South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day February 12, 2014

Marsh's rush job is one to remember

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

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.

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 here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Scott on February 13, 2014, 9:10 GMT

    @Mitty2, haha, trust you to be a viewer of stats only!! No, I don't really like Doolan and wouldn't have him in the side. He just doesn't appear to have that something else. His innings yesterday will have done him no favours either. Although, he dealt with Steyn, Morkel and Philander rather well, then got shown up by the angle McLaren generates from his obscure action. Also, I quite like Hughes and tipped him to be the leading run scorer in the '13 Ashes in England. Man, I was p.ssed when he was dropped! I do love a good classical technique though. Also, it's not that I didn't like Smith, I would've preferred to have seen someone like Ferguson chosen for those Ashes. However, Smith's innings yesterday was of high class and he really deserves a ton...

  • Peter on February 13, 2014, 8:10 GMT

    Lovely to see young Marsh maybe finally coming of age for consistency. He certainly bats lovely ! Young Hughes has to be given preference over Doolan next Test simply because Doolan looks like Mark Waugh until mid twenties before turning into a tailender by slapping chest high shots willy nilly. At 28, it may be a bit late to wait until he gets his Test headspace right because it will take a few years. Another case of George Bailey looming otherwise.

    At 24, Hughes however has his red ball mentality right as shown from Shield runs this year. Henriques....I think circumstances decide. Better bet than Maxwell for red ball games.

  • Xiong on February 13, 2014, 7:59 GMT

    @Barnesy4444 To be honest I don't think Hughes is going to have to wait very long anyway. Rogers is 36 and I think the selectors have already signaled that Hughes is next in line. That, and Watson is injury prone and I doubt he has more than a couple years left in him at international test level. Even if Hughes has to wait 5 years (doubtful) he'll be the same age as Marsh is now. Not that old.

  • rob on February 13, 2014, 6:25 GMT

    @ Mitty2 : re Style v Substance. My head say's Steve Waugh but my heart says Mark Waugh. Wouldn't it be great if he had them both at the same time. .. Hey, you never know. This could be the start of the greatest 6 years of Marshes career. .. A double ton tomorrow would be a decent start.

  • Prasanna on February 13, 2014, 6:06 GMT

    And how many of you folks thought Doolan did well till the time he got out for a poorly executed pull shot ? His defense was good. Drove neatly as well.

  • David on February 13, 2014, 5:53 GMT

    I don't know about Daniel Brettig's comment about Steve Smith's 'unsmooth' technique. What are you talking about? When he actually plays the ball, Smith is usually in perfect position - I think people are conned by his fidgeting between balls, although even that has been toned down. Great innings by Marsh but I cannot agree with badyon - in Marsh's first go at Test cricket he scored a 100 against possibly the worst attack Australia has faced in years (have a look at the names if you don't believe me) and then failed consistently.

  • django on February 13, 2014, 4:31 GMT

    Very good knock, but I still have doubts about this guy. The same thing happened in Sri Lanka. I jumped on the band wagon then only to see him disintegrate spectacularly. Not this time. There are very good reasons for his poor records. He doesnt lack talent, patience or application. He simply makes fatal mistakes when he is well set repeatedly. A conundrum of a cricketer if ever there was one.

  • Andrew on February 13, 2014, 2:20 GMT

    @ Chris_P on (February 12, 2014, 18:00 GMT) - I am with you re the Marsh selection criteria. I wouldn't of picked him - but am very glad he has put the runs on the board. History shows that very few batsmen significantly outperform their FC stats, usually end up being below. So I am very happy for Marsh - but not optimistic that he is the man. Should be more scope for improvement in Doolan.

  • i on February 13, 2014, 1:24 GMT

    "I am glad he had proved everyone wrong."

    He proved everyone "wrong" the first time he was in test cricket, as well.

  • Brenton on February 12, 2014, 22:46 GMT

    I'm sorry, but I still don't support the initial selection of Marsh. Criteria should be based on performance and runs. He has been averaging 25 in FC cricket the last two years which isn't a fluke. Marsh has been doing this his entire 13 year career, plays one magnificent innings then disappears for the next 6 months.

    The big loser here is Hughes, he actually deserves to be playing test cricket based on performance, but when will he ever get a game now?

    The big winner here is Smith. He's turning into an excellent middle order batsman.

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