Marsh stays calm amid Maxwell clamour

There was a fascinating sense of asymmetry when Shaun Marsh walked out to bat on the second afternoon at the Gabba. Shaun Marsh, who doesn't bowl, has a bad back, stabbed Mitchell Starc with his spikes in a fielding mishap earlier in the day, and later dropped a catch on the boundary. Shaun Marsh, aged 34, and on his ninth life in Test cricket.

At the same time in Sydney, Glenn Maxwell was about to pass 150, on his way to a first-class double-century - something neither he nor Marsh had ever achieved. Glenn Maxwell, who bowls offspin and is one of Australian cricket's finest fielders and most athletic movers. Glenn Maxwell, aged 29, left out of the squad and told he needed big hundreds. Glenn Maxwell, flown in as injury cover for Marsh and David Warner, then flown out to play in the Sheffield Shield.

As if the ledger could have been any more lopsided, Marsh played and missed at his first delivery, a ripper from James Anderson that nipped away just enough not to kiss the edge. When Moeen Ali bowled the next over, Joe Root pushed four men back to the boundary for Steven Smith, seemingly desperate to get Marsh on strike. It was as if he was a tailender, not a man with 22 first-class hundreds.

He's a nervous starter, Ricky Ponting said on television commentary. Likes to reach for the ball. It is true that Marsh inspires little confidence early in his innings, but the same could be said after he's been at the crease for 100 balls, or 200. The odd delivery will still beat the bat, and bowlers must always feel they have a chance against him. But his record, which includes four Test tons, says he can play.

So do the national selectors. Over and over. "He's one of the class players," Darren Lehmann said when Marsh was picked for this Test. He went on to praise Marsh's recent Sheffield Shield form - "he's got 50 or 60 and he got 90 against Hazlewood, Starc and Cummins" - while contrastingly declaring that Maxwell's "pair of 60s" against South Australia were missed opportunities for big hundreds.

There is no escaping the fact that Marsh has had a charmed career. SOS, people call him - Son of Swampy. But it's another ABBA song that better sums up Marsh's journey: "If you change your mind, I'm the first in line, honey I'm still free, take a chance on me". Again and again the selectors have taken a chance on Marsh. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Never has he played more than five Tests in a row.

So this was the background when Marsh walked out at the Gabba, joining his captain Steven Smith with Australia in trouble at 4 for 76. The pitch was slow, the ball was turning, Root was doing his best to cut off all scoring opportunities, and the next man in was a wicketkeeper who has not played Test cricket for seven years or scored a first-class hundred since 2006. Marsh and Smith had to stay firm.

A wide Anderson half-volley helped Marsh get away, his cover drive for four timed sweetly off the middle of the bat. But there were few chances like that, and it took until Marsh's 50th delivery for him to score a run through the leg side. At the same time, a heavily lopsided field stopped Smith scoring a run through the off side until his 90th delivery.

But Marsh and Smith stuck it out. The Courier-Mail derided England as the "Bore-Me Army" after their slow scoring on the first day, but Smith and Marsh were hardly racing along either. The sluggish surface and constricting plans from England necessitated great patience, and both Smith and Marsh were up to the task.

On a day when Usman Khawaja's woes against spin continued, and David Warner fell to his troublesome short-arm jab shot, and Peter Handscomb was lbw playing deeper than the Mariana Trench, and debutant Cameron Bancroft nervously prodded and edged behind cheaply, Australia needed something strong from Marsh and Smith.

By stumps, Australia were 4 for 165; the partnership was worth 89, and Smith had 64 and Marsh had 44. Much work remained, but already they had made a significant difference to the state of the game. Seven hundred kilometres south, Maxwell would go to bed on 213 not out for Victoria. But if Marsh can help turn this start into an Australian lead, plenty of backs will be slapped on the selection panel. And the odd brow might be wiped, too.