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Shaun Marsh entered the first Test in Centurion with barely any time to think. As he constructed a century that may yet provide the foundations of a famous Australian victory, it was possible to conclude it had been good for him
February 12, 2014
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Players/Officials: Shaun Marsh
Series/Tournaments: Australia tour of South Africa
Grounds: SuperSport Park
Picked for Australia, ruled out by injury, rehabilitated in time for the Big Bash League final, flown over to South Africa after all, chosen to play on the strength of two training sessions, facing up to Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel on day one of the series at Centurion.
That is a lot to fit into one sentence, let alone one week: the whirlwind left Shaun Marsh with barely any time to think. As he constructed a century that may yet provide the foundations of a famous Australian victory, it was possible to conclude that this rushed state of affairs had been good for him.
All Marsh has been able to do is train, travel and play, living on the instincts honed by his years of batting at the similarly bouncy WACA Ground and passed on through the genes of his father Geoff and the instructions of his two coaching mentors for state and country, Justin Langer and Darren Lehmann.
Described by the national selector John Inverarity as being "in a very good space" on the day he was first chosen, Marsh has not had the chance to move out of it, his sole focus getting fit and making runs.
It was on this very ground two years ago that Marsh occupied a space as far from "very good" as can be imagined. He and his brother Mitchell were dropped from the Perth Scorchers team to play in a Champions League match following a pattern of drinking and poor behaviour that stretched most of the way across the team. He would later be dropped from the Western Australia Sheffield Shield side upon his return home, in the midst of an horrific slump that began during his previous spell in the national team when he cobbled 17 runs in six innings against India.
At the time, it seemed inconceivable that he would return to Test cricket. But the ascension of Lehmann to the role of Australian coach last year opened up an avenue by which Marsh would again become a contender. They had worked together fruitfully at King's XI Punjab in the 2013 IPL immediately before Lehmann was chosen to replace Mickey Arthur. Lehmann, like Inverarity, Langer and many other powerful figures in Australian cricket, was attracted by the purity of Marsh's technique and the ease of his run-scoring when in form.
Smith lauds jetlagged Marsh
They have had to ignore a record that has remained mediocre throughout a career now comfortably into its second decade. This hundred was only Marsh's ninth in first-class matches, a tally that looks hopelessly puny when lined up against the 24 compiled by the 25-year-old Phillip Hughes. Like the similarly stylish debutant Alex Doolan, he has often flattered to deceive, including his hundred in Sri Lanka in 2011, when his first Test innings in Palakelle grew to 141 runs every bit as assured as those collected here. The evidence of the eyes conflicts enormously with that of the record book.
Watching Marsh subdue South Africa at Centurion, it was easy to see why Lehmann was so taken with him. His simple but powerful method, footwork economical and bat unimpeachably straight, looks very much like that of the finest players. He is capable of judging the location of his off stump wisely also, and left a third of his first 100 balls on a pitch offering lateral and vertical movement. One drive down the ground from Steyn drew purring approval from spectators not always so generous to visiting teams - there are reinforced concrete columns in existence less solid than that stroke.
If the chaotic circumstances of his return to the Test team were perversely of some benefit to Marsh, he was also aided by a few other circumstances and moments of good fortune. The faith of selectors and coaches would not have amounted to much had an early inside edge flicked the stumps instead of skating narrowly past them, had Hashim Amla held onto a chance in the gully on 12, or had a chipped drive on 57 floated in the direction of a taller man than Robin Peterson.
South Africa, too, were some way short of their best. Electing to bowl first in expectation of the kind of quick kill they have invariably achieved at Centurion, the hosts were overexcited by the bounce on offer and pitched far too short on a regular basis, as evidenced by a conspicuous lack of edges or lbw shouts.
Chris Rogers and Michael Clarke both succumbed to bumpers, the opener pinned by Morkel and the captain worried out by Steyn. David Warner and Doolan also perished aiming cross-bat shots to balls short of a length, but it was not an angle of attack that perturbed the WACA-raised Marsh.
There would be few troubles either for Steve Smith, who joined Marsh at the uncertain juncture of 98 for 4 following Clarke's exit. Moved down from his preferred spot at No. 5, Smith announced himself with a cracking square drive from the bowling of Ryan McLaren and went on to play with the kind of unruffled assurance he had exhibited against England on lively strips in Perth and Sydney.
As a duo, Marsh and Smith made for a fascinating contrast of form and function. The younger man's technique is far from smooth but it has become wonderfully effective over time, wrong-footing bowlers where it had once befuddled Smith himself.
The only thing ungainly about Marsh was the slight limp he picked up during the innings, likely to be the aftermath of the calf problem that had first scrubbed him from the trip. A team spokesman later denied any calf trouble but said Marsh had complained of stomach muscle soreness. How that affects him over the rest of this match remains to be seen, and another poorly-timed dice with injury would be in keeping with the boom and bust narrative of his career.
For now, though, Marsh can afford a moment's reflection on the past week and what it has brought him. His natural instincts, and those of the selectors who chose him in defiance of much empirical evidence, have been richly rewarded. A very good space indeed.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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