Australia have so far invested 15 Test matches in Mitchell Marsh, the fledgling allrounder. Over that time he has shown glimpses of a match winner, broken up by rather more passages that have shown a 24-year-old cricketer still learning his game and those of others around him. In Sri Lanka, there is hope that the investment may be about to mature.
Moulding an allround cricketer of high class can take a long time, and history is dotted with examples of exactly how much. After 15 Tests, Steve Waugh averaged 29.68 with the bat and 35.38 with the ball. At the same juncture, Andrew Flintoff’s averages were 20.08 and 40.31. Marsh, at 23.00 and 34.52, sits somewhere in between. Perhaps the source of most discontent is that his highest Test innings, a very fine 87 against Pakistan, dates back to his second Test in 2014. His bowling appears to have progressed more thoroughly than his batting.
On the recent West Indies ODI tour, Marsh was given a more central role at times by his captain Steven Smith, and rewarded that faith. Promoted in the batting order against the West Indies, he responded with a cool-headed 79 not out opposite Smith to steer Australia into the tournament final. When the decider arrived, it was Marsh’s impactful 3 for 32 that wrecked the hosts’ chances of a successful chase. Those memories remain at the forefront of his mind.
“The biggest thing for me is confidence and going out there and playing my natural game,” Marsh said in Kandy. “I took a lot of confidence out of the West Indies tour because the conditions were quite similar to what we’re going to face here, it was hot and the wickets were quite slow and turned a little bit. I took a lot out of that.”
There will be added responsibility for Marsh in Sri Lanka should the selectors opt for the kind of configuration suited to the dry and turning wickets they expect. A place at No. 6 in in the batting order will be allied to a commission as third seamer, with the need to bowl tightly while also looking for wickets. In his first two Tests in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Marsh struggled to ask questions of the Pakistani batsmen but has since added pace, reverse swing and cross-seam variations to his armoury.
“That’s probably the only thing that will change,” Marsh said of the potential for longer stints at the bowling crease behind the likely new-ball pairing of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. “Maybe bowling longer spells earlier in the innings, trying to work the ball and create some pressure for when the spinners come on and do their business.
“The more Test-match cricket you play, you get a lot of flat wickets where the ball doesn’t generally do a lot, so you’ve got to work out ways to get the ball doing something. That’s something I’ve worked on over the last 18 months to be able to get wickets for the team. Hopefully I’ll be able to work on reverse swing over here and get a few wickets for us.”
As a batting collective, the Australians are devoting their preparatory energy to the idea of spending long periods of time in the middle, showing patience and not allowing Sri Lanka’s spinners or pacers to goad them into errors against in and out fields. For Marsh, this is the area where he has the most improvement to make. Since that double of 87 (161 minutes, 116 balls) and 47 (164, 130) in Abu Dhabi, he has never again soaked up 100 balls, or minutes for that matter, in a Test innings.
“We weren’t sure we were going to get much spin out of them in that game, but it was nice a few of us got to face a few overs against spin and it was nice to start against spin, because it’s probably going to be something I’ll come up against in the Test matches,” Marsh said of Australia’s tour game, where he made 25 from 38 balls. “Probably the biggest thing here is if it’s turning just make sure you have a game plan and stick to it from ball one no matter what. All about being as sharp as you can.
“I’ve done a lot of work in the nets over the last six months playing spin and trying to improve that, so hopefully it’ll come out in the Test matches. We’ve spoken about how if it is turning its going to be hard work no doubt about that, but it’s about having a game plan and really sticking to that, and having the confidence to go out there and play your game.”
At times, Marsh’s batting has shown a certain stiffness welcomed by spin bowlers, as he pushes out hard at the ball while also struggling to find a way to rotate the strike. He fared better at these skills in the Caribbean, and has also worked on developing a sweep shot as a way of fighting back against disciplined slow bowling in helpful conditions.
“I’ve worked really hard on my sweep shot over the last few months so hopefully in these matches I’ll be able to get it out,” Marsh said. “Especially if it’s turning, I think it’s a great weapon to have, if the ball’s turning too much and missing the stumps it’s a great weapon to have to try to mess up the bowler’s lengths and do something different. And also get off strike, which is the most important thing. Hopefully I’ll be out there long enough to play it.”
For 15 Test matches, Australia have looked upon Marsh as an emerging allrounder. By the end of this tour, the tourists’ hope is that the “emerging” prefix can be discarded. (Courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)