By SB Tang
Note: this piece was re-published on The Guardian Sport Network on 25 October 2013.
One summer, over a decade ago, New South Wales played Western Australia at the No 1 Sports Ground in Newcastle. The game was something of an occasion for the town of 143,613 people which clings to the coast about 160 kilometres north of Sydney. New South Wales had not played a game there for six long years. That period of ex-communication was now over, as the Australian Cricket Board had, in their infinite wisdom, decided to bequeath Newcastle with the nearest thing to a Test match — a Sheffield Shield game.
Such was the strength of Australian cricket at the time, New South Wales was able to bring an XI featuring nine current, former or future Test cricketers: Michael Slater, Simon Katich, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Michael Clarke, Stuart MacGill, Brad Haddin, Stuart Clark and Doug Bollinger. That New South Wales XI would have comfortably beaten most Test teams in the world, let alone a mere domestic first-class opponent. That being said, the XI that Western Australia put out to face them in Newcastle was none too shabby either: captained by Justin Langer, the Western Australian XI featured eight current, former or future Test cricketers — including the likes of Langer, Chris Rogers, Murray Goodwin and Mike Hussey — and a ninth cricketer, Ryan Campbell, who’d won a one-day international, but not a Test, cap for Australia. The sandgropers couldn’t even find room in their XI for a promising 23-year-old batsman by the name of Marcus North.
Four thousand two hundred and forty-eight people turned up on the first day of the Shield match, played on a Thursday. They must have liked what they saw because, the next day, 4,953 people turned up, followed by 4,433 on the third day and 2,558 on the final day. To put those astonishing figures into perspective, one must recall the historical fact that crowds at Shield games had been anaemic for decades and, by that stage, they had declined to the point that they were viewed as, quite literally, non-existent in the eyes of the game’s modern record-keepers — both Cricinfo and Cricket Archive chose to not even include a crowd figure on their scorecards for most Shield games during this period. The Shield match between New South Wales and Western Australia in Newcastle was a head-spinning exception to the general statistical trend of two to three digit Shield crowds. The fact that over 16,000 people turned up to a four-day Shield game was about as plausible as the notion of 10,000 locals attending a mid-week NCAA baseball game played in the south of France.
By the afternoon of the second day, the crowd was its peak and the home side was in the ascendancy — having dug-in on a tricky first-day pitch to put a strong first-innings total of 370 on the board, New South Wales had claimed three early wickets — including the prize scalps of Test heavyweights Langer and Goodwin — to reduce Western Australia to 3/79.
Steve Waugh’s remorseless men must have smelt blood when they saw Western Australia’s number five stride out to join Mike Hussey at the crease — he was just a boy. The boy was 19-years-old and looked it too: his hair floppy and parted down the middle; his chin, the locus of manhood for so many an Australian cricketer, bearing not a trace of stubble. He had talent. And pedigree too — his father had played Test cricket for Australia as an opening batsman. But, nearly two years after he’d made his first-class debut for Western Australia at the age of 17, he had yet to do anything to justify the Western Australian selectors’ enormous faith in him, having failed to reach fifty in any of his four completed first-class matches.
It was a failing which the teenager rectified in the space of 93 minutes on that perfect January day. Standing tall, still and upright at the crease, he showed for the first time that the hype around him was fully justified, effortlessly caressing the ball to all parts of the ground to reach his fifty off 90 balls. The elegant style and aesthetically pleasing, orthodox technique which would later become his trade marks as an international cricketer were there for all the world to see that day. Unlike so many modern batsmen, the boy had not a single unsightly trigger movement in his stance, standing as still as a Gelug monk in a state of nirvana until the moment that ball the reached him, upon which he brought his fully straight or fully horizontal bat — there were no weird angled bats or heterodox strokes for one this aesthetically pure — down to meet the ball with a full face.
He played straight and drove well, striking the ball cleanly but always preferring to keep it along the ground. He was strong in the V, as any aspiring Test batsman must be, but also, like all sons of the hard, sun-baked Western Australian soil, equally adept square of the wicket. His ball-striking was eerily reminiscent of that of one of the legends who opposed him that day — like Mark Waugh, he never looked like he was hitting the ball hard, but the velocity at which balls travelled after coming into contact with his bat always proved otherwise.
About an hour later, the boy reached the 90s. A maiden first-class hundred, scored in the space of just two sessions, beckoned. Steve Waugh positioned himself in the verbal-predator-in-chief’s seat at cover and said quietly to the boy: “don’t get nervous now … you know you’ve played so well, don’t throw away a hundred now”.
The boy’s response?
He struck the next two balls, delivered by Waugh’s twin brother Mark, over the mid-wicket fence for six to bring up his hundred. The boy later explained his reasoning to the media thus: “the quicker the better, get my nerves out the way”. The Waugh twins were amongst the first to congratulate the boy. Steve, a man hardly prone to hyperbole, later told The West Australian (emphasis added): “It is the best innings I have ever seen from a 19-year-old. He looks an outstanding talent. He’s got his dad’s temperament and about 10 times as many shots. I was pleased to see a young kid play so well and not to be flustered or worried. The quality of strokeplay was superb.” Justin Langer was no less effusive in his praise of his young charge, describing him as a “a classy looking player” (emphasis added), and declaring that he would not be surprised if the boy went on to play 100 Test matches.
Right now, you’re probably thinking what we all thought on that glorious January day 10 years, 8 months and 28 days ago when the boy reached his maiden first-class ton — the first of many.
The boy’s name was Shaun Marsh. He’s now 30-years-old. And, as of today, he has scored seven first-class hundreds in his entire career. In other words, since scoring his maiden first-class hundred in Newcastle on 24 January 2003, Marsh has, on average, only managed to score a first-class hundred once every two years. Oh, and he hasn’t scored a first-class hundred in over two years now. Thus, you won’t be terribly surprised to hear that his career first-class average presently stands at 35.07.
But you may be surprised to learn that, despite this decade’s worth of empirically-proven mediocrity, Marsh has managed to play 61 international matches for Australia, including seven Test matches, over the past five years. In the last Australian summer, he averaged 19 in first-class cricket. That didn’t stop The Age’s chief sports columnist from pencilling him in to open in the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. He was, in truth, lucky to even be in Western Australia’s Shield XI, but the Australian selectors, undeterred by the quaint notion of empirical data, boldly picked him for Australia A’s winter tour of southern Africa where he proceeded to average 13.25 in first-class cricket.
Yet, Marsh is still being widely touted as Australia’s Test batting lord and saviour. Earlier this month, PerthNow reported that “[i]t seems [Australia’s coach] Lehmann wants … [Marsh] to bat at number three against the old enemy in the opening Ashes Test”. Last week, The Australian reported that “Marsh is one batsman who selectors will be looking at for the first Test”. This week, The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) reported that Marsh has “become the bolter to claim Australia’s last Test batting place”. The Australian selectors remain transfixed by Shaun Marsh. That much is clear.
The story of Shaun Marsh and his treatment by the Australian selectors tells us something about the state of Australian cricket.
Marsh was first picked for Australia in June 2008, just after the sun set on the last great Green and Golden Age with the retirements of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist in the space of 12 months. That was no coincidence. Obviously, spots in the team opened up but there were, as we shall see, deeper historical forces subconsciously at play as well.
In June 2008, Marsh was coming off the best 12 months of his career to date. In the preceding 2007/08 Australian summer, he’d averaged: 60.27 in first-class cricket with one hundred and five fifties, 39.75 in domestic 50-over cricket with one hundred, two fifties and a strike rate of 73.44, and 58 in domestic T20 cricket with three fifties. Marsh followed that up by leading all run-scorers in the inaugural season of the Indian Premier League, caressing 616 runs, including one hundred and five fifties, at an average of 68.44 and a strike rate of 139.68.
A cursory glance at his IPL highlights reel from that season reveals why Marsh is so highly rated by so many. In that tournament, he scored more runs at a faster clip than the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Graeme Smith, MS Dhoni, David Hussey and Shikhar Dhawan. Even more significant than the quantum of runs Marsh scored or the rate at which he scored them, was how he scored those runs — in the most classical and aesthetically-pleasing of styles. Check out his highlights reel. There are no ramps or switch-hits. No agricultural swipes or slogs. Just a sequence of sumptuous, authentic cricket strokes — drives, cuts and flicks-off-his-pads mainly — played so perfectly that the ball rarely even leaves the ground.
That is the vision which has consumed the minds of Australia’s selectors ever since.
They picked the 24-year-old Marsh to make his one-day international debut on the 2008 tour of the West Indies that followed the inaugural IPL. It was a selection that Marsh had earned. He top-scored for Australia on debut with a brisk 81 off 97 balls in St Vincent, but his form tailed off thereafter and he finished the five-match series with 158 runs at an average of 31.60 and a strike rate of 73.48. OK, but hardly brilliant for an ODI opener. However, in a portent of things to come, Marsh cashed in when Australia returned home for a three-match winter ODI series against Bangladesh in the far north, topping Australia’s run-scoring chart with 175 runs, including two fifties, at an average of 87.50 and a strike rate of 78.82.
Over the next five years, successive Australian selection panels would back Marsh like no other young batsman, despite alarming fluctuations in both his first-class and 50-over form. Since making his ODI debut in June 2008, Marsh has completed five Australian first-class seasons and been on three overseas tours which included first-class matches. Of those eight first-class seasons/tours, Marsh has averaged less than 24 in half of them. His 50-over form during that period hasn’t been much better when one considers that Marsh is deployed primarily as an opener in that format of the game — excluding matches against Bangladesh and the non-Test-playing nations, Marsh has played in six Australian 50-over seasons (including the one ongoing) and been on eight overseas tours which included 50-over matches. Of those 14 50-over seasons/tours, Marsh has averaged more than 40 in only four of them.
None of this empirical data appeared to have any influence on the Australian selectors. In September 2011, Ricky Ponting flew home from a tour of Sri Lanka to attend the birth of his second child. A 28-year-old Marsh was picked to make his Test debut in Ponting’s stead. Despite playing first-class cricket since he was 17, Marsh had just six first-class hundreds to his name and an average in the mid-30s. He may be consistently inconsistent, but he has always shown intermittent flashes of brilliance. And he was certainly brilliant on his Test debut, scoring a near perfect 141 at number three — always the hardest place to bat — on the sub-continent, which has always been the hardest place for Australian batsmen to tour. His legions of fans rushed to anoint him Australia’s new long-term number three.
But Marsh’s form soon reverted to its well-established long-term mean. Australia returned home to face India in a four Test series and Marsh, having recovered from a back injury, was installed as Australia’s Test number three. India have never won a Test series in Australia. That particular Indian side lacked anything resembling a pace attack and their star-studded batting line-up, although formidable on paper, could best be described as the geriatricos — quality batsmen, but well past their prime.
Australia won 4-0. Australia’s average first-innings total in the four Test series was 491.25. On two separate occasions, Australia declared their first innings closed for a score in excess of 600. Four of the Australian top six averaged over 44 for the series.
Shaun Marsh’s average for the series?
And no, that’s not a typo.
Incredibly, Marsh played in every Test match that series. The selectors refused to drop him — an extraordinary (and frankly, irrational) show of faith that is, as far as I can ascertain, entirely without precedent in the annals of Australian cricket. Australian selectors are, after all, famed for their ruthlessness — in November 1992, a 31-year-old Dean Jones was jettisoned from the Australian Test XI despite averaging 55.20 in his last Test series; in early 2006, a 31-year-old Brad Hodge was axed five Tests into his career despite boasting a Test average of 58.42; and on the 2009 Ashes tour, a 20-year-old Phil Hughes was dumped five Tests into his career despite averaging 52.44 in Test cricket.
What is clear by now is that the ordinary, performance-based principles of Australian selection do not apply to Shaun Marsh. He is exempted from the old-fashioned requirement that “players must”, as the Argus Report put it, “earn their positions in the time-honoured way of making runs, taking wickets and showing that they are ready to play at the next level”.
The question then is why — why has Marsh received such special treatment from successive Australian selection panels when his fellow competitors for a Test batting berth, such as Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith and Phil Hughes, are required to satisfy the high, performance-based standards that Australia has always required of its Test cricketers?
As someone who has followed Marsh’s career since he was a teenager and pondered this question for the past five years, here’s what I believe.
When the Australian selectors look at Shaun Marsh, they see someone special, a unique talent who marries the best of the old with the best of the new. He consistently dominates in the game’s newest format, crushing bowlers in domestic T20 leagues across three continents, but he does so with a classical batting style and a pristinely orthodox technique which look ready-made for Test cricket. His official, Cricket Australia approved nickname is “SOS”. That stands for “Son of Swampy”. Swampy was the nickname accorded to his father, Geoff, a tough, determined opening batsman who made his Test debut in December 1985, at the very depths of Australia cricket’s last major trough, and played a pivotal role in Australia’s long climb back to the top of world cricket, firstly through his obdurate batsmanship, then through his perceptive, selfless vice-captaincy, and, finally, as Australia’s coach throughout the latter half of the ’90s.
Geoff Marsh was as old school as they come, an Australian cricketer straight off the pages of one of the history texts in the Melbourne Cricket Club library — a farmer from some obscure speck of our vast island continent, he was, as Australia’s coach during his playing days, Bob Simpson, later wrote admiringly, a player of “very limited” natural talent, with substantive technical deficiencies (a “strangled” grip and an overly strong bottom hand), who, nevertheless, “became a formidable international cricketer by using every ounce of his ability and showing the sort of determination that wins wars.” Swampy was just one of those heartwarming clichés who have long defined the soul of Australian cricket — a country lad who “wanted desperately to be a Test player” and made himself into one through hard work and sheer force of will.
When the Australian selectors look at Shaun Marsh they see, as his nickname suggests, his father’s son. They see a batsman who, in addition to his modern strokeplay and free-scoring, offers a direct genealogical link to a different, better era, when men were men, above the lip facial hair was de rigueur, and a battle-hardened, free-swearing, beer-swilling Australian cricket team was unmistakably on its way back to the top of world cricket. That link in blood to history is particularly potent when one recalls that Shaun Marsh made his debut for Australia at the very onset of Australian cricket’s first major trough since the one in which his father debuted more than two decades before.
“History,” remarked James Joyce’s literary alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Most of the time, Australia’s cricket history is a dream — a source of pride and motivation to those who represent their country — but, on those relatively rare occasions, every other decade or so, when the Australian cricket team starts losing consistently, it becomes a nightmare which plagues the thoughts of the men who select the Australian cricket team. It is only natural then that, in attempting to awake themselves from their present nightmare, Australia’s selectors look to replicate how their predecessors awoke themselves from the last such nightmare two decades ago. By consistently picking the eldest son of one of the men who awoke their predecessors from that nightmare, they are, in a sense, attempting to re-enact historical events which have already happened.
That attempt, which has thus far lasted five years and counting, has been unsuccessful. Because Shaun Marsh isn’t who they think he is. He didn’t grow up on a farm like his father. He grew up in the rarefied air of the Australian dressing room — as a boy, he got his throwdowns from Justin Langer. He is not a batsman of limited natural talent and ugly technique who’s had to work his tail off to compel the selectors to give him a baggy green cap. He is, as everyone, including the author of Cricket Australia’s official player profiles, says, “[a] prodigiously talented player” who has been given the opportunity to play over 60 international matches for Australia despite never, at any stage in a career spanning over a decade, scoring first-class runs consistently. After making his Test debut in September 2011, he honestly admitted: “I probably took it [ie playing Test cricket] for granted, playing at a young age for WA. I just thought it was going to happen, playing a lot of junior cricket growing up. I didn’t know, didn’t realise how hard it was to play first-class cricket and I’m glad I did work hard enough and turned it around.”
The sad irony is that, in attempting to end their nightmare by anointing Shaun Marsh their chosen one, the Australian selectors have only served to perpetuate it, for in order for the selectors to indulge their Marsh delusion, some innocent batsman had to make way. Two batsmen, both of whom are younger than Marsh and both of them possess better first-class records than Marsh, have suffered more than most.
Usman Khawaja is only 26-years-old, but he has already been dropped twice from the Test XI to make way for Marsh. The first instance, in Sri Lanka in September 2011, was fair — Khawaja was averaging 53.66 in first-class cricket on tour, but had yet to make a Test fifty, whereas Marsh had scored 141 on Test debut. The second instance, in late December 2011, was more psychologically difficult for the young Khawaja to handle. He’d been recalled for the second and final Test at the Wanderers in November 2011 when Marsh picked up a back injury and done well — top-scoring in Australia’s final innings with a composed 65 batting at three as Australia successfully chased down 310 for a famous victory which squared the series. It wasn’t a Test hundred in name, but, taking into account the match context, the pitch and the bowling attack, it wasn’t far off a Test hundred in real value.
Upon returning home, Khawaja played two Tests against New Zealand, producing scores of 38, 0*, 7 and 23. Two wasted starts and one fail — not brilliant, but hardly a disastrous run of form. Nevertheless, the selectors chose to immediately dump Khawaja to bring a fit-again Marsh back into the side. Khawaja has never been quite the same since. Before that dumping, Khawaja had scored 11 first-class hundreds in a career spanning just under three years. Since that dumping, Khawaja has only scored two first-class hundreds in the last two years.
Phil Hughes is 24-years-old. In January this year, he became the first Australian batsman to score a century on his one-day international debut. That’s quite an achievement given that, with four World Cups in the trophy cabinet, Australia is the most successful ODI nation in history and has produced ODI openers of the ilk of David Boon, Matt Hayden, Mark Waugh and Adam Gilchrist. Hughes’s feat becomes even more impressive when one considers that his hundred was scored against Sri Lanka, a side which had accomplished the rare feat of beating Australia in an ODI series on Australian soil as recently as November 2010.
More importantly, Hughes’s 112 off 129 balls at the MCG led Australia to a comfortable win in the opening game of the five-match series. However, Australia soon found themselves 2-1 down (one match was washed out) with one game to play. Australia had to win the last game, played at Bellerive, in order to salvage a series draw. Hughes, playing in just his fifth ODI game, held the Australian innings together on a typically tricky Bellerive deck with an unbeaten 138 off 154 balls which constituted 55.87 per cent of Australia’s match-winning total of 247. No other Australian batsman passed 34.
Put it this way: the only two games that Australia won in the five-match series against Sri Lanka were the ones in which Hughes scored hundreds.
Hughes also performed well in the five-match home ODI series against the West Indies which followed, helping Australia to wrap up the series win at the earliest opportunity with an 86 off 93 balls in the third game. Hughes finished the home ODI summer top of the Australian run scoring chart with 416 runs at an average of 52 and a strike rate of 77.17.
Three ODI games — which reaped scores of 30, 0 (run out) and 13 in early season, bowler-friendly English conditions — later, Hughes was summarily axed from the Australian ODI side.
To make room for Shaun Marsh.
The fixture that the Australian selectors chose to restore Marsh to the Australian ODI side for was the most batsman-friendly that the Australian cricket team could conceivably encounter — a late-mid-summer match against Scotland in Edinburgh on a flat Grange Cricket Club Ground pitch. The Australians would have faced a stiffer challenge from a Victorian Premier Cricket 2nd XI outfit.
Here’s Hughes’s career ODI record when he was dropped for Marsh: 13 matches, two hundreds, a strike rate of 75.49, and an average of 41.72.
Here’s Marsh’s career ODI record when he took Hughes’s spot: 37 matches, two hundreds, a strike rate of 75.43, and an average of 36.50.
So, Hughes had a better average and strike rate than Marsh and the same number of hundreds from roughly a third the number of matches, but the selectors still chose to drop Hughes for Marsh. It’s as if we’ve arrived, as Homer Simpson once observed, in “opposite land”, a magical place where “crooks chase cops” and “cats have puppies!”
You won’t be surprised to learn what happened next: Marsh gorged himself on the Scottish bowling attack. His 151 at a run-a-ball raised his career ODI average from 36.50 to 39.59 and his career ODI strike rate from 75.43 to 77.39, and seemed to secure his place in the side for the foreseeable future. However, three games later, Marsh’s curtain-rod hamstrings — one trait that he has unquestionably inherited from his father — went pop yet again and Hughes was back in the ODI side where he has, to his credit, managed to re-establish himself.
How many more young, first-class-run-scoring Australian batsmen must suffer for the selectors’ seemingly never-ending indulgence of their Marsh delusion?
The Shaun Marsh who the selectors believe in doesn’t exist. He is a figment of their imagination, a shadow just beyond their grasp, the lost love forever dancing on the edge of their consciousness.
He’s not real.
The reality is this: Shaun Marsh is a 30-year-old, injury-prone, mediocre Shield batsman with a fully sick IPL highlights reel. He’s had more than a decade to score runs consistently at Shield level. He has never done so. That’s on him. He should be held accountable for that level of performance like any other professional cricketer. Instead, the selectors reward him for it by persistently promoting him to the Australian team.
It must be emphasised that absolutely none of this is Marsh’s fault. He never asked for special treatment from the selectors. They chose to give it to him. He is honest and fair in his interviews, always being the first to admit that he needs to score more Shield runs more consistently in order to be picked to play Test cricket for Australia. Last week, as the Australian media continued to talk up his chances of being selected for the first Ashes Test at the ’Gabba, he told The Australian: “My sole focus is to play well for WA and start the Shield season well and we’ll see what happens from there”.
Five years of chasing the Marsh illusion has led us here: to a winter of discontent which has, thus far, lasted six years with no end in sight.
Shaun Marsh, through no moral fault of his own, symbolises what Australian cricket has become — and, if we are not careful, may be forever more. The likes of Peter Siddle, Phil Hughes, James Pattinson and Nathan Lyon — men of the obscurest, humblest rural or working-class origins who have earned every chance that they have ever been given through their performances on the field — symbolise what Australian cricket has always been and still (just) is, the identity that Cricket Australia ought to be striving to preserve and strengthen.
During the recent ODI series between Australia and England, Nick Knight remarked on commentary that he liked the “look” of Shaun Marsh. Knight, as he is occasionally wont to do, completely missed the point. Everyone likes the look of Shaun Marsh. More than 10 years ago, Steve Waugh and Justin Langer were already telling us how good Shaun Marsh looked. We all know how good Shaun Marsh looks at the crease. That’s not the issue and never has been. The issue is whether Shaun Marsh actually performs well enough to keep getting picked for Australia.
At this point in time, I don’t believe that he does.
But the story of Shaun Marsh is not yet over. Thirty is not old for a modern batsman. I hope that he proves me wrong by going away and scoring truckloads of Shield runs for Western Australia, thereby earning the right to have the second crack at Test cricket that he craves. Sadly, more than 12 years of empirical first-class data indicates that such a happy outcome is unlikely. As Carl Sagan taught us, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. And the claim that a 30-year-old batsman, after 12 years of consistent inconsistency and consequent mediocrity at first-class level, could suddenly become Australia’s Test batting lord and saviour is certainly an extraordinary one.
I grew up in an Australia where an Australian (typically Victorian) Test batsman could easily have his Test career terminated despite averaging in excess of 50 in his last Test series. Now, on the eve of an Ashes series, Australia’s great batting hope is a 30-year-old T20 wunderkind who has most recently been averaging in the teens in first-class cricket. I feel old.
Perhaps, now is the time to ask ourselves, to paraphrase our great captain’s one-time paramour, who the bloody hell are we?