Under-pressure North escapes extra glare
There is one man in the Australian team who would be a little relieved at Michael Clarke hogging the headlines this week. All the attention on Clarke's private life has meant that Marcus North has slipped under the radar in the lead-up to a series that, should he fail to perform, could spell the end of his Test career.
It was only a year ago that North burst on to the Test scene with a century on debut in Johannesburg, which was followed by two hundreds and a 96 on the Ashes tour. But since then the rewards have been fewer for North, who scratched through the home summer with 207 runs at 23 in six Tests. His Sheffield Shield form has not augured well either, and in seven games for Western Australia this summer he has managed only 294 runs at 24.50.
His slip has been so pronounced that there is no guarantee he will even play the first Test in Wellington starting on Friday, although it is likely he will hold his place ahead of the in-form Steven Smith. North's team-mates have been rallying around the struggling batsman, who has been working hard in the nets in Wellington in an attempt to reignite his Test career.
"I know Ricky [Ponting] has been working with Northy in the nets, just on tiny little things just to try and improve his game," Michael Hussey told Cricinfo. "For me, I just want to help him get into a good mental frame of mind so he can go out there, play his way, play with confidence, and he's a class act and I'm sure he'll be fine and scoring runs."
Hussey has known North since they both played junior cricket at Perth's Wanneroo Cricket Club and he is desperately keen for his friend to regain the spark that escaped him against West Indies and Pakistan. The two men know each other's games intimately and give one another pointers if they spot any errors.
Hussey also understands the stress that can come with an extended lean patch in Test cricket, after he went 15 Tests without a century until he effectively saved his career with 121 at The Oval last year. He said the key for North was to keep trusting the game that had brought him this far and not to put too much pressure on himself.
"Where I got myself into trouble was that when things weren't quite going to plan, you start trying harder, you start becoming more intense, you start putting more pressure on yourself and it's a natural human nature thing," Hussey said. "But as soon as you take a step back, relax, go back to trusting what works for you, then suddenly it's amazing how the consistency returns."
It will be difficult for North not to think about the pressure coming from outside the starting XI. His fellow debutant from the South African tour, Phillip Hughes, is hovering in the squad along with the allrounder Smith, who is coming off a superb Sheffield Shield season that brought him four centuries. At 20, Smith has the advantage of youth over the 30-year-old North. Should North play in Wellington and fail, there will be calls for the promotion of Smith, who was described by his New South Wales team-mate Clarke as "very confident".
"A lot has been made of Smithy coming out and saying he's ready to take his opportunity when he gets it, and I think he's shown that in the Twenty20 version for Australia and also for New South Wales," Clarke said. "In all three forms of the game, he's had a wonderful year. If he gets his chance he'll grab it with both hands. If he doesn't he'll keep working his backside off and keep waiting for his opportunity."
As the beneficiary of Andrew Symonds departing from the Test scene, North knows full well that when opportunity knocks it is vital to respond positively. This week in Wellington, he needs to answer the call again.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo