Focussed Clarke is ready to go
Michael Clarke and Marcus North have both been under pressure this week for different reasons, but both men could be thrust into the spotlight on field early on Friday. Daniel Vettori said the seam-friendly conditions at the Basin Reserve might encourage him to send Australia in if he wins the toss, while Ricky Ponting will, as always, be keen to put runs on the board.
By the time Australia are two down, there will be plenty of attention on the next two men padded up. Ponting was confident that the No. 5, Clarke, would have felt a great weight lifted off his shoulders after facing up to the media on Wednesday, significantly easing much of the intrusion into his personal life. Clarke has looked upbeat at training and Ponting had no doubt he was ready for Test cricket.
"I only had to ask him a simple question, are you right to go?" Ponting said. "The fact he was back here when he was said to me straight away that he was ready to play cricket again. There's no doubt it's been a tough week or couple of weeks for him but I know Michael well enough to know if he wasn't ready to come back and play he wouldn't have come. When he first arrived we sat down in my room and had a chat about a few things and he assured me then that he was ready to go and focussed on playing."
The challenge for the No. 6, North, is a different one. He finds himself on the verge of a potential Test axing, after what was for the majority a positive first year of Test cricket. His poor form after the first Test of the Australian summer has left him needing runs in Wellington to fend off the allrounder Steven Smith, and Ponting felt certain that North could regain the form that made him a key player on the tours of South Africa and England.
"I've done a lot of work with him actually, one-on-one stuff the last couple of days and spoken a lot to him," Ponting said. "There's no doubt that he's probably feeling a bit of the pressure, that probably explains why his form in the last half of the Shield season probably hasn't been as strong as he would have liked. I've made it clear all the way through last summer with him he didn't have a lot of great opportunities.
"From the moment he came into this side, his debut hundred at the Wanderers, his shot selection and everything that was on display just looked like he'd been around for five years. You don't lose that, just sometimes you get a bit confused and second guess yourself a little bit. He has just got to get back into that clear thinking state of mind when he is out in the middle and I am confident he can do that over the next couple of weeks."
Vettori knows how important it will be to maintain the pressure on Australia's batsmen. His own top order is inexperienced and in their past five first-innings at the Basin Reserve, New Zealand have failed to post 200 four times and once didn't even reach 100. All the more reason to look to the bowlers for direction.
"Clarke's record speaks for itself as of late so I'm sure he'll be fine," Vettori said. "North is a guy we probably haven't seen a lot of, just video footage and seeing the Test match series against West Indies and Pakistan. The goal for us is to keep North under pressure because that's what you need to do. There's going to be key moments in the game but if we can keep that pressure on then we have a chance of winning."
New Zealand always enter a Test series against Australia as the underdogs and this is no exception. Victory would be a landmark achievement for Vettori's men, given that they haven't beaten Australia since 1993, but even holding Australia to draws would be a positive result and the captain said a strong series would make their 2009-10 a success.
"It's been a pretty good season up till now," he said. "If we could have won the Chappell-Hadlee then it would have been a really good season but if we look back from the Champions Trophy through to now there's been some really good cricket and to finish it off in the Test match form would be the key for us because that's one that we have struggled with."
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo