Johnson gains from Starc example
Though nowhere near the kind of influence he would have preferred, Mitchell Starc still left a mark on Australia's dominant day one of the Boxing Day Test. Contentiously relegated to the sidelines for reasons of longer-term planning, Starc had nonetheless created a left-arm blueprint for bowling at Sri Lanka, and Mitchell Johnson was to follow it grandly.
Johnson pitched the new ball full and moved it in the manner of Starc's best spells. He was rewarded with the rattled stumps of Tillakaratne Dilshan - albeit aided by a rotter of a stroke from the former captain - and was not dissuaded from this wicket-seeking length by a handful of piercing drives from Kumar Sangakkara.
Later on, after the ball had lost its earlier shine, Johnson banged in short as Starc had done in Hobart, and had the wickets of Sangakkara, Prasanna Jayawardene and Dhammika Prasad to show for it. This burst, which had Johnson on a hat-trick and also broke Jayawardene's thumb, brought the MCG crowd of 67,138 to their feet and gave the fast bowler goosebumps. Debate over whether it should have been Starc taking the applause will go on, but Johnson had benefited from appropriating at least some of his younger counterpart's methods.
"He does swing the ball. He's got the height as well, which is handy to have," Johnson said. "I have watched a little bit of him. We have done a fair bit of work together, he's been around the squad and I have been able to see a little bit of him. I'm always trying to improve and I can learn off guys like that as well. There's not too many left-armers around, so we tend to stick together.
"There's been talk with rotation policies and all that, so to be able to bowl as a group … because it can be tough at times when you're chopping and changing. But I think we've become a better side at the moment, we're used to doing that, and we've got those options there."
There were Boxing Day nerves among Australia's cricketers early in the day, and Johnson was grateful for debutant Jackson Bird's immaculate early line and length while he found his rhythm. At 31, Johnson is playing his 49th Test, and now has 200 wickets. Nonetheless, his slingy bowling action and occasionally shy and retiring countenance means he will more often benefit from the leadership of others - even if they are far less experienced than him.
"I knew maybe two days out [that I'd take the new ball], so I had a lot of time to prepare for it," Johnson said. "I was nervous the first over today - I'd never bowled first on Boxing Day. It was a bit different today with the big crowd, but once I got past my first over I was fine. Having those nerves do help me, because then I know I'm really wanting to be here, I'm really feeling it out there and ready to enjoy it, and I did."
Those nerves were ultimately more evident in Sri Lanka's batting than anything else, which resulted in a series of shots more typical of the concurrent Big Bash League than the first day of a Test on a surface offering swing and seam to Australia's bowlers. Dilshan's heave at Johnson appeared destined for a particularly stinging critique, but the manner of the dismissal, and the quality of the ball, warranted some praise for the bowler.
"At the start of the day that was actually the ball I wanted to bowl to him, I imagined bowling to him," Johnson said. "I think I've got him out playing that sort of shot [before], he swings pretty hard at it, so that was the ball I was trying to set him up for. So it's good when it comes off, and he's come off a big score in Tasmania, so he was a key wicket for us early on, so it was very nice to be able to pull a ball off like that."
As for the hat-trick ball, Johnson conceded it was the one time he had allowed his focus to be frayed by the occasion and the roar of the crowd. The anticipation for a ball that would ultimately be deemed illegal by an overstepping front foot even left Siddle a little envious - the Gabba had not made anywhere near the same kind of din when he completed his hat-trick against England in 2010.
"I almost pulled up halfway through my run-up because I was about to smile, and I couldn't concentrate," Johnson confessed. "I was just thinking to myself keep my run-up smooth and relaxed, and I ended up bowling a no-ball. But it didn't matter in the end. I didn't get him out anyway. But it was an amazing crowd.
"Peter Siddle said to me when he was on his hat-trick in Brisbane that the crowd wasn't anywhere near as loud as it was today. We both had goosebumps on our arms, so it was a pretty special moment, one ball in the game with the crowd going off. An amazing feeling."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here