North savours satisfying century
Forrest Gump's momma thought life was like a box of chocolates. "You never know what you're gonna get". Australian cricket fans must get the same feeling these days when Marcus North walks to the crease and marks his guard. His superb 128 at the Chinnaswamy Stadium was North's fifth century in just 19 Tests, but he's also been out an astonishing 16 times for scores of 10 or less [31 innings]. English fans who have been willing him into the Ashes side should be careful what they wish for. When he gets a start, North can really hurt you.
His press conference after the day's play was as calm and composed as most of his innings had been. "Been asked that question maybe 20 times," he said with a smile when the starting trouble was mentioned. "Do you blokes have any ideas? It's a difficult one for me. It's been like that my whole career and it's highlighted at the Test level because every innings is there for everyone to see and comment about. I'm trying my best to work with it."
That work involved sessions with Tim Nielsen, the coach, where they focussed on getting a positive stride down the wicket. There was also attention paid to his on-drive. "The work I did with Vinny [Nielsen] ... having a really positive foot movement. It sounds simple, but it's not that easy. That's something I'll take away from this innings. When I've struggled to get started, my feet [movements] perhaps haven't been as sharp. Most batsmen are like that, but I've been more vulnerable than most."
North was nearly 30 when he made his debut, and he reckons that the late start has made him cherish every opportunity to wear the baggy green. "I made my debut so late that I thought I probably wasn't going to play for Australia," he said. "I try to enjoy every Test match and make the most of it. It can be difficult at times, the pressures of the game and the standards you set yourself. This is my 19th Test and the main thing for me is to try and contribute to a win."
After a week of raging debate over whether he'd be part of the Ashes equation, North was just content to savour what he called a "satisfying hundred". "You have to ask the national selectors that," he quipped when asked about the Ashes. "I knew that I was under pressure going into this game. I've had a couple of disappointing Test matches, so I thought it was a great opportunity to go in on a pretty good batting surface and get a score. I got a start yesterday and it was nice to go on and make the most of it today."
Having come in with the scoreboard showing 198 for 4, North scored nearly half the runs added before his heave at Harbhajan Singh found the fielder in the deep. "After walking in yesterday against Zaheer Khan, my feet were moving as well as they have been for a while," he said. When play was called off, he was on 43, having just survived a swinging yorker from Zaheer. "It was a bit of luck," he said. "It was dark there. My whole innings, I felt like I was hitting the ball pretty well straight. It was something me and Tim had worked on."
In his case, the familiarity with the venue bred confidence, not contempt. "I was walking off after the last training session and JL [Justin Langer] said: 'Make sure you visualise scoring some runs here'. I've played here three or four times, made hundreds for WA [Western Australia] on pre-season tours and also played for Australia A here. Scored a few runs here, but a Test match is a completely different scenario."
North's record of five centuries compares favourably to some of the game's greats. It took Rahul Dravid 29 Tests to score five hundreds, though his average was much higher, and it took Steve Waugh as many as 56 games. It wasn't until after he'd played 60 games that Waugh consistently averaged over 40. Maybe the selectors do know something that the average punter doesn't.
When his place in the side was being queried, his team-mates had rallied round North and Ricky Ponting, his captain, had spoken at length about the experience and composure that he brought to the side. North insisted that the rough patch had not shaken his self-belief. "You might think that's quite strange," he said. "Other than talking with Vinny, I didn't change anything mentally. The week before last, I got a hundred in the warm-up game. I felt I was in pretty good touch. I've felt pretty comfortable this tour and maybe that's why, under a lot of pressure, I've come through."
Australia have never lost in Bangalore and now have the advantage of runs on the board, but North admitted that it would take some special bowling to prise the Indians out twice. "It's a pretty good batting surface and should hold together," he said. "It was pretty tacky and moist on day one, and is probably going to take a few days to dry out. There is a bit of deterioration, and it may be harder to bat on days four and five. We're going to have to come out tomorrow and be very disciplined to build pressure and get into the middle order."
The bowler to most catch the eye in the session that India batted was Ben Hilfenhaus, who gave little away and also dismissed Virender Sehwag with the short-ball bait that he has fallen for in three successive innings. "Since Hilfy's made his debut, he's been very impressive in all conditions," said North. "He's a natural swing bowler and suited to the English and Australian swinging ball.
"Coming over here, he's proved that there's more to his game than just swinging the ball. He's banged it in hard, bowled cross-seam and tidily. He's adapted his game to Indian conditions pretty quickly and had some success."
The biggest barrier in Australia's path, with VVS Laxman unavailable for this game, could be Sachin Tendulkar, and North couldn't hide his admiration. "He's a pretty amazing player," he said. "To be on the same ground when he brought up his 14,000th Test run is pretty special. It's a credit to his career. We talk about the pressures of Test cricket. This guy's got the pressure of a nation on him. He's someone we're going to try and remove pretty quickly tomorrow. To see him score 14,000 in the same game in which I went past 1000 puts things into perspective."
Perspective is certainly not something that North lacks. A late entrant to the Test game, he may play a few more yet.