June 2005: Features

Marshall rules

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Hamish Marshall's outstanding success for New Zealand since he added a Test cap to the one-day-international place he already held could yet be doubled when his identical twin James establishes himself in the Test side. The pair became the first twins to play international cricket for New Zealand when they featured in the recent series against Australia and Sri Lanka.

Hamish has displayed a thriving appetite for success and an obvious enjoyment in scoring runs to become one of the more successful newcomers in international cricket in recent times. Pat Malcoln, the coach who has probably had the most to do with the brothers as they emerged from Northern Districts' development programme, believes it won't be long before James is demonstrating the same qualities.

Hamish's Test batting average - 55, after appearances against South Africa, Australia, and Sri Lanka, is not one to be sneezed at. Not that anyone expects him to maintain that accomplished measure, but a continuation of the refreshing approach he employs would be more than welcome.

His bent for the unusual is not unexpected from one who has spent his life as an identical twin. International cricket is just the latest of the experiences he shares with his brother James. The two also have in common an engaging touch that suggests more than a fair share of good-natured mischievousness, and an ability to laugh at circumstances arising from the similarities between them.

While there has been a long period of time between the identification of the Marshalls' talent and their maturation into international players, that is not unexpected of New Zealand cricketers. The history of the game in the country is full of successful performers who have had to wait until their mid-20s to gain sufficient experience to be able to cope with the demands of international cricket. The relative lack of first-class cricket on the New Zealand calendar means that the average first-class cricketer, if he turned out for every game available to his association, would play about eight matches a season.

Marshall, 26, has been a typical late bloomer, and in many ways his development mirrors that of possibly the finest No 3 New Zealand has produced - Andrew Jones, who didn't appear in international cricket until he was nearly 27. A player who had quirks of his own, Jones was inured to living with the comments and barbs, and he let his bat do the talking. Marshall, if only now showing the mental toughness that was the mark of Jones's play, has added to it a competitiveness - especially between the wickets, and in his playing of spin bowling - that sets him aside from other New Zealanders for whom leaden-footedness, particularly, has been a common failing.

The brilliant, electrifying speed that is on display, especially when Marshall shares the crease with another superb runner, Brendon McCullum, may have been a natural gift. The hunger for runs has been an acquired taste. For cricket followers who had tired of wondering if the obvious potential would ever bear fruit, it couldn't have come sooner.

"My running, and speed between the wickets is a way of taking pressure off myself ... punching the ones and trying to avoid getting run out. Sometimes I take the risk but you look to keep the fielders and bowlers guessing. Part of my game is the running and it is an area I work on," Marshall says.

There will come a time when those whose hobby it is to hunt down the minutiae of cricket statistics will work out if there has ever been a player - or one from New Zealand at least - who has taken as long as Marshall has to score his maiden first-class century, and yet such a short time to achieve a Test century. Certainly Marshall is out on his own in having made a one-day international century before a first-class one.

Yet, as is so often the case, once the dam broke, the runs flowed in flood-like proportions. The breakthrough came in Napier, in December 2004, when Marshall's side, Northern Districts, were set 400 to win by Central Districts - a reasonable target given the ND penchant for self-destruction that had been evident in earlier games. But CD found themselves up against Marshall, who sniffed opportunity. It was a generous batting wicket but the situation required application. At five wickets down for less than 100, Marshall found that the old stager of the side, Matt Hart, was of a similar determination. They added 216 between them for the sixth wicket, and by the time Marshall was dismissed, just before the target was reached, he had scored 128.

He explains that he had been part of the New Zealand team to the Champions Trophy in England, the tour to Bangladesh in which he scored 69 in his only Test innings, and the inaugural Chappell-Hadlee one-day series in Australia, all of which had put him in an advanced state of readiness for the new home season. "Scoring the maiden first-class century in Napier was such a weight off my shoulders. It was a very good wicket, and I got in. I had learned how to build an innings and I was just looking to hit the ball. I got to my hundred and I had finally experienced building an innings. I remembered that feeling."

Marshall had always had the ability. The manager of the New Zealand selection panel, Richard Hadlee, knew that. Apart from having had a stint at the New Zealand Academy, where potential internationals are honed, Marshall had also been in the development team managed by Hadlee which took part in the Buchi Babu tournament in India in 2000. Marshall thrived on that tour, scoring two centuries, both in trying heat. "Playing on those wickets at international level was great," he recalls. "They were very flat and I enjoyed playing my game. And that is how I am still playing. It seemed to work for me, so I stuck at it.

"I had never played on good pitches so consistently. We faced a lot of spin and I quite enjoy that. We did a lot of work before we went to India, set a gameplan and adjusted to it. Certain techniques were employed. There was an advantage, too, because we knew what to expect but they didn't know how I played. You had to change your gameplan according to the circumstances, and using my feet was one of those. It became a test of batsmanship, and having older players there, in a touring situation, was good. It was the first time I had experienced that at that level. I was exposed to New Zealand-level players, and different guys than what I had been used to."

It was after that tour of India that Marshall was thrown into international cricket when the New Zealand tour of South Africa in late 2000 ran aground due to player injuries. His unbeaten 40 on debut, scored in difficult circumstances in the third Test, marked him as an unusual player. Yet Marshall, and the selectors, knew that when the injured absentees came back, he would have to step aside. The only way he could get back in was by scoring plenty of runs. Or was it?

"I knew I was there because guys were out through injuries and that I wasn't going to make the side when they came back. I had to learn how to make big scores and it didn't really happen until this year."

While Marshall wasn't scoring enough runs, New Zealand found they needed to honour a pledge to play an ODI series in Pakistan late in 2003 after the tour of 2002 was cancelled in the wake of a bomb explosion. Players were given the option of not going and some chose to take it. Marshall, though, didn't see going to Pakistan as a risk. At any rate, he couldn't afford to not go. "I couldn't turn it down as I probably hadn't done enough to warrant selection otherwise. I knew that New Zealand Cricket wouldn't send us there if they didn't think it was safe."

Below strength, New Zealand struggled and were whitewashed 5-0. Disaster or not, Marshall blossomed. In the third match he hit 101 not out; his other scores were 55, 14, 11 and 62 not out. Some were inclined to dismiss his efforts but the signs were clear: here was a player with an attitude to encourage.

Making the one-day side for the home series against Pakistan and South Africa was his reward, and it also helped set him up for an advance to Test cricket. Marshall spent the summer of 2003 in England, where he concentrated on simplifying his approach. Backing that up with advice from his Northern Districts sports psychologist, he began to put a formula in place. Like any change to long-accepted practice, it cost time, but patience had its reward.

Home fans witnessed the metamorphosis in the summer of 2003-04, in the ODI series against Pakistan. Marshall hit 64 while adding 148 for the second wicket with Stephen Fleming in a seven-wicket win at Christchurch, and then 84 in a fourth-wicket stand of 157 with Craig McMillan at Wellington to set up a close win as New Zealand took the series 4-1. Yet, of all his one-day games, Marshall rates the victory at the Docklands in Melbourne in December 2004, when New Zealand upset Australia, as the most satisfying. He scored an unbeaten half-century that was pivotal to victory.

Such form, coupled with his domestic success and that first century, meant Marshall just had to become a Test possibility. And so it was that he lined up to play Australia in the keenly awaited series. "There was excitement but also anxiety about playing the Australians," Marshall recalls. "I had played them in the one-day games, so I knew what to expect. I just wanted to bat and enjoy it. You don't get the opportunity to play them too often. I knew it would take a day to score 100 against them, so I just kept it simple.

"Scoring a century against them was a dream come true. You always hope you can do that sort of thing and you hope it lasts a little bit longer. It was nice to experience that. It gives you confidence. Quite a few of the Australians came up and congratulated me. It took quite a while to get it but they have seen you work at it."

Frustrating as the series was for New Zealand, it revealed Marshall's character graphically, and with the pressure off, he was able to flourish in the series against Sri Lanka earlier this year. Blessed with the confidence that came with having performed well against Australia, he met the Sri Lankans in Napier, and the result was a second Test century - 160.

Now having established himself, with such a fine record, there comes the job of living up to the reputation that has emerged. It's a task he is ready for. "I will have to adapt as teams work me out. I will be aware of that. I will not be too flashy. But you don't change much," he says.

Marshall's is a batting repertoire consistent with his diminutive stature. He is accurate square of the wicket, and behind square on the cut. He is also unafraid of taking on faster bowlers tempted to bowl short to him: he has a fierce pull shot and looks to play the hook - though it does not yet rank among his safest shots. Then there is the straight-back-down-the-ground, which is especially effective when he uses his feet to get to the ball.

Already he has worked his way through what the Australians perceived to be his weaknesses, but he also took the chance to watch how the world champions took their chances. "They try and keep you down and from scoring, and they don't give you much of a chance to score. But I watched the way they played. They take risks when they are needed; they take the bad ball and put it away, they keep the pressure on on the field. They are so efficient. So against Sri Lanka it was a case of putting the foot on the throat once you had got on top of them. The Aussies really did; [Ricky] Ponting was such class."

The lesson has been well learned and Marshall acknowledges it. "Scoring runs is great fun, and something I took a long time to get a taste for, and I want to capitalise on that."

Lynn McConnell is a sportswriter based in New Zealand