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News Analysis

Caring and resilient: Mitchell Marsh's long road to being Australia captain

Leadership has long been a part of the allrounder's story and he gets the chance to continue the team's World Cup legacy

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Mitchell Marsh captaining Australia at a World Cup is equal-parts inevitable and improbable, when you consider his career arc.
The inevitability comes from his lineage. He is the son of a former Australian ODI captain and World Cup winning coach, Geoff Marsh. He grew up in the 1990s Australian dressing room around legendary captains Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh. He is one of the most gifted all-round talents of his generation. He captained Australia to an Under-19 World Cup win in 2010 - a squad including current team-mates Josh Hazlewood and Adam Zampa - and there were many astute judges within Australian cricket early in Marsh's career who felt his ascension to the senior job would only be a matter of time. He is a natural leader.
"He just genuinely cares about everyone," Ashton Agar told ESPNcricinfo. "It's not about trying to be everyone's mate. It's about actually caring about who they are, caring about their families, and that makes you feel good. You might not always remember what he says but whenever you speak to Mitch you walk away feeling like you've been understood, you've been cared for, you've been listened to and that he's going to remember what you've said to him. And he doesn't discriminate. He talks to everyone. He talks to his best mates like he talks to a random human on the street. And I think that's such a great quality to have."
Such is his popularity amongst his peers, he was installed as Test vice-captain in 2018 when new coach Justin Langer held an internal player vote to find out who should be part of the revamped leadership group following the nadir of Cape Town.
The improbable part is that it's Mitch Marsh. This is a man who once said, "most of Australia hates me". A man who was booed by an MCG crowd during a home Test match when he came onto bowl. A man who broke his hand punching a changeroom wall after being dismissed when captaining Western Australia and missed six weeks of cricket. A man who has been dropped as the Test vice-captain and rarely if ever felt a sense of surety about his place in the Australian team in any format over the last 13 years. He was even left out during Australia's 2021 T20 World Cup triumph, a tournament where he was player of the final. He gave up the Perth Scorchers captaincy just days out from the 2020-21 BBL season because he did not think he could commit fully to what the role required while also trying to fight his way back into the Australian team.
He is the same Mitch Marsh who seeks fun and frivolity in every situation rather than carry a serious and steely disposition that is supposed to be the hallmark of an Australian captain.
As seen in the first season of The Test documentary, in the deeply solemn sanctuary of the Australian dressing room during an intense Ashes series in 2019, there was Marsh trying to make his team-mates laugh by pretending to be a music DJ spinning tracks. He would stop whenever Langer entered the room, carrying the look of a guilty schoolboy trying to hide his actions from his teacher. There is also widely viewed footage elsewhere of Marsh turning a routine Australian gym session into a dance rave with Marcus Stoinis and Zampa just to make himself and his mates giggle. In the latest edition of the documentary, charting last year's tour of England where Marsh made his remarkable comeback century at Headingley, he is again a central figure with a good dose of humour among some candour.
Captaining Australia at a World Cup is supposed to be serious business. Border, Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Aaron Finch were serious, hard-nosed, ruthless competitors at their core. Marsh is not built like them, despite his lineage. He is as competitive as those men, but he gets the best out of himself in a different way. There is a sensitive and social soul underneath what has now become, by his own admission during his iconic Allan Border medal speech, a softer exterior.
Even when he played good cricket, he'd just be copping it. So he had to weather that and show extreme resilience, but in order not to crumble he had to understand his emotions, and how to manage them effectively
Ashton Agar on Mitchell Marsh
"I'm a bit fat at times and I love a beer," Marsh said.
It was in that same emotional speech that Marsh paid tribute to his current Test and ODI World Cup-winning captain Pat Cummins, and his current coach Andrew McDonald, for believing in him and allowing him to be himself.
The relationship of Cummins and Marsh as Australia's two modern leaders is at the heart how the current Australian team functions.
The pair have a friendship that dates back to their ODI debut together as teenagers in 2011. They spent time together during Cummins' brief spell at Perth Scorchers as he was working his way through his back injuries. They rode the bench together in the 2015 World Cup.
Those within the Australian team will tell you that they share the same values towards cricket and life despite being slightly different characters. They play cricket for fun. It is their profession, and a handsomely paid one at that. They are both incredibly good at it, but it doesn't define them.
Cummins has long lived by that mantra and it has held him great stead. Marsh has taken a long time to reach the same conclusion, but he's finally reaping the rewards.
Travis Head is another who has found the same sweet spot in the modern environment. They tried the hard-nosed, ruthless, our-way-or-the-highway professionalism that Australian cricket was once built on, and it did not help them play their best cricket. The calm, free-range farm that Cummins and McDonald have cultivated has helped Marsh and Head thrive.
"I think those guys have been really comfortable in their own skin, comfortable with the way they go about it on the field and knowing that they have the full backing of their team-mates and coaches to go out and play their own way," Cummins told ESPNcricinfo. "I think you've seen those guys go to a different level, maybe that's part of what's been different."
We are all there if he needs us, he can lean on us any time when he needs help but it's his show so we'll let him run it however he sees fit and he'll do a great job
Pat Cummins
There would have been a temptation to just rinse and repeat the success of Cummins' captaincy at the ODI World Cup at the 2024 T20 version. But Cummins' workload as a three-format quick and permanent Test captain made him a campaign-by-campaign proposition in the ODI format and an unrealistic option in T20I cricket given he is often rested from bilateral series.
Australia needed to fill the leadership vacuum left by Finch in the T20I side. Marsh is seen as the perfect leader for this group at this time, although there is a feeling he can be a successful long-term captain as the white-ball team transitions beyond the upcoming World Cup.
He no longer holds the title of Test vice-captain, an honour that sits on the shoulders of Steven Smith and Head, but Marsh is regarded as a key counsel for Cummins even in the long form. He was Cummins' vice-captain for the ODI World Cup and deputized for him in the lead-in.
In the build-up to 2024 campaign, which started in South Africa last year, Marsh was the obvious and popular choice provided he was comfortable to take it on.
"It's been quite a journey for him to get to this point of leading a World Cup team and being an Allan Border medalist," Agar said. "I think the hallmark of true leaders or really good leaders is that they have a great sense of self awareness. And Mitch has that now.
"That's what he's tried to develop as much as anything else. He's trying to understand who he is so he can be really comfortable with that. And I think that's because he went through a really tough time. People were just on his back for no good reason at all. He just copped it and I know he's spoken about that before. Even when he played good cricket, he'd just be copping it. So he had to weather that and show extreme resilience, but in order not to crumble he had to understand his emotions, and how to manage them effectively. So now he's doing that so effectively, that his performance is so consistent."
There is a sense Marsh won't reinvent the wheel at the World Cup. He himself has said he hopes to create a calm and fun environment where players can play their way and express themselves just as he has under Cummins. He has already won the three T20I series he has led over the past 12 months, including dropping just one match in eight, with the players enjoying the leadership vibes he exudes. There also isn't concern over the tactical challenges he may face in a high-pressure World Cup given the experience he will have around him.
"Mitch will be brilliant," Cummins said. "He's a really experienced captain. He's captained WA, Scorchers and the Aussie team. He'll be super well supported. Everyone in that team loves playing underneath him so he'll do a great job. We are all there if he needs us, he can lean on us any time when he needs help but it's his show so we'll let him run it however he sees fit and he'll do a great job."

Alex Malcolm is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo