The Ashes: The loving and loathing of Shaun Marsh

Sometimes, as a responsible participant in civic debate, you have to climb down from dearly held opinions.

In current Australian cricket, few are held with such intensity as those involving the Marsh brothers.

Shaun the Elder, as he will be known when classicists sift our petrified society from volcanic ash, is the primary locus of discontent.

A cat burglar of selection, his specialty is getting into Australian teams from the outside. Where others have to bang down doors, Marsh slips through an air vent.

This career sequence is legendary, along with some inglorious consequences. When life wrote Marsh a birthday card, it said ‘Many happy returns’. And like birthdays, things often end up with despondent weeping.

No-one has criticised his continued selections more than me.

Actually, that’s not true; there’s one heavily bearded bloke of muddied Viking ancestry who dribbles beer down his singlet while yelling at the television from the corner of a Gladstone pub.

So, let it be carved on the stone of record by my own hand: in this season’s second Test, across the first two days at Adelaide Oval, in the Year of a New Album by Lorde, Two Thousand and Seventeen, Marsh made a vital Ashes century at a time of Australian need.

None of the sneaky tricks to undermine an innings will work here. It came against excellent bowling, in consistently tricky and changeable conditions.

It came under significant match pressure, with a series on the line. No-one else broke the bowlers first. No teammate scored more than 57.

Marsh was the difference between a reasonable position and a commanding one, coming in at 4 for 161 with Steve Smith’s role as Captain Wonderbat for once curtailed.

A quick exit could have started a tumble that would have justified Joe Root bowling first. Instead, Australia made over 400.

This followed the first Test in Brisbane, when Marsh’s half-century was vital in helping Smith take Australia to safety from an even shakier start.

Shaun Marsh defends

Common to both knocks were confidence, stability, and prolonged stretches of good decision-making.

Both involved plenty of defensive play, an absence of frustration, and a relative scarcity of close calls.

In Adelaide, it ended in a declaration.

Marsh showing the responsibility to bat through and the adaptability to lift the late tempo.

There are other nominations for the best innings of his career, but this one is in the conversation.

Afterwards, emerging like those tiny shrimp that swim down Uluru when rain draws them from hibernation, came the Marsh devotees who always knew this would happen.

By some optical illusion, they seemed swollen in number and in confidence than before the series began.

At the same time, confusion reined among the sceptics, those for whom Marsh summons an inchoate resentment. Would it be hypocritical to applaud? Was this change or anomaly? Were the precepts on which our lives are based a lie? How many smug people would trawl our internet histories?

For a taciturn man, Marsh has a remarkable ability to draw an emotional response from strangers.

The reasons aren’t that complex. Partly it’s Shane Watson Syndrome, the frustrated blowback of under-delivery on perceived promise. Partly it’s a lack of consequence.

Rarely has Marsh made an undeniable case for Australian duty, yet the picks have kept coming all the same.

With a father who played for and coached Australia, Geoff Marsh’s sons have at times been treated as heirs.

It’s hard to argue that they have received more leniency and opportunity than most.

The sniff of hereditary privilege in the face of underperformance doesn’t win fans.

It should be stressed at this point that no-one is to blame for being picked. The issue is with the rationale offered for doing so.

The really tricky part with Shaun Marsh is that his best has always been more than good enough. It just hasn’t been accessible with any consistency.

Shaun Marsh rocks back and hooks

Marsh made his first Test squad off the kind of hunch that has characterised his career. Across 11 seasons of first-class cricket, he’d made six centuries.

Yet, when Ricky Ponting’s baby daughter caused a one-match vacancy, Marsh stunned everyone with a hundred on debut.

He stayed in the team, beginning a game of musical chairs with Usman Khawaja that continues to this day.

His next Test in South Africa produced a back injury and Australia being bowled out for 47, in that order.

Back for a home summer, in a series where teammates made double and triple hundreds while repeatedly battering India by an innings, he made 17 runs across five starts at first drop.

The Marsh career sequence was set. Epic failure, brilliant success, injury when set, Hail Mary squad picks, filling gaps all over the order.

John Inverarity produced a gloriously tenuous recall for South Africa in 2014 based on Marsh scoring 44 back in 2011.

Off the back of poor domestic form, Marsh dissected the world’s best pace attack.

High, low. Malcolm Conn tweeted, “Shaun Marsh is the ultimate enigma. In South Africa 2014 I saw him make a fantastic 100, a pair and be dropped in a three-Test series. Covered all bases”.

From that point, Marsh was injury cover. On the internet, “Lousy Smarsh weather” became the Simpsons-inspired refrain. He filled in for Michael Clarke’s back, Chris Rogers’ concussion, Khawaja’s hamstring.

Between times, he was parachuted into the 2015 Ashes for one game. To strengthen the batting, was the rationale.

That added the Trent Bridge 60 to the Cape Town 47 on his CV, with our man making 0 and 2.

Australia's Shaun Marsh plays a shot on day two at the Gabba

Marsh always in frame for a recall

It was during the Khawaja vacancy in November 2015 that an older and wiser Marsh found more consistency.

It’s not a famous innings, but in the first day-night Test, against a seaming ball under lights, his 49 in a small and difficult chase was all that held off a New Zealand win.

He took advantage against West Indies for a Test-best 182, was squeezed out regardless by Khawaja, then came back when Khawaja and Joe Burns were dropped in Colombo. His only game in that series brought another ton.

So, he kept his spot, and of course immediately broke his finger against South Africa to start the home season.

But on this year’s India tour, he was preferred to Khawaja given the conditions.

In more classic Marsh fashion, he made two excellent fifties, facing 197 balls each time in harrying conditions, but surrounded them with five single-figure scores. Play in India in April, dropped for Bangladesh in August.

Look at it one way, and you can form a thesis that Marsh has been hard done by as much as he’s been dealt favours.

The panel giveth and the panel taketh away, then the panel offereth utterly perplexing lines of reasoning in press statements.

As I’ve written before, there are times that Marsh has been unlucky to be left out, but there are more times that he’s been lucky to be picked again.

He is always in the frame for a recall without much having changed.

Shaun Marsh oumps his fist after taking a catch to dismiss Dawid Malan.

Even the last few weeks, when he played well domestically, others with similar form were ignored. Historically, plenty of players have had far more compelling streaks without reward. When critics speak of anointment, that’s the rub.

Come Brisbane, there he was.

“Inevitable, perennial as a wet Darwin March,” writes the poet Anthony O’Sullivan. The safety-first option, the most experienced outside the team. One whose successes had come all over the batting order.

It so nearly went badly. Almost pulling out during the warm-up with a back spasm? Would have been classic Marsh. Slicing up his opening bowler’s leg? Classic Marsh. Dropping a catch over the boundary as England swung for glory? Classic Smarsh weather.

But this time he came through. Shook off those problems, did the business.

Hence the question as he finished up in Adelaide: has Marsh made the reliability transition?

The one he’s been threatening since the corresponding game here in 2015?

That night, he took it on himself to play long through a shaky period. He did it in Bengaluru, in Ranchi, in Brisbane, and now here again. He’s worked hard for this success and deserves it.

This doesn’t erase the issue that his success comes from more opportunities than were given others, and that different standards have been applied.

It would be good if supporters came to terms with that reality, rather than offering a Swiftian rejection (Taylor, not Jonathan) about haters and their definitional actions.

But however it has happened, the results have come. A bloody good innings is a bloody good innings.

Marsh has earned his place, and deserves to keep it. He deserves to stop being shuffled around the order too.

For the sake of Australian cricket’s stability, long may it stay that way.

I’m very prepared to change my mind in the face of evidence, but I’d rather only have to do it once.

Scorecard

Australia v England

Date:
2 December 2017
Match:
2nd Test
Venue:
Adelaide Oval, Adelaide
Start time:
08:30
Umpires:
Aleem Dar / Christopher Gaffaney
Toss:
England won the toss and elected to bowl.

Australia lead England by 252 runs with 9 wickets remaining

Australia First Innings
442 for 8 declared (149.0 overs)
England First Innings
227 all out (76.1 overs)
Australia Second Innings
37 for 1 (15.5 overs)
Australia First Innings Runs Mins Balls 4s 6s SR
Extras (0nb 1w 6lb 6b) Total 442 for 8 declared (149.0 overs)
Cameron Bancroft run out (Chris Woakes) 10 63 41 0 0 24.39
David Warner c Jonny Bairstow b Chris Woakes 47 137 102 5 0 46.08
Usman Khawaja c James Vince b James Anderson 53 144 112 8 0 47.32
Steven Smith * b Craig Overton 40 119 90 3 0 44.44
Peter Handscomb lbw Stuart Broad 36 126 86 5 0 41.86
Shaun Marsh not out 126 358 231 15 1 54.55
Tim Paine † c Moeen Ali b Craig Overton 57 110 102 6 1 55.88
Mitchell Starc c James Anderson b Stuart Broad 6 32 29 0 0 20.69
Pat Cummins c Dawid Malan b Craig Overton 44 116 90 7 0 48.89
Nathan Lyon not out 10 19 11 0 1 90.91
Josh Hazlewood
Bowling O M R W Econ nb w
James Anderson 31 5 74 1 2.39 0 0
Stuart Broad 30 11 72 2 2.40 0 0
Chris Woakes 27 4 84 1 3.11 0 1
Craig Overton 33 3 105 3 3.18 0 0
Moeen Ali 24 3 79 0 3.29 0 0
Joe Root 4 0 16 0 4.00 0 0
Fall of wickets Overs
33 Cameron Bancroft 14.3
86 David Warner 33.1
139 Usman Khawaja 51.4
161 Steven Smith 62.1
209 Peter Handscomb 81.3
294 Tim Paine 107.5
311 Mitchell Starc 116.6
410 Pat Cummins 145.2
England First Innings Runs Mins Balls 4s 6s SR
Extras (0nb 1w 15lb 0b) Total 227 all out (76.1 overs)
Alastair Cook c Steven Smith b Nathan Lyon 37 128 90 3 0 41.11
Mark Stoneman lbw Mitchell Starc 18 34 21 2 0 85.71
James Vince c Tim Paine b Josh Hazlewood 2 18 10 0 0 20
Joe Root * c Cameron Bancroft b Pat Cummins 9 23 10 1 0 90
Dawid Malan c Tim Paine b Pat Cummins 19 90 58 1 0 32.76
Moeen Ali c & b Nathan Lyon 25 79 57 2 0 43.86
Jonny Bairstow † c & b Mitchell Starc 21 63 50 2 0 42
Chris Woakes c & b Mitchell Starc 36 95 62 4 0 58.06
Craig Overton not out 41 105 79 5 0 51.9
Stuart Broad c Tim Paine b Nathan Lyon 3 23 17 0 0 17.65
James Anderson lbw Nathan Lyon 0 8 3 0 0 0
Bowling O M R W Econ nb w
Mitchell Starc 20 4 49 3 2.45 0 0
Josh Hazlewood 16 3 56 1 3.50 0 0
Pat Cummins 16 3 47 2 2.94 0 1
Nathan Lyon 24.1 5 60 4 2.48 0 0
Fall of wickets Overs
29 Mark Stoneman 6.6
31 James Vince 10.4
50 Joe Root 15.3
80 Alastair Cook 28.1
102 Dawid Malan 37.1
132 Moeen Ali 48.2
142 Jonny Bairstow 53.1
208 Chris Woakes 69.4
227 Stuart Broad 74.4
227 James Anderson 76.1
Australia Second Innings Runs Mins Balls 4s 6s SR
Extras (0nb 1w 2lb 0b) Total 37 for 1 (15.5 overs)
Cameron Bancroft c Jonny Bairstow b James Anderson 4 12 8 1 0 50
David Warner not out 10 70 46 1 0 21.74
Usman Khawaja not out 20 57 41 3 0 48.78
Steven Smith *
Peter Handscomb
Shaun Marsh
Tim Paine †
Mitchell Starc
Pat Cummins
Josh Hazlewood
Nathan Lyon
Bowling O M R W Econ nb w
James Anderson 8 6 9 1 1.13 0 0
Stuart Broad 5 0 14 0 2.80 0 1
Craig Overton 1 0 8 0 8.00 0 0
Chris Woakes 1.5 0 4 0 2.18 0 0
Fall of wickets Overs
5 Cameron Bancroft 2.

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