North's star dims as Smith shines
Steven Smith's breathless 77 presumably won't save Australia in this match, but it has given a tantalising taste of what he can bring to Test cricket. There has never been any doubt that Smith has something special about him, though how that intangible gift would translate to the elite level was unclear. It's still not obvious what his future role will be.
But on a day when several of Australia's top six were defeated by a perky Pakistan bowling group, Smith's confident counter-attack was especially notable. There was a particularly stark contrast with the No. 6 Marcus North, who has batted poorly in this series and appears less secure - and unlike Smith, less special - with every innings.
It is unreasonable to suggest after one flashy half-century that Smith should take North's spot up the order, for the younger man could frustrate as much as fascinate. But when Smith launched two consecutive sixes over long-off and onto the Football Stand roof off Danish Kaneria, the eyes of the Australian selectors must have lit up as much as those of the batsman.
Australia's next Test is in Mohali in October, by which time Nathan Hauritz will have recovered from his foot injury. There are only two Tests before the Ashes, so Andrew Hilditch and his panel have some important decisions to make. Hauritz, who was at the top of Australia's wicket tally over their home summer, has done enough to remain the leading spinner.
Two slow men could be employed on the Indian pitches but it's equally possible that Smith will be dropped, despite singlehandedly keeping the match alive with his batting. As a legspinner he has been no more than tidy on his first Test tour, but his strokeplay confirmed that he is not the type to shrink under pressure.
Smith, 21, is a youthful man who has thrived in the youngest format, and there was more than a hint of Twenty20 in some of his swats through midwicket and lofted drives through the off side. With every strong slap or cleverly nudged single at the end of an over to keep the strike from the tailenders, Smith sent Salman Butt to scratch his head for answers.
In terms of technique, parts of Smith's innings were questionable, but at least it was effective. The same cannot be said of North's efforts over the past two Tests. This time, he came to the crease with four wickets down, a deficit of 12 and the team's vice-captain Michael Clarke well set on 41. North was the last of the specialist batsmen and the situation called for vigilance.
Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer were finding late swing, and the momentum was with Pakistan. It was the perfect stage for North, whose ability to fight and score runs in difficult conditions was singled out by the selectors as a key reason for his promotion when he was first chosen in the Test squad early last year.
He could easily have left alone a delivery from Aamer that was wide of off and did little in the air or off the pitch. Instead, North pushed for an ill-judged drive and inside-edged back onto his stumps. Aamer had bowled far more threatening balls, and it was the sort of dismissal in which poor technique plays a part.
North's high back-lift away from his body creates a worrying gap between bat and pad, and it can leave him off balance. In the first innings he wafted at a ball outside off stump from Umar Amin, a modest part-time medium pacer, and edged behind. At Lord's, North took six wickets but scored 0 and 20.
Since the start of the Australian summer, he has averaged 30.26 and his only century came in New Zealand against an attack so pedestrian that the debutant Brent Arnel was its most threatening member. North's New Zealand tour saved his career, and he will need a similar last-minute rescue in India - if he's given the opportunity.
Failures in Mohali and Bangalore would leave the selectors little choice but to drop North for the first Ashes Test, and that is not the time to restructure. Perhaps they will trial Usman Khawaja in India, or shift Shane Watson down to No. 6 and reinstall Phillip Hughes at the top, or gamble on Brad Haddin at six and Smith at seven.
Whatever they choose, Smith's Headingley highlights package has made him hard to drop. The decision on North becomes easier with every failure.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo