Marsh shows up Ponting and Clarke
It is one thing to bat at No.3 for Australia in a Test match. Quite another to have Ricky Ponting moved down the order to let you do so. This was the weighty reality that Shaun Marsh took to the batting crease on day one of the third Test in Colombo, having swiped first drop from Ponting in the wake of his impressive 141 on debut in Pallekele.
Marsh's response, a fiercely determined 81 as the rest fell around him, painted him as a man for the occasion as well as the position. He appeared to be the only batsman in Australia's top five to have an appropriate grasp of the demands of Test-match batting and put the rest of the top order, Ponting and Michael Clarke especially, to considerable shame.
The post-Ponting commission could have intimidated Marsh, for it represents the most significant change to Australia's batting order in years. Across 113 Tests, and 9904 runs, Ponting had dictated the terms of the innings, setting a powerful agenda for all to follow. As well as he played in the second Test, Marsh had only accomplished this task once, and against an attack of only moderate quality.
But let the past fade away and a rather different scenario slides into view. Marsh's retention in the top order was as much an allowance for the senior men's failings as it was a reward for the centurion. It did not take long on the first morning at the SSC to see that Marsh, at 28, looks the more natural top order batsman than Ponting at 36, or Clarke at any age.
The weight of recent data was mounting that not only Ponting, but also the captain Clarke, could no longer justify their claims to the No.3 and No.4 spots. Entering the Colombo Test neither had made a Test century for 22 innings. For any batsman, such figures would be unfortunate, if not terminal. But for those entrusted with the two most important batting positions outside of the opening pair, they represent a fundamental breakdown in the ability to accomplish the most key of tasks. In a word, inexcusable.
So the arrival of Marsh at the wicket to replace Phil Hughes - who may be opening another door for Usman Khawaja with what is now an extended run of slim scores - had plenty of sound logic behind it. At No.4 Ponting is a little less exposed to the new ball while at No.5 Clarke returns to the spot from which he has made the most, and most assured, of his Test runs. Hussey's demotion to No.6 makes a little less sense, for he has been Australia's best Test batsman for the past 12 months, but he possesses both the team-oriented character and the versatile game to make it work.
More striking than the logic was the subsequent evidence of the eyes. On a tacky pitch in heavy air Marsh again showed many of the qualities that Ponting seems to have misplaced and that Clarke has struggled to find. Early on, Marsh was far more comfortable leaving the ball as Sri Lanka's bowlers directed a surfeit of deliveries wide of the stumps. Both Ponting and Clarke made the obligatory exaggerated bat-raise to let numerous early ones pass, but neither has ever looked entirely comfortable doing so. They like the sensation of bat on ball, the strike rotated, the field pushed. Against some bowling, like England's last Ashes summer, such initiative is hasty, even self-destructive.
Marsh's defence, and his scoring avenues, also seemed more naturally suited to the demands of a new ball and a fresh pitch. As in Pallekele, he drove only sparingly, waited for straighter deliveries to deflect and shorter ones to pull and cut. His bat came down in a commendably vertical arc, contrasting with the rest of the top five bar Shane Watson, who was defeated more by impetuosity than technical inattention. Most crucially, Marsh seemed entirely uninterested in gifting the hosts his wicket, a commitment that neither Ponting nor Clarke could sustain.
In a two-part episode disheartening for its repetitive script, Ponting then Clarke succumbed to wild drives at wide balls. On each occasion there was movement away, but on each occasion the ball had started so wide that it asked to be ignored. That Ponting would still be dismissed in such a manner, having given up the mental strain of captaincy, was an ill sign, though his recent return to Sri Lanka from a visit home for the birth of his second child provided some mitigation. In Clarke's case, it was the second such dismissal in as many innings in circumstances that placed Australia's pursuit of a series victory in some peril.
Neither man was happy about his dismissal, but then neither could have any cause for complaint. The fault in each case lay with the batsman himself, in the space between his brain and his technique. Before the Test, Clarke had agreed that Marsh had set a marker down for other batsmen to follow: "I guess it shows all of us how you have to bat sometimes in Test cricket. That's the ultimate innings. You've got to bat for a long time to score big runs in Test cricket. Every single one of us can learn from that innings."
Having both been dismissed in circumstances they would regret, Ponting and Clarke had nothing better to do than watch Marsh, their junior in years but not method or focus, keep right on batting. At the start of the day Marsh had been cast in the role following Ponting. By the end it had to be concluded that Ponting now has no choice but to follow Marsh.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo