Australia v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Darwin, 1st day July 1, 2004

Australia hit back after Sri Lanka win the first skirmish

Sri Lanka 3 for 43 (McGrath 2-28) trail Australia 207 (Lehmann 57, Martyn 47, Vaas 5-31) by 164 runs

Lasith Malinga started the slide with his slingshots © Getty Images

The wonder of Jeff Thomson's twisting, frenetic, slingshot bowling action was never so much how Thommo did it. The wonder was why almost nobody else did. Well, the world need wonder no longer. Lasith Malinga, a 20-year-old debutant fast bowler with a Thommo-like action, today put fear into the minds of Australia's batsmen for a brief while, before three late Sri Lankan wickets left this first day under cloudless Darwin skies firmly in the balance. At stumps, they were 3 for 43 in response to Australia's disappointing 207.

If it was Malinga who upset the Australians, shooting out Darren Lehmann and Adam Gilchrist in a nasty post-tea spell, it was Chaminda Vaas who finished them off via more conventional means. Curving the ball menacingly away from the left-handers - and there are six of them in this Australian top seven, which is surely unprecedented - Vaas produced a masterful exhibition of old-style swing bowling.

Sometimes he swung it big and early, sometimes late and subtly, which is what accounted for the two Matthews - Hayden and Elliott - and most of the tail. By the end Vaas had 5 for 31 and Australia had lost last their seven wickets for 30. It was only the second time in three years that they had been kept to under three runs an over, and the repercussions for Sri Lankan cricket looked significant indeed. Here was proof, at last, that there is more to them than Muttiah Muralitharan.

The Malinga-Thommo comparison should not be exaggerated. Thomson's action had an epic, slow-motion quality to it. At the peak of his run-up he would tail away from the stumps, his back arched and his feet criss-crossing in mid-air, his left leg following through with daredevil have-a-go-yer-mug intent.

Malinga's style is altogether more modest. If Thomson was a human catapult, Malinga is a windmill, a frenzied flurry of arms. He bowls from closer to the stumps, with barely a jump let alone a leap, and clocks in at around 15kph slower than Thommo.

Still, that is invariably fast enough. Vaas had warned that his new partner was more dangerous with the old ball than the new, and so it proved. In his nine overs before tea Malinga looked slippery without threatening. Then, just before the break, he cuffed Lehmann on the shoulder with a challenging bouncer. Lehmann appeared not to see it. Just after the break, he fired an even sharper one at his throat, a no-ball, which Lehmann spooned helplessly to gully. Moments later, Lehmann tiptoed extravagantly across his crease - a curious untextbook habit of his, this - only to belatedly square up to the ball and watch it thud incriminatingly into his right pad.

Malinga's third ball to the new man, Adam Gilchrist, was a wild inswinging bouncer on leg stump. Gilchrist - half-evading, half-hooking - paddled it tamely through to Kumar Sangakkara, which is when the Malinga-Thommo comparison broke down statistically too. Thomson was carted for six runs an over on debut against Pakistan, didn't take a wicket and wasn't sighted again for two years. Malinga, 32 years later, unnerved the world champions.

Chaminda Vaas celebrates a fabulous five-for © Getty Images

This day never followed a predictable course. Marvan Atapattu elected to field in pristine - if muggy - batting conditions and on a drop-in pitch guaranteed to get lower, slower and ever more alluring to Shane Warne. "It'll never never leave you," beckoned the boundary-side advertising boards plugging Darwin as a tourist destination, and you got the same feeling about Hayden in the first session.

The 4595 locals in attendance downed warm beer and wore their best thongs, their senses stiffened by the faint smell of frangipani. This is the second time Darwin has staged a Test and, as was the case last year, it has the air of the annual race-day at a dusty country town. Hayden's batting, grinning and heaving and swinging across the line, is usually in keeping with such a mood. But this was Hayden without the rough edges: upright in defence, purposeful in attack; circumspect one minute, clobbering Thilan Samaraweera over his head the next.

Langer was less finely chiselled. He almost fell without a run on the board, making a late decision to leave Vaas and edging a low chance to slip. Mahela Jayawardene seemed to think he'd scooped a finger under it, Langer seemed less than eager to take his word for it, and the TV replays - as always at moments like this - seemed peculiarly unhelpful.

Langer was unsettled ever after, frequently mistiming before eventually drilling an implausible sweep to backward square leg (72 for 1). As he trudged off, he may have wondered whether the new old boy Elliott might come back with a bang and put his own position - never entirely rock-solid - under fresh scrutiny.

He need not have worried. Elliott, who put the phone down and screamed with excitement when told he was back in the side, calmly re-opened his Test tally with a single. Then he shaped loosely to drive at Vaas, failed to get near the pitch of it, and edged to second slip (73 for 2). The comeback that took five years to arrive was over in seven minutes.

When Hayden fell after lunch Australia had lost three wickets for eight runs. Lehmann, dabbing his first ball from Vaas defiantly past gully, responded with a mini-classic. Big, bald and beer-swilling, he described himself recently as the last of the old-style Australian cricketers. This afternoon, he was a throwback of a different kind - a David Gower or Neil Harvey, maybe - as with sure feet and soft hands he alternately nudged and thwacked Sri Lanka's part-time spinners.

His vigour briefly awakened something in Damien Martyn. Marooned in his teens, the Darwin-born Martyn suddenly cut loose with successive boundaries off Samaraweera - one thanks to a bumbling full-toss, the other courtesy of a fumbling misfield on the fence. He had crashed five boundaries in 15 minutes when, on the stroke of tea and with startling recklessness, he crunched Sanath Jayasuriya straight to gully (177 for 4). From there, Australia's batting wilted fast.

This day of surprises had one last twist. Glenn McGrath, playing his first Test in a year and with the vultures hovering, fizzed one back to rap Atapattu's middle stump. Jason Gillespie trapped a flat-footed Sangakkara lbw for his 200th Test wicket, then McGrath nailed Jayasuriya in similar fashion (33 for 3).

At this point, you had to stop yourself jumping to conclusions. All McGrath had done was take two wickets; to say he was back to his best would be premature. But he did look sharp. There was a hint of zip. He landed the ball on the spot, jagged it this way or that, and snarled. It is what McGrath has always done. The wonder is why nobody else has ever done it quite like him.