Bewildered Rod Marsh calls for 'selfish' batsmen
Rod Marsh wore the bewildered look of a man who caught the wrong plane and wound up in a war zone rather than a beach resort. Australia's Ashes campaign fell to pieces before hordes of delirious Englishmen in Birmingham and Nottingham, leaving the survivors to sort through the wreckage in the relative solitude of Northampton.
As chairman of selectors, Marsh is bearing the brunt of much of the criticism. The coach Darren Lehmann has already conceded a selection error in the omission of an allrounder from the Trent Bridge XI, while also pointing towards Pat Howard for preferring a single squad be picked for dual tours of the West Indies and England.
For his part, Marsh has also admitted that the decision to leave out Peter Siddle in conditions ideal for his seam and swing looks wrongheaded in hindsight, though stating that after Lord's it looked impossible to drop any one of Mitchell Johnson, Josh Hazlewood or Mitchell Starc.
Much discussion has swirled around the side chosen for Trent Bridge and the circumstances in which it happened. Players were left in the dark until the hour before play, when Mitchell Marsh was told he had been left out for his brother Shaun, while Siddle had to cope with the letdown of being unwanted on a pitch that he could not have tailored better to his art. Marsh said he had never been involved in a more challenging team selection.
"That's probably the hardest selection I've been involved in, that last Test match," he said, "because I thought there were three or four options, every one of which could have been fantastic and every one of which could have been poor. That was just the way it was. Had we won the toss we might not be even talking about it right now.
"There was no way known I was going to make up my mind until I saw the pitch on the final morning. I'd consulted all the right people - friends that had played here, guys that I knew very, very well - and they wouldn't give me a bum steer. The message that I got was that if you can get through the first three hours it becomes a belter of a pitch to bat on - if the sun comes out. Well, the sun was supposed to come out...
"I'm assuming Michael would have bowled but, gee, I would have been inclined to bat first on that. In a lot of ways that's how it should be in Test cricket, where you don't know if you're going to bat first or bowl first . . . those are the pitches you want in Test match cricket. That one behaved a little differently because, I think, we had atmospheric conditions more than anything, particularly that first 20 minutes of the game. My god, it was like a sea fret . . . it was moist out there."
That moisture was added to by a brief shower that delayed the start by five minutes. The prevailing conditions were then ideal for Stuart Broad to dominate, but his eye-popping haul of 8 for 15 was only the most extreme exploitation of an Australian batting order that had been exceptionally brittle all series.
Marsh noted that if the middle order could not make runs when given a start by Chris Rogers, David Warner and Steven Smith, little wonder they folded like paper planes when asked to face the new ball. But he also relayed a disturbing truth for Australian cricket. There were few, if any others, who could reasonably have been expected to do the job required. Depth is sorely lacking.
"If you have a look at our first innings batting it's been deplorable, it's all you can say," Marsh said. "Guys have let themselves down. We've got to take some blame for us but how do you see that, how do you see some of the best batsmen in the world make no runs in the first innings of four Test matches basically. It just staggered me.
"Our blokes scored more runs than their top order, but our middle order scored no runs and that was the big differential - we just didn't score any runs in the middle. If I had my time again, to sit down and choose the batsmen to come to England it would have been exactly the same. I just couldn't think of anyone else who could have done the job.
"We picked blokes with experience in these conditions, we picked blokes that we thought would get runs obviously. You've got to be held accountable - fine, I agree with that. But I'm just racking my brain to try and think of who else we could have picked. If you blokes want to come up with some suggestions, I can probably explain why we didn't pick them. No selection panel can work harder than we worked, and we will continue to work. There's not much you can do about it really. We were walloped and it hurts like hell - it hurts me like hell."
Pushed for a remedy to the batting malaise, Marsh spoke more about attitude than technique or conditions. He wondered whether the current generation, raised on Twenty20 matches and also a constant stream of fixtures that means the next innings is seldom far away, had the requisite selfishness to bat all day, preserving their wicket at all costs - whether it be to the opposition bowlers, their batting partners or even spectators.
"I think the game of cricket is about being accountable for yourself," Marsh said. "Everyone says it's a team game and there's no doubt about that, but batting in particular you can be quite selfish as a batsman and still be a good team person. Being selfish as a batsman seems to me to be not wanting to get out and wanting to occupy the crease longer than anyone else in your team, and those things count in Test match cricket.
"I think our blokes have got to be more selfish. They've got to say 'righto, no one's getting me out and I don't care if it takes me all day to make a hundred'. You're allowed to bat all day, and I think our longest partnership in that game was something like 18 overs - that's appalling in a Test match, I don't care what you're playing on. You should be better than that, and I'm sure all the batsmen are feeling exactly the same."
Marsh can remember playing golf near Northampton on the 1975 Ashes tour, and having one of his best rounds scuppered by the profits Doug Walters took from beating the field on a rather more generous handicap. That summer also happened to be the last time Marsh was personally involved in a winning Australian Ashes tour of England. More cause for bewilderment.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig