IN ITS debut in international cricket, at the 1975 World Cup in England, Sri Lanka was terrorised one day by Australia's human catapult, Jeff Thomson. One batsman, Duleep Mendis, was knocked out and brought around at the crease, whereupon Thomson avers that he exclaimed: ''Oh my God, I go now.'' Mendis vehemently denies it. Sunil Wettimuny, sheared off at the instep, collapsed while being helped from the ground. Both spent the night in hospital.
Since, Sri Lanka has played in three World Cup finals and won one, and beaten every other country at least once at Test cricket. On Friday at the MCG, it was rudely manhandled back to the beginning, suffering at Australia's hands its third heaviest defeat in Test cricket, and its most macabre since that bloody day at the Oval. Seven second-innings wickets were enough for Australia; the other three were nursing strains and breaks. Barely past its mid-point, the Boxing Day Test was all over.
Impersonating Thomson was Mitch Johnson, so often a haunted figure as an international cricketer, now seemingly exorcised. In the morning, he batted majestically, but was stranded on 92 not out. Though disappointed, Johnson went immediately to Jackson Bird, the last man dismissed, to touch gloves in a gesture of solidarity.
After a Superman change, they were back to lead the Australian assault. On bouncy pitches, Johnson at his worst is more frightening for wicketkeepers than batsmen. Here, he locked onto a length from which the Sri Lankan batsmen could find no refuge. Four balls into Sri Lanka's second innings, it was 2-1. Twenty-nine balls later, it was 4-13.
Only mighty Kumar Sangakkara resisted meaningfully, until a Johnson steepler broke his index finger and put an abrupt end to what was a milestone match for bowler and batsman. In it, Sangakkara made his 10,000th run and Johnson took his 200th wicket, matching and then surpassing Thomson.
If protective equipment was as rudimentary now as in 1975, the toll might have been graver still. Thomson once famously enunciated a liking for ''blood on the pitch''.
Now Johnson channelled him.
''The last couple of days in Hobart (in the first Test), we went hard at them with the short ball, and they didn't like it,'' he said. ''I think that intimidation factor really worked out there today.'' The modern twist is that Johnson did not play in Hobart; he was rotated out.
Johnson's performance prompted Australian captain Michael Clarke to foreshadow the possibility that he would play in the New Year Test in Sydney as an all-rounder, in place of vice-captain Shane Watson, who is injured yet again. One of the perverse outcomes of this quickfire match is that Australia is more at sixes and sevens about its team for Sydney than Sri Lanka.
Clarke, despite his hundred, remains on hamstring watch. If he does not play, Australia will have to elect a new captain; it does not have a deputy-vice. If he does play, it will be at No.4; consciousness of this came to him only as an afterthought.
Victorian Glenn Maxwell has been drafted in to replace Watson. This creates several possible permutations. In one, wicketkeeper Matt Wade would bat at No. 6. In another, Bird would sit out the match. With debut figures of 4-61 from 22 overs, he can hardly be said either not to have earned his place, or to have been overworked.
Nor can Peter Siddle, who bowled 13.2 overs in this match. Rotation is a well-meant policy, but is going to create these headaches, more so if Australia finds itself on a winning run. For Sri Lanka, it is simple: it has only 12 fit players left on tour.
The scale of win notwithstanding, Australia is a work in progress, flattered by Sri Lanka's feebleness. Not for the first time, the Sri Lankans were defenceless against the bounce and carry in an Australian pitch.
''Things happened fast for us,'' said captain Mahela Jayawardene. ''We didn't handle any of the situations well. Injuries we can't control, but they are no excuse.''
Mendis and Wettimuny will feel dishonoured. In 1975, they were taking the fight to Australia, provoking Thomson's barrage. The only yelp their modern counterparts gave was of pain.