Australia v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Sydney, 1st day January 3, 2013

Clarke, Johnson brought back to earth

Apart from the admirably persistent Jackson Bird, Australia's first Test match day of 2013 was far from auspicious

A week ago, in a world where Tony Greig still lived and Michael Hussey was locked in for the 2013 Ashes series, Mitchell Johnson and Michael Clarke deflected the suggestions that the game had become easy for them. Johnson had just terrorised Sri Lanka's batsmen, sending two of them to hospital on the way to plucking the match award for the Boxing Day Test, and Clarke had peeled off a century despite a tender hamstring to conclude the most prolific year by any Australian.

While they responded to those suggestions that they had mastered the game - Johnson for a week, Clarke for the year - with the sportsman's typical reply that cricket defies such control, the evidence on display for most of day one in Sydney indicated a momentary loss of perspective. Reflecting a dim view of the opposition and the task at hand, Australia chose an unbalanced team, Clarke made one of his more questionable choices upon winning the toss, and Johnson's bowling returned to its more erratic extremes, failing to harvest a single wicket.

Sri Lanka, completely bedraggled by injury and free-fallen confidence entering the match, were thus allowed to wriggle to some sort of tally, grateful for the application of Lahiru Thirimanne and a long-awaited overseas score for Mahela Jayawardene. They might have done better still without the pesky presence of Jackson Bird in Australia's XI, who in his second Test showed a maturity of approach that rendered laughable any pre-match notions that he had been the last of five bowlers chosen for the match.

Bird's follow-up success was a vindication of his adherence to a consistent method and a thoughtful approach, in contrast to some of his fellow bowlers. It also cast harsh light on the way the Australians had prepared themselves for this match, the notion of facing negligible opposition clearly impacting on the selection of the squad, the team and the choice at the toss. Johnson's inclusion as an allrounder ahead of Glenn Maxwell, another speculative choice, proffered the selectors' view that to defeat Sri Lanka in Sydney, Australia could get by with five batsmen.

Clarke's decision to insert Sri Lanka on a surface drier than it appeared seemed geared by the expectation of a swift victory with five bowlers. It was in defiance of the views of the SCG curator, Tom Parker, who reckoned the pitch had less moisture in it than last summer's equivalent against India, which had offered helpful movement for much of the first day. It was also a decision that ran almost as contrary to the history of the ground as the choosing of four pacemen - the last team to send the opposition in on winning the toss was Mohammad Azharuddin's Indians in 1992, the most recent before that Greg Chappell against England on a rain-affected strip in 1980.

The first over of the morning had hinted that some early life was on offer, as Mitchell Starc swung and bounced the new ball with venom. But it was soon to flatten out into a very pleasant and not particularly fast batting strip, leaving the bowlers to toil for long tracts. Bird claimed a pair of wickets before lunch, Dimuth Karunaratne to an abortive pull shot and Tillakaratne Dilshan to a nicely pitched ball that nipped away handily, but admitted afterwards that it had not been the easiest day for the pacemen on a "beautiful wicket for batting". Nathan Lyon found some early spin that will interest Ragana Herath, particularly now he has the chance to bowl last.

"At lunch we had a bit of a chat about how we probably bowled two sides of the wicket, a little bit short with the new ball, and probably weren't patient enough," Bird said. "If you put the ball in the right areas enough and stood the seam up you'd get something out of it. It was pretty similar to Melbourne, there was a little bit this morning and we just weren't good enough to stand the seam up and get that movement."

Bird managed to fulfil this commission ably, but Johnson returned to the kinds of spells that had pushed him to the edge of losing his Test place before injury ensured he would disappear from the scene for most of last summer. Having used the new ball with aggression and direction in Melbourne, here Johnson was the fourth paceman used, and did not adjust too well to the change.

Short balls that had broken fingers at the MCG were ducked under or taken bravely on the body by Sri Lanka's batsmen, swinging deliveries were often misdirected, and he was taken for close to 4.5 runs per over. Cast as a No. 7 batsman in this match, Johnson will need to show his sense of belonging has not been dented by an indifferent spell at the bowling crease.

Thanks to Bird's consistency, Starc's capacity for bowling a handful of ripping deliveries amid larger quantities of the mediocre, and Sri Lanka's porous lower order, these missteps were not punished too severely. But they should be remembered by Australia's leaders, for the rest of the year will provide precious few opportunities for similar breathing room, given the steep rise in the quality of the opposition and the difficulty of the conditions to be faced in India and England.

As demonstrated by the sudden loss of Greig, and reinforced by the surprise retirement of Hussey, nothing is guaranteed. Lacking the overpowering talent of previous incarnations, this Australian team must maximise their chances by avoiding errors in judgement and moments of hubris.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Luke on January 4, 2013, 4:44 GMT

    Meh, as far as I can see the state of the match so far vindicates the decision. While Watson is injured its worth trying Johnson as an all rounder and a dead rubber against weak opponents is the best situation to try it. Brettig, you seem to think that Australia are suffering because of perceived hubris when in actually fact while it is a closer match than last time (it would be hard not to be) Aus are still firmly in control and at no stage look like losing. I see these decisions as an experiment making use of the opportunity, there is nothing arrogant about that. Australia is right to be planning for India and the Ashes.

  • Sankar on January 4, 2013, 4:24 GMT

    @mikey, Australia will do well against the current Indian side. The Indian batters can't seem to survive 5-6 overs of swing bowling against Pak. And we all know that they were at Sea against England spinners. I only hope Australia doesn't use that trip as an yardstick for their progress - a mediocre Indian side is no competition. With respect to this series, having lost their best batsman, SL is doing well. Lets hope SL gets to set a 300 run target for OZ in the 4th inning. That would set it up.

  • Ben on January 4, 2013, 2:10 GMT

    If we had Maxwell we would still have Johnson , Bird was the last man so id say selection was excellent.

  • Dummy4 on January 4, 2013, 1:30 GMT

    Mitch averages 41 in SCG vs 24.88 in other Aussie grounds. He simply can't adjust his length for SCG. Please DO NOT SELECT Mitch for any SCG matches.

  • Yakub on January 4, 2013, 0:33 GMT

    people are reading far to much into these. to bowl a team out on first day is really good. Under 300 is even better. Australia is judged far to harshly. they are being judged on for competitiveness to the past Aussie team.They are a young side capable of getting to the number 1 position in the future if they stay together.

  • Guy on January 4, 2013, 0:29 GMT

    @Moz, India v England would have been better named the "Hubris Leads to Decline Trophy". @SKC412, the 'steep rise in standard' implies that England, who Australia play after India, are much better than India, as they proved in the recent series. @Ian Walker, spot on. @reddawn1975, how much more evidence do you need that Johnson is brilliant one day, useless the next? Check out the following match scorecards: Perth 2008 (brilliant), MCG 2008 (useless). Headingley 2009 (brilliant), The Oval 2009 (useless). Wellington 2010 (brilliant), Lords/Leeds 2010 (useless). Perth 2010 (brilliant), MCG/Sydney 2011 (useless). He should be nowhere near our bowling line-up for Trent Bridge, but does have a role as a dangerous, albeit risky, back-up. @pat_one_back, I assume the Marsh you mention is Mitch? Surely he's a worse pick than Smith and Maxwell (i.e. diabolical rather than merely embarrassing) at this stage of his career (FC avg of 22). Henriques would be a bit better, let's say 'hopeful'.

  • Nick on January 4, 2013, 0:20 GMT

    "Lacking the overpowering talent of previous incarnations" - probably, but there is a lot to like about this Australian team and I would not be surprised if they become a dominant team in 2-3 years. I more or less agree with the general thrust of this article, but I think if the team finds a couple of batsmen and Lyon evolves into a world class spinner, this team is not too far behind South Africa.

  • Basil on January 4, 2013, 0:08 GMT

    Why all the criticism? Bowling out a team for 294 on a strip like this is a good effort. It actually makes sense to choose 5 bowlers on a very good batting pitch. A standard 6-1-4 team would probably have a batsman in surplus on a track like this. 5 bowlers gives you more chance of taking 20 wickets. No other team gets criticized as much as the Aussies.

  • Dummy4 on January 4, 2013, 0:00 GMT

    Lets wait until after day 2 before was start accusing people of hubris shall we. If Australia are 0 - 550 at stumps then the sentiments of this article will be about as relevant as the Sri Lankan bowling attack. I like the look of this side with Johnson as the all-rounder frankly. At least he CAN do damage with bat and ball and is generally fit. As far as Micks decision to bowl and the performance of the bowlers generally ... bowling any team out under 300 is good. Thira deserves more praise than the Aussies deserve crticism. It was a great innings.

  • James on January 3, 2013, 23:25 GMT

    @mikey76, another one with a chip on the shoulder. It's only a game, sir. And you know perfectly well that Australia is just behind the top spot on the test rankings. SA has beaten Australia 4 times in the 11 internationals played this last year, and lost 5. That hardly suggests the massive difference in cricket talent between the two countries you insist upon, and you saw for yourself what happened in the test series before Pattinson broke down and the entire fastbowling unit replaced. Statistically, Siddle is better than Morkel, and I'm guessing you put the latter in the world class category and reject the merits of the former.

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