North stars on first outing
Rain and runs both came from the north on the first day at the Wanderers. As the northern sky lit up with lightning so frequent and bright that it made the tense atmosphere literally electric during the afternoon, Marcus North was a beacon for Australia in what had threatened to be a gloomy batting card. North was one of three men handed his baggy green before play and his cool and calm 47 not out showed his selection was not a gamble.
North has been one of the more anonymous compilers of runs in Australia's domestic cricket over the past few seasons. Most Australian fans couldn't pick him out of a line-up and they would assume he was one of the support staff if they saw him in a team photo . When he bowled his first ball in the warm-up match in Potchefstroom last week, he was introduced over the PA system as Phillip Hughes.
And yet there was widespread support for his selection in this touring party. Even those who hadn't seen much of North knew him by reputation. At 29, he had a decade of solid first-class cricket behind him, including an average of 44, and he was the type of choice that tempered the more uncertain selections of the 20-year-old Hughes and the developing allrounder Andrew McDonald.
Specifically North was picked because this season he has made most of his runs on spicy pitches that favoured the fast bowlers. These are the sort of venues Australia were anticipating in South Africa and the opening day in Johannesburg justified those expectations. Deliveries were bending past bats and jumping nastily as the world's best pace attack enjoyed the first use of the ball.
The fifth delivery that North faced was a steepling, accurate bouncer from Dale Steyn that was reminiscent of the 13th ball that McDonald received during his debut at the SCG. Whereas McDonald took his eyes off the short one from Morne Morkel and saw his helmet go flying over the top of the stumps, North watched closely and played his bouncer down into the turf from just in front of his nose.
Australia won the Sydney Test but McDonald at No. 6 looked too high and North has proven to be a much sturdier option. Whereas his fellow debutant Hughes tried to get off the mark with a silly slash to a short ball that was edged behind, North waited until he could clip a single safely off his pads. He is not easily fazed. A level-headed state captain at Western Australia, North knows how to assess a situation.
Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke had made strong contributions of 83 and 68 but both men fell when they failed to respect the swing. Clarke flashed impetuously outside off to a Steyn outswinger and threw his wicket away just before tea, while Ponting was bowled when he comprehensively misjudged a Makhaya Ntini inswinger that curved like a particularly bendy banana.
North learnt from both of those mistakes. Two days ago the touring selector David Boon spoke of how important it was in these swinging conditions for batsmen to use their feet, know where their stumps were and shoulder arms when appropriate. North regularly walked across and covered his wicket to leave but never did he look like losing off stump.
"He looks really comfortable," Clarke said after play. "As much as the team or other people try and let you know that you are a fantastic player and that's obviously why you've made it here … you still need to get that feeling out in the middle as well. Once you get a few runs under your belt I guess that confidence seems to ooze. He's a very confident sort of guy, he's a very disciplined fella and it's working for him out there."
North happily prodded singles through the off side and down the ground and guided behind square comfortably. He wasn't as fluent as Ponting, who until his lapse pulled and drove magnificently and looked set for a century, nor as flashy as Clarke. But having come to the crease at 151 for 4 in challenging conditions, North's first day of Test cricket provided encouraging signs.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo