Sri Lanka v Australia, 3rd Test, Colombo, 1st day September 16, 2011

Marsh shows up Ponting and Clarke

Shaun Marsh appeared to be the only man in Australia's top five to have an appropriate grasp of the demands of Test match batting

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Fleming on September 19, 2011, 1:25 GMT

    Aah Don't know why people are so impressed with Marsh....I agree Marsh has heavily contributed to the team since making his debut, but its only two innings which he have played....Lets see how he performs in South Africa...Then everybody would realize Ponting's class and ask Ponting to bat at No.3...Marsh is not the future for Australia...He is not the perfect No.3..At the moment he has lot of energy as he is new to test cricket...Once he'll be old, he will stop scoring runs for sure...

  • Garry on September 17, 2011, 9:26 GMT

    No matter what happens for the rest of his career, I'm glad Marsh has a baggy green and has shown he has the game to do well. Yes, only two test matches but they have been batting at No.3 and he's shown he can play at international level in the one-day arena. Yes overall averages are important but he has averaged over 50 the last 4 seasons which has shown he has improved his game from the early days. It's very well quoting stats at every opportunity without actually watching the player as well. Marsh always had the technique but obviously not the mental application hence no large number of tons, no one can predict what every career is going to turn out like but I have faith in Marsh. There have also been plenty of players who average well in 1st class but don't make the step up in international, cricket's not predictable. I think some people have also misread part of the article by Daniel, while Marsh is only new at this caper, it's highlighting the problems with our experienced middle

  • Dummy4 on September 17, 2011, 8:16 GMT

    It seems ridiculous that after 1 innings people are falling in love with Marsh and picking apart the games of Ponting and Clarke. The latter have proven themselves over years and years of performances. Ponting has just been regaining some form and for sure wouldve been eager to score. Clarke being burdened with the captaincy of a young team should probably swap positions with Hussey to not put too much pressure on his batting. Although, of course, he should not be losing his standard. People seem to be forgetting that Marsh being 28 has been failing greatly over his whole career. By no means taking away his 141 and 81 in the last couple of games, but to say, yes, he is so much better than Ponting and Clarke is just impulsive and absurd. Professional writers should be better than to fall so easily in love. Khawaja has yet to make a big score, but remember all the acclaim he received for his 30 odd in his first test. Its frustrating to see the media do this to get a story.

  • Dummy4 on September 17, 2011, 7:36 GMT

    The necessity of more innovative and technically sound batsmen in test cricket arises with the downfall of batsmen who cannot adapt themselves to 5 day game from the most-swiftly-played 20-20 cricket. But Shaun is an role-model to all Ausie cricketers, who has shown immense talent and patience in his first 2 innings of test cricket apart from the smooth transition from 20-20 to ODI to Test Play. Watson should play as he used to play in 20-20 and ODIs, although test cricket demands more patience and very sound technique that he fails everytime. He should always be aggressive rather than defensive which makes him tons of runs. For Mitchel down in the order, it is the same. They don't have a solid defense but strong attacking mode which makes them runs. It should be good bye to Brad Haddin by now.

  • Srivastava on September 17, 2011, 3:19 GMT

    I was dissappointed with the way Ponting got out for the third time in this series. All three were horrible shots and I think lack of concentration is preventing him from scoring a century. It's a very long time back since he scored a century. Only in Jan 2010 he had scored a century and since then there's a long draught. Is it high time for him to retire? At the same time Marsh played pretty well.

  • Ryan on September 17, 2011, 3:06 GMT

    You know why Marsh is playing so well? Because he had to! By that I mean, he wasn't gifted a spot in the team. He was the man left out. If he wanted to play for Australia he had to earn it by making big runs. This is the environment we need in order to be the best. Mike Hussey was a revelation when he came into the team for an injured Justin Langer. He knew that he needed to make runs and big runs if he was ever going to get a chance to play again for his country. Go back to Brisbane last year. Mike Hussey may have been discarded permanently if he didn't make runs and big runs. He knew this and it showed and he has been our best batsman since. Look at Watto. Brought into open to replace Hughes as opener. Knew he needed to make runs or that was it! Hughes was gifted a spot at the expense of Katich and has done nothing. Steve Smith was gifted a spot in the top 6 and didn't perform. I guarantee if Dave Hussey were given a game in place of Ponting, he wouldn't get out gifting his wicket!

  • Dummy4 on September 16, 2011, 23:55 GMT

    Well playes Marshy! keep going!

  • Dummy4 on September 16, 2011, 23:50 GMT

    This is yet another case in the continuing Australian selection saga of trying to plug square pegs in round holes. Is Marsh one of the best six batsmen in Australia at present, yes. Is Clarke, no. Is there a future for Hussey, Ponting or Haddin, beyond the next 12 months, no. Is Mitchell an all-rounder, No. Is he one of the best 50 bowlers in the country ... only if Geoff Boycott's mum isn't available - so that is a no. We've been here before back in the mid-80s, we know the solution, so what's stopping us getting rid of the dead wood? Give young talent and attitude a chance. Oh, an pls somebody look up Katich's average in Ashes ... do we want to win them back or is this about jobs for the boys?

  • Subba on September 16, 2011, 23:44 GMT

    The birth of Ponting's second child has also given birth to a new No. 3 Australian batsman, who has shown the difference youth can make and more importantly what Australian batting has been missing for the past 3 years. It is only logical now to also usher Khwaja in to replace Ponting and watch the Oz batting transform magically. It is difficult to understand why the ruthlessly professional Cricket Australia is giving such a long rope to a jaded non-performer at the cost of Australian batting fortunes. One would expect that this is Ricky Ponting's last series, since the alternative scenario has proved qualitatively superior and more importantly, made a huge difference to the batting. Incidentally, some readers would have noted that I had been saying this for a long long time.

  • Murali on September 16, 2011, 23:23 GMT

    Marsh is a great player - not just talent but has the ticker & temperament for top level cricket. The IPL is not the bar to judge anyone by an means, but the poise he exhibited there rih from his first season showed there was something there. Sad the Aussie selectors took so long o pick him., total joke that guys like Steve Smith wer played at #6 in the Ashes. This guy would have walked into any team in the world. Also, agree w some of the points Brettig makes on Ponting and Clarke but the two of them and Hussey need to be complimented for dropping one slot down, though they may not have had a choice. The intent and signal is key to show team over self. In sharp contrast to Ind in Eng where Dravid as always was selfless to the core opening when needed while sone others didn't move and others like Gambhir disrupted the order constantly by arguably chickening out on occasions during the series.

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