Death by the cathedral
Mitchell Johnson: winner, Test bowling performance of 2013
Perth. Durban. Brisbane. Centurion. The scenes of Mitchell Johnson's most destructive bursts have generally been grounds on which pace is prestige. In such environments batsmen have less time to cope with the slinging action, the occasional swing, the high speed and the throat-seeking bouncer. Likewise Johnson has more reason to charge in to the wicket, knowing his gifts will be augmented by the qualities of the pitch. In these circumstances he is undeniably lethal.
Then there is Adelaide. The city of churches and of hundreds, of Bradman, the Chappells, Hookes and Lehmann. The oval of picket fences and short square boundaries. The surface of high first-innings scores and gradual deterioration, of Test matches stretching languidly to finish sometime around tea on the final day. Latterly, the home of a benign drop-in pitch. Adelaide was not a Johnson venue in any sense. Before this summer it was his second-least prolific Australian Test ground, and the place where he was dropped during the 2010-11 Ashes.
In the weeks before the second Test against England, Adelaide's reputation as a vexing locale for fast bowlers had gathered greater steam, through the South Australian Cricket Association's installation of the drop-ins to ease the addition of AFL football to the ground. Previously a paceman could expect some early life then variable bounce towards the end. This time there was less evidence of either. At the time of writing, in four first-class matches at the ground in 2013-14, including the Test match, the combined figures of every other pace bowling stint in Adelaide came to 41 wickets for 1963 runs at 47.88. No other fast bowler claimed a five-wicket haul.
So when Alastair Cook gazed down towards the Cathedral End a few minutes after tea on the second day to face Johnson's first ball, he harboured thoughts of a threat reduced if not neutralised. Australia's first-innings tally was vast, but the pitch unimpeachably flat, the sky blue and the sun high. Thrilling and terrifying in equal measure at the Gabba, Johnson could not reproduce that here, could he? Next question.
Summoning pace arguably greater than that of his Brisbane display, Johnson beat Cook three times in nine balls. The first two thudded into Brad Haddin's gloves. The third clattered squarely into off stump, having straightened marginally off the pitch. Movement or none, Cook was simply done for speed, his bat still on its hesitant downswing when the ball hummed past. Of all his Ashes dismissals, this one stays in the mind. Cook the unbowlable, bowled. That moment alone was enough to make Johnson's Test memorable. A crowd of 35,488 went home raving about it.
Johnson was far from finished, of course. Nathan Lyon, Peter Siddle and Shane Watson winkled out a trio of England wickets on day three, setting the scene for Johnson's return to the crease. An older ball offered the possibility of some reverse swing, a scoreline of 117 for 4 the opportunity for a killing. Patient cricket had been required to corner the tourists into their uncertain position. What followed was the sort of extraordinary interlude that lifted the genteel Adelaide Oval into a state of rare tumult.
The scorecard bears an uncanny resemblance to those of teams pitted against West Indies in the 1980s, or facing Wasim and Waqar the following decade. England's lower order simply ceased to exist. Ben Stokes lbw, beaten for pace. Matt Prior caught behind, waving his bat at Johnson's angle. Stuart Broad, bowled behind his pads next ball after theatrically delaying the delivery. Graeme Swann edging airily to slip. James Anderson bowled next ball between a yawning bat and pad. Monty Panesar gone in similar fashion a few minutes later. Ian Bell the lone survivor, his quite reasonable thoughts of a century still lingering from little more than half an hour before.
Such mayhem. Such noise. Such excitement. Such destruction. That evening, after Australia had commenced setting England an unreachable target on the way to a 2-0 lead in the series, he reflected on what he had done. "There's been talk in the past, I can have those performances where I can blow a team away and then the next one not turn up," he said in the gentle voice that can obscure the menace. "For me I think that was why it was a bit more emotional and special."
In years to come, this will be remembered as the performance that pushed Johnson into the very top bracket of fast men. The occasion, the venue, the opponent, the drama and, yes, the moustache, all added to the sense of a rare moment in time. Comparisons with Michael Holding's immortal performance on a similarly unresponsive wicket at The Oval in 1976 abounded, and they were not made lightly.
The rare quality of Johnson's 7 for 40 could be glimpsed even when England faced him again, in the second innings. Though claiming Cook again, this time on the hook, he found the going harder, and supported the rest of the attack in rounding up the second innings. Man-of-the-Match honours, though, were never in question. Johnson had cut England to pieces, leaving no doubt as to the destiny of the Ashes, nor the identity of the man who had decided it. And all on a pitch no more friendly to fast men than dogs are to cats. Unforgettable.