Spin a vital string in North's bow
If, as seems likely, Marcus North is bestowed the honour of leading Australia's spin attack at some stage this summer, he will have the Sri Lankans to thank. A reluctant bowler for the majority of his state career, North only began concentrating on his finger spin after Tom Moody returned from Sri Lanka to take the helm at Western Australia.
Having watched North's international prospects stagnate, Moody suggested offspin, not batting, could prove the crucial factor in winning over Australia's selectors in the wake of the retirements of Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill. Borrowing heavily from the philosophies, tactics and field placements of Sri Lanka's spinners, Moody imparted his newly-acquired widsom to North, who in turn applied it in the nets and on the field.
The results have been encouraging, if not overwhelming. From the ashes of Australia's first home Test series defeat in 16 years, North was selected for the ensuing tour of South Africa. A century on debut ensured his presence was immediately felt with the bat, but given the balance of Australia's side, it was North's spin that proved arguably the more important skill.
His two wickets might not have caught the eye, but his ability to contain (2.57 economy-rate) and ease the over-rate pressure on Ricky Ponting and the pacemen were significant in the side's eventual victories in Johannesburg and Durban. At least as incisive as Nathan Hauritz, and more economical than Jason Krejza, North now stands as a viable stop-gap spin bowling option for Australia just 18 months after he decided to take the craft seriously.
"I'm not a character that tries to look back too much, but who knows if I would have taken the bowling as seriously as I have if Tom Moody hadn't come back to coach Western Australia," North told Cricinfo. "I guess it's something that in hindsight I probably could have paid a lot more attention to a lot earlier. Whether I would have played for Australia earlier, I don't know.
"Bowling was something that he [Moody] identified that I've really got to work hard and step up to that kind of level. Without a doubt, that has contributed to me being picked for the South African and the Ashes tours - not just my batting, but the option that my bowling does give the Australian team. If anything, Tom's lessons from Sri Lanka dealt more with the mental and tactical side, bowling to different fields in different conditions. That was the knowledge Tom could bring on."
North's pressure-relieving innings of 191 not out against England Lions last week reinforced the notion that, despite having played just two Tests, he is one of Ricky Ponting's most pivotal players. A proven first-class batsman and a versatile spinner, North provides the Australians with both balance and solidity; qualities the side sorely lacked during last year's tour of India and the home series against South Africa.
Australia have won both Tests in which North played as the frontline spinner, and the confidence from those performances could convince Ponting to field a four-man pace attack in Cardiff. The tourists will delay naming their XI until Wednesday morning - Ponting and chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch are keen for one, last look at the Sophia Gardens pitch before making a definitive call - but whichever way they configure their attack, expect North to play an important role.
"Going back 18 months to two years, this is the position I was hoping to find myself in - with my bowling being a key factor to me being picked in an Ashes team," he said. "Yes, my batting is my No. 1 skillset, and I think I showed that in the first Test against South Africa, but my bowling is a bonus and something I think I can offer not just in a part-time role, but also in an attacking and a holding role for Ricky in any kind of conditions. It's good we identified this couple of years ago.
"If there is a Test match where we don't play that specialist spinner, then as we saw in South Africa there are three of us who are competent at that level. We could go into a Test without a spinner but have three guys who can bowl pretty handy spin, not just at a part-time level but at a level to contribute, be match-winning and take wickets."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo