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July 18, 2010
When Shahid Afridi was asked after the Lord's Test what he thought of Marcus North's bowling, he screwed up his face, looked away and tried not to laugh. As compliments go, it could have been more convincing. North doesn't care. He described it as one of the highlights of his career to help Australia win a Test and earn a place on the bowling honour board at Lord's, alongside his batting colleague Shane Watson.
If that wasn't proof enough that the natural order had been turned upside-down, North's 6 for 55 was the best bowling by an Australian spinner in a Test innings at the home of cricket. Shane Warne couldn't match it, nor Clarrie Grimmett, nor Arthur Mailey, although none of them had the luxury of bowling to Pakistan at Lord's.
"I don't feel like I deserve that, to be honest," North said. "There have been some amazing bowlers over the years who have had some great bowling performances at Lord's. I certainly would like to have that six-for against England. But it was a great occasion to play at a neutral venue against Pakistan at Lord's."
Afridi's wicket was the ultimate bonus for a bowler - from his fourth delivery he tried to launch North onto Cavendish Avenue, only to find the fielder at deep midwicket. It wasn't all luck for North and his dismissal of Umar Akmal, who cut to slip when he was surprised by turn and extra bounce from the rough outside off stump, was memorable.
Things went North's way as soon as Ricky Ponting handed him the ball ahead of Steven Smith on the fourth day. With two left-handers at the crease, Ponting wanted the ball turning away from them, but with his first delivery North drifted the ball down leg side and had Salman Butt stumped thanks to an excellent piece of glovework from Tim Paine.
"I'm as surprised as you guys," North said. "It felt like the ball was coming out okay. There are times it has come out better, but I haven't had too many opportunities at this level. An opportunity to contribute with the ball is something that I love to do. Getting the ball thrown to me and having the opportunity to help win a Test match for Australia is certainly one of the highlights of my career."
North's first six-for in first-class cricket helped him forget about a disappointing match with the bat, after he was bowled for a duck in the first innings and caught behind for 20 in the second. North is coming off a century and a 90 in Australia's last series, on their tour of New Zealand, but his tendency to make triple or single figures, with not a lot in between, is a slight concern.
"In general with batters the first 20 or 30 balls are pretty important," he said. "My record shows it's very important for me. It's something that I'm very aware of. I don't think it's a nervous thing. I'm no more nervous than anyone else. It's something that I've been trying to work on my whole career, it's not just since I've been playing for Australia."
It's a habit that means he is constantly under the microscope, for even if he has scored recent hundreds a string of very low scores is not a good look for a No. 6 batsman. Speculation over his place in the team intensified during the Australian home season, but his efforts in New Zealand eased the pressure.
"That's something I've learnt a lot during the Australian summer, where there is that scrutiny," North said of dealing with media criticism. "I've learnt ways and techniques to filter that. But in New Zealand it was rewarding for me not just to get through that scrutiny but as a mental challenge as well, dealing with that side of things for the first time is rewarding for me."
At least the next Test is being played at a venue with happy memories for North. At Headingley last year, his 110 helped Australia to an innings victory over England and earned him the Man of the Match award. He'd love to remind people he's a batsman first, bowler second.
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