Mitchell Marsh's growing pains
At a time when the notion of prolonged adolescence has become common, 20 can seem an uncomfortably early age for a young man to be held up as a role model. The Olympics provided plenty of examples of how ill-prepared athletes of a similar age can be for the harsh glare of the public spotlight immediately following a contest - particularly if the result was not the gold medal he or she had been so ardently chasing, to the exclusion of many other life experiences.
A renewed mood for change, growth and regeneration in Australian cricket has placed a similar kind of pressure on young men to grow up; certainly at a greater speed than those of similar age in wider society. In searching for another generation of high-quality players the national selectors have looked at numerous youthful names - those of Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon and James Pattinson spring to mind - and, if they were found wanting at international level, have counselled them to grow as team men as much as cricketers.
The one whose growth out of cricketing puberty is most eagerly awaited is the Western Australian allrounder Mitchell Marsh. As a technically sound but powerful batsman and an increasingly slippery swing bowler, his potential for greatness is considerable. Marsh's talent was first viewed by a wide audience during the 2010 Under-19 World Cup, when he led Australia to victory, and has been glimpsed subsequently across a few fleeting appearances for the national T20 and ODI teams. With Shane Watson entering his 30s without yet finding a sense of peace about his problematic body or his role in the Australian team, Marsh's continued development is a desperately required part of the succession planning so hungered for in the pages of the Argus review.
Yet, Marsh's progress appears to have stalled. Apart from the injuries that seem inevitable for a young international bowler in Australia, Marsh has also fallen short of the levels of discipline asked of him at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, joining the likes of Shane Warne, Mark Cosgrove and David Warner among the wilful tyros to be marched out of their respective intakes. His expulsion for turning up hungover to training was not the first indiscretion of Marsh's time in Brisbane. Senior visitors to the establishment have not been entirely impressed with his decision-making or discernment, and there are stories of other misadventures not uncommon for a 20-year-old male but not becoming of a prospective Australian cricketer.
Marsh's difficulties can be seen to have surfaced in the gap between his potential and his performance. So far he has been identified, encouraged and built up for all that he could become rather than for what he has actually achieved, which is summed up by the following quite nondescript digits. In 18 first-class matches, he averages 21.10 with the bat and 25.19 with the ball. He has made one century, taken one five-wicket haul. His limited-overs and T20 ledgers are notably better, but it is as a Test match allrounder that he is most keenly sought by Australian cricket, and on that front he has a great distance to travel before he is ready.
That is not, however, the impression one might get from some of the things said about him by observers. When he was Western Australia coach, in June 2010, at a time when Marsh had not yet made that one Sheffield Shield hundred, Mickey Arthur said, "I don't want to get ahead of myself when I say it but I can only think of Jacques Kallis.
"I often sat there and thought about Jacques Kallis and who in the world could ever replace him, and there's nobody. There's nobody who can bat in your top five and be your fourth seamer in world cricket, and only Mitchell Marsh has that ability and potential."
Marsh was chosen for Australia in 2011 and offered some neat cameos, but it is for cameos alone that he has shown a consistent knack, rather than for the match-shaping efforts he will be asked to provide in the future. In WA too, though, Marsh has been held up as an example of a young man who has "made it". A forage of YouTube can uncover a WACA instructional video in which Marsh is asked to give advice to prospective young cricketers. His response on what to tell a young player was a tad mixed, veering from the need for balance in life to that of wholehearted commitment to the goal. It appeared clear that as he left his teenage years, Marsh did not yet want to mainline entirely on cricket.
"At a young age you've still got to have a good balance in your life, not put all your eggs in one basket, obviously study hard at school and work hard," Marsh said. "But I think it's important all good sportsmen have good balance in your life. Your work ethic's the most important part. Being a youngster, when you're talented it sometimes can be easy to be lazy and let your talent get you there, but that can only get you so far in international sport.
"You see the good players who get there - it's about hard work, and I think Justin Langer's a prime example: he wasn't the most talented cricketer but he probably worked harder than anyone and his record shows it."
Langer is indeed a strong example, but his is not the one most commonly followed, particularly in WA. Perth can be a challenging place for a young cricketer or footballer to keep his gaze level and his goals clear in, as they can soon enter a scene where sportsmen are the celebrities of their town. Marsh has a foot in both worlds - he was considered a strong key position prospect among AFL draft scouts before he chose cricket - and with his family name and early success slipped easily into the world of the young athletes who have the run of the west.
The national selectors and the staff at the Centre of Excellence have tried to achieve balance between encouraging Marsh's talent and guiding him away from the distractions he has found. They now await his output as a cricketer to become less about flash and more about consistency. There is some Marsh family history to validate this approach.
The cautionary tale is that of Marsh's older brother Shaun, who turned 29 last month. Shaun too broke into Australian cricket with fanfare, clattering a century against NSW at the age of 19 that awed no less a judge than Steve Waugh. However, his subsequent tale would be one of late nights and false dawns, and to this day he has only made another six centuries, including one in Test matches, against Sri Lanka in Pallekele. On that tour, Marsh recalled a stern conversation with his former state coach Tom Moody about making cricket his true priority, and he was once suspended by the WACA for misbehaviour. But there was always a sense that he was not called to account for his excesses early enough, and as a result he has become the very embodiment of extended adolescence, still wrestling with the issues of a developing batsman at an age when he should be entering his prime.
Knowledge that his brother probably "got away with" far more may have informed some of the younger Marsh's indignation when he returned home from Brisbane to Perth, where he said his two offences had been unrelated and could not take away from the fact he had trained extremely hard. "'Wake-up call' are probably the right words,'' Marsh said. "The mistake I made was stupid and I regret that deeply, but I don't think it takes away [from] how hard I worked up there. It was probably the fittest and strongest I've ever been since coming back from a back injury.''
The national selectors are adamant that Marsh will not be allowed to repeat the mistakes of his brother, and so will become a more self-reliant cricketer in the process. At the same time they do not want to let him drift away from the national team and the mentors within it. As Warne and latterly Warner have proved, waywardness at academy time can indicate a free spirit that may later take flight on the field. The Australian game has flourished down the years via the brazenness of many such players - Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Keith Miller to name but three.
So it was that this month Marsh was given a reminder that he remains a part of Australian cricket's planning, being granted a place at the annual training camp held in Darwin. He has responded by training well and listening attentively, and has been perhaps a little less cocksure than at times on previous Australian duties. Importantly, he has also contributed on the field, making useful scores of 37 and 49 in the two practice matches played on turning wickets at Marrara Oval. While they do not differ from the kinds of tallies he has produced so far across his young career, they were made in testing conditions against worthy opponents. Darwin cricket watchers might just have been privy to the end of Marsh's cricketing adolescence.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here