Sri Lanka v Australia, 2nd Test, Pallekele, 3rd day September 10, 2011

Marsh performs, who will perish?

Shaun Marsh's debut century has opened up one of Australian cricket's most significant selection debates and has put pressure on numerous incumbents, including Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke

"It is critical that superior performance is rewarded at all levels. Players must 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 … players must be held accountable when they are not performing. This has been an issue in recent years." - the Argus review.

A masterful century on Test debut by Shaun Marsh has opened up one of Australian cricket's most significant selection debates for some years, at a time when the panel itself is being remodelled and imbued with the strongest sense that performance must be rewarded above all else.

Marsh was handed his baggy green cap because the former captain Ricky Ponting was absent to attend the birth of his second child. It seemed accepted at the time that Marsh would make way when Ponting returned. But an innings of 141, as part of a stand of 258 with Australia's best Test batsman of the last 12 months, Michael Hussey, was so compelling that Marsh must be retained for the third Test in Colombo.

The matter of who loses his place to accommodate Marsh is rich with viewpoints and intrigues, most of all the fact that the batsmen least able to point to their records for proof of retention include Ponting and the captain Michael Clarke. The man more likely to make way is one of Phil Hughes or Usman Khawaja, yet both are strongly regarded as the future of Australia's Test batting, and neither has performed poorly enough in Sri Lanka to deserve omission from the final Test.

Khawaja has made starts in each of his five Test innings to date, and shows evidence of a classical talent that can only bloom when given time. Hughes is less stylish, but was out to a brute of a ball and a speculative umpiring decision in the first Test in Galle, then gave his side a start in the first innings of the second. His record since being recalled for the injured - and subsequently culled - Simon Katich is not a strong one, but perseverance in his case should also produce an ultimate reward.

Don Argus' stipulations about the need to reward performance above all else shines the harshest light on the batting of the side's two most accomplished players. Ponting and Clarke have both demonstrated strong form in limited-overs cricket of late, but the reserves of concentration demonstrated by Marsh were such that there were lessons for the senior men to learn from it. Neither has made a Test century for 22 innings, and it is entirely questionable on recent evidence if either is presently capable of the sort of sustained batting display that Marsh has just produced.

Before the match Clarke had said he hoped Hughes, Marsh and Khawaja all performed strongly for it would create the sort of pressure for places that all the best teams need. He also conceded that there was not a single batsman in the first Test who could not have done better - though Hussey could be forgiven for diverging from that view.

"I believe these guys do deserve an opportunity, no doubt, but in saying that the player is responsible as well," Clarke had said. "The player needs to grab it with both hands. The great players that I've been lucky to play with, it doesn't really matter how they got their opportunity - whether someone got injured, someone got suspended, someone got rested - generally the guy that came in made the most of that opportunity.

"What we're trying to do with Australian cricket now is to continue to keep our domestic competition as strong as we possibly can, so there is pressure on the international players - there's someone back home that will take your spot. Shaun is dying for his opportunity, now he gets his chance."

That pressure has just been brought most prominently to bear on numerous Australia Test batting incumbents ironically enough by a player who many felt had not put enough runs together to warrant a Test spot in the first place. Marsh's effort will stick in the memory for its poise, patience and maturity - all the attributes an international batsman needs.

During last summer's Ashes series such attributes were in short supply, as all of Australia's batsmen save for Hussey were frustrated by a disciplined English line.

All Western Australia cricketers point to the WACA Ground pitch as an excellent proving ground for top-order players, as its traditional bounce teaches batsmen to become accomplished at leaving all but the straightest and fullest of deliveries early on.

Thus trained, Marsh is capable of batting anywhere from No. 1 to No. 6 in the order, the sort of versatility that means no Australia batsman should feel completely safe about their place in the XI. While Hughes and Khawaja are the duo most likely to be shuffling nervously, the trenchant findings of the Argus review are such that not even Ponting or Clarke should be sitting at ease about where they stand in the makeup of the team.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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