Australia don't need a Flintoff clone
Australia's obsessive search for an allrounder has been so fruitless that it is tempting to look at the brilliant innings from Mitchell Johnson and Marcus North and argue that they have found two in one day. But what they have really discovered is the value of playing their best XI with each man in a position suitable to his skills.
Instead of sending in a solid jack-of-all-trades like Andrew McDonald at No. 6, as they did in Sydney, they chose a genuine top six batsman in North. He rewarded them with a superbly composed century on debut and if he chips in with some handy wickets with his part-time offspin then all the better.
Instead of scratching their heads for a clone of Andrew Flintoff, who haunted them during the 2005 Ashes, the penny has started to drop that attempting to copy natural ability is like trying to replicate the Mona Lisa. At best you'll appear silly for trying and at worst you'll have the credibility of an art-school dropout.
North has proven himself to be a thoroughly capable Test No. 6, which is no surprise given he has spent the past decade holding down a middle-order spot for Western Australia with an average of 44. He entered the game with 22 first-class centuries compared to McDonald's two.
North raised his century with a late cut from the bowling of JP Duminy and became the 18th Australian to score a hundred on Test debut and the first since Michael Clarke more than four years ago. His team-mates, perched in the Wanderers dressing room, offered him a generous ovation - a celebration as much for his momentum-shifting innings as the arrival of a batsman who, finally, adds starch to the middle-order.
He will be a valuable person to have around the group this year in particular. Stints at five different counties have given him more than a taste of the English conditions and he has a spell at Hampshire coming up ahead of this year's Ashes tour.
His all-round skills mean there will be less urgency to rush Andrew Symonds back, whenever he is deemed to be available. But the fact that North has nearly 100 first-class wickets - including a career-best six in last week's tour match in Potchefstroom - is a bonus. If Australia throw in a frontline spinner when conditions suit, in place of McDonald, their balance will look even better.
|The fact that North has nearly 100 first-class wickets - including a career-best six in last week's tour match in Potchefstroom - is a bonus. If Australia throw in a frontline spinner when conditions suit, in place of Andrew McDonald, their balance will look even better|
There is no reason McDonald can't be a useful Test player but at the moment he appears surplus to needs at No. 8, a position that Johnson can easily fill. His duck - albeit to an excellent, swinging Dale Steyn delivery - looked all the poorer when contrasted with the 117-run partnership compiled by North and Johnson, which broke the eighth-wicket record for Australia in Tests against South Africa.
Johnson was desperately unlucky not to match his partner and score his first Test century. He watched on as Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus fell in successive balls to leave him stranded on 96, but his innings was every bit as century-worthy as that of North. The highlight of Johnson's display was a string of lusty slog-swept sixes off Paul Harris that brought an Australian Test record of 26 runs in one over but to label him a late-overs basher is to do him a major disservice.
Compared to top-order men like Simon Katich and Phillip Hughes, who score runs in spite of their weird techniques, Johnson's batting style is pure. His stance is so rock solid and his bat so straight that he could have been the inspiration for the little plastic batsman in the Test match cricket board game.
Before he lost a ball by sending it over midwicket and out of the stadium off Harris, he had sent it rocketing to the boundary several times, including with a perfectly timed cover-drive off Jacques Kallis that he has produced so often in the past year that it's clearly not a fluke. In his last three Test innings, Johnson has made 203 runs and has been dismissed once.
When he walked off the Wanderers to a rousing reception, he boasted a Test batting average of 31.47. For the record, Flintoff's average is 31.69. But that's a figure Australia shouldn't get too carried away with.
At some point Johnson will make a Test century but he shouldn't be bumped too high up in the order. North at six, Brad Haddin (who made a valuable 63) at seven and Johnson at eight. Three quality performers in positions that suit them. There's no need to manufacture a Flintoff clone.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo