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Match Analysis

Mitchell Marsh proves his doubters wrong

Allrounder bounces back from being dropped after two games for unlikely starring role at No. 3

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
14-Nov-2021
Mitchell Marsh stands tall in his stance, collar popped. This is Marsh's first World Cup final and when the first ball arrives, he is in the midst of a storm: Australia have lost Aaron Finch early on and Adam Milne, New Zealand's fastest bowler, is ready to test out Marsh's perceived weakness against hard lengths.
Milne bangs his first ball in halfway down at 89mph/144kph, straying on to Marsh's hips. Glenn Phillips is riding the boundary at deep-backward square-leg and sees Marsh's pull heading in his direction, then cranes his head to see it fly into the 20th row of the lower tier.
Milne's second ball is quicker and shorter, 92mph/147kph and nipping away off the seam. Marsh rocks on to the back foot, opens the face, and steers it away fine, beating deep third to his left.
His third is banged in again, 88mph/141kph and back of a length, and Marsh smears it away on the pull, beating Phillips to his left. In the space of three balls, New Zealand's early stranglehold has loosened.
Eighty minutes later, Marsh has 77 not out off 50 balls, hitting both of New Zealand's spinners - once his kryptonite - for towering sixes on his way to the highest score of his T20I career. Glenn Maxwell reverse-sweeps the winning runs and Marsh runs towards him screaming, lifted off his feet in celebration.
Marcus Stoinis and Adam Zampa, his close friends, are the first two Australia players running on and they embrace him like proud parents. "I feel like a lot of people say this but I don't really have words right now," Marsh said, on collecting the match award. "What an amazing six weeks with this group of men. I absolutely love 'em to death - and we're world champs."
Six months ago, Marsh was pulled aside by Australia's coaching staff at the start of their tour to the Caribbean and told he would be given a chance to bat at No. 3. Even with several senior players missing, it came as a surprise: Marsh had filled the role in the Big Bash but his T20 international opportunities had come as a finisher, with limited success.
The message was simple: to impose himself on the game and make the most of the opportunity to face fast bowlers in the powerplay. Marsh had worked hard to improve his range against spin and was still dismissed by West Indies' spinners four times out of five - but his tally of 219 runs, three fifties and a strike rate of 152.08 made him Australia's player of the series by a distance.
His record in Bangladesh - 156 runs off 158 balls in five innings - hinted at a struggle but he was Australia's leading scorer again, 99 clear of anyone else. On slow, low pitches he found a way to survive against spin after hours of work in the nets against Australia's spinners. "He's the one guy at the moment, facing spin, [who] I'm really comfortable about," Zampa said.
Marsh's emergence - and the management's hunch that Australia could survive with allrounders as their "fifth" bowler - was enough for them to rip up a long-standing structure of five frontline bowlers, with Marsh given licence to go hard at No. 3. But after an innings of 11 off 17 in their opening game against South Africa and a Thanks For Coming against Sri Lanka, Justin Langer told him he would be left out against England in Dubai.
"I politely said 'no worries, mate' and walked back into my room," Marsh told Fox, "and I screamed into my pillow." With only six specialist batters, Australia were timid, rendered unable to attack after losing early wickets. They were thrashed, losing with 50 balls to spare, and causing Aaron Finch to bemoan their lack of attacking intent. "He was obviously disappointed, but he knew that it wasn't a performance thing," Finch said. "It was only a structural change."
Five days later, Marsh was back in the side with licence to attack, with Finch and Langer emphasising their focus on playing "really aggressive" cricket. The cushion of Matthew Wade at No. 7 meant the value of top-order wickets decreased, which Marsh recognised, taking early risks in order to maximise Australia's powerplay.
Against Bangladesh, he crunched Taskin Ahmed for four then six to seal a crushing win, against West Indies two days later, he hit 53 off 32 balls to confirm qualification. "We were comfortable with being able to fail being aggressive, because we know that's when we play our best," Finch said after the final.
In the semi-final, Marsh was thrown into the heat of the battle in Shaheen Afridi's first over, trapped on the pad first ball only for the umpire's call to save him. After a nervy start, he drove Afridi through extra cover for four, then struck Haris Rauf for six and four in consecutive balls to keep Australia up with the rate.
Marsh has never lacked for critics, derided by many as a player whose opportunities have owed as much to his father and his promise as any track record of performance. "Most of Australia hate me," he laughed two years ago after taking his first Test five-for. "There's no doubt that I've had a lot of opportunity and haven't quite nailed it, but hopefully they can respect me for the fact I keep coming back… hopefully I'll win them over one day."
"He's the nicest person you'll ever meet in your life," Finch said. "He's obviously a special player. To be able to put up with the critics for so long when his performances haven't been bad, by any stretch of the imagination, in any format of the game. For him to keep coming back and keep improving when people keep doubting him shows how much of a quality person he is."
Marsh's match-winning hand in the final epitomised the tangled process behind Australia's success: a fortnight ago, he was running the drinks but four games of backing talent, power and aggression to the hilt have seen them lift the trophy. When Australia wakes up on Monday morning, they will have an unlikely new hero.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98