisden India.