Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 3rd day December 28, 2012

Johnson, the scene-stealer

Mitchell Johnson is enjoying his time as Australia's stand-in Test bowler, sans the pressures of being their pace spearhead

Mitchell Johnson is the supporting actor who walks away with the movie. As he basked in the afterglow of a ripping performance with bat and ball in the Boxing Day Test, Johnson reflected on how his current walk-on part in the national team is working better for him than the role of senior spearhead, which he carried like a millstone for much of the two years that followed a pair of arresting series against South Africa in 2008-09. He is no certainty to play for Australia in the third Test in Sydney, and that suits him just fine.

Last summer when Johnson lost his place due to a foot injury at a time when he would probably have been dropped anyway, he was as close as an Australian cricketer can get to being thoroughly sick of the game and all that came with it. His increasingly erratic performances reflected a lack of enjoyment and the fact he had let the voices of doubt - both within and without - control his thinking. Given a year away, Johnson rebuilt his confidence, made a few subtle changes to his bowling method, and has returned not as a put-upon lead character but as a formidable reserve.

While they cradle their assortment of broken bones, Sri Lanka's batsmen will marvel at the fact that Johnson is only playing against them because as many as seven other bowlers ahead of him in the queue are injured. For Johnson, this competition for places means he is unlikely to play long sequences of matches in a row, and he is quite happy to get away in order to be rested and refreshed at the next time of Test match asking.

"It just comes down to belief and trusting my ability," Johnson said. "In the time I've had off I've been able to reflect on a lot of things. [Previously] I had probably got to the stage where I listened to a lot of outside influences, that doesn't affect me anymore. I'm just happy with how I've come back, and making the most of the opportunities I get.

"It's not every day you get to play for your country and I'm pretty proud of the fact I've played 49 Tests now. You've just got to look to the future and, if you get picked, go out there and make the most of it. That's what I'm doing … and playing with a smile on my face.

"I've always been happy playing for Australia, it just got to the point where I was feeling the pressure. It happens in professional sports, you can feel the pressure and start to believe in things that are said or outside influences, and it just got to that point for me. I've moved past that. I'm 31, I've been around the game for a long time now and I think I've matured in that I have belief in myself and just go out there and play my game and do the best job I can."

That job in Melbourne was to put the wind up Sri Lanka's batsmen with a series of withering short balls that wrecked their chances of doing decently in the first innings and all but ended the match in the second. The first ball he whirred down at Tillakaratne Dilshan clipped the glove and resulted in a catch to short leg, and after lunch another lifting delivery broke Kumar Sangakkara's hand. These were intimidatory blows, pure and simple.

"It's not every day you get to play for your country and I'm pretty proud of the fact I've played 49 Tests now. You've just got to look to the future and, if you get picked, go out there and make the most of it. That's what I'm doing … and playing with a smile on my face."
Mitchell Johnson

"The last couple of days in Hobart the boys went pretty hard at their batters with the short ball and they didn't like it," Johnson said. "So that was another plan through this Test match, to get up their batters. Unfortunately for them they got a few injuries out of it. I've done it in the past and it definitely helps, you don't have to get those last couple of wickets.

"I think that intimidation factor definitely worked out there today, and we bowled really well as a team through this whole Test match and beat them very well. To be able to have a good game out there was nice, but we've got to look forward to this next Test and hopefully keep driving it into them and win 3-0."

The other major factor in Johnson's star-turn at the MCG was the man bowling so fastidiously at the other end. Jackson Bird made the most compelling seamer's debut this side of Stuart Clark, who claimed 9 for 89 against South Africa on a seaming Cape Town surface in 2006. While Bird's figures were not quite as spectacular, his combination with the faster, less predictable Johnson was irresistible, leaving the Sri Lankan batsmen uncertain of their off stump at one end, and fearing for their safety at the other.

"His control with the new ball is an area that I think we've been looking for," Michael Clarke said of Bird. "He probably filled the role of Ben Hilfenhaus. To be able to swing the ball away from the right-hander with the new ball and then take it across the left-hander off the wicket is a great strength. The one thing I really like about Jackson is you know what you're going to get.

"He bowled into the breeze the whole game and did a fantastic job for us. On any given day you take your own wickets or score your own runs, but what gets forgotten is the work the guy does up the other end, and I think Birdy played a huge part in Mitch's success in the first innings, and it allows a bowler like Mitch to be able to attack."

Johnson took this licence to attack with rare fervour, and could do the same in Sydney. That's if he gets the part, of course.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here