The Aussie legend who aims to put the Wagga swagger into English cricket

The Rod Marsh interview: Shane Warne says no one could fail to learn from listening to him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is still difficult to credit that Rodney Marsh has arrived to rescue England. Was he not the archetypal Australian, did he not embody their bristling aggression, their competitive spirit, their rebellious streak, their zest for life? Of all the antipodean cricketers who have ever given England a duffing-up, none has been quite so characteristic, an affable companion but a relentless opponent.

During his great days as a Test wicketkeeper he encountered for the first time England's chatterbox batsman Derek Randall, who came to the crease and said: "How are you going, Marshy?" No reply. After he had received a ball the batsman tried again: "Not talking today, Marshy?" Marshy then spoke (expletives doubtless deleted): "What do you think this is, a garden party?" When he had retired from the game and was briefly making a living in the commentary box before finding his true vocation, he came back to stick in England's craw again. He dismissed all their bowlers in one damning phrase. "They are," he said, "pie throwers."

All these years on, Marsh has a chance to remind England players once more that Test cricket is neither a garden party nor a place for pie throwers. He began work last week as the first director of English cricket's National Academy. He has a three-year contract and the terms of reference are clear – to make a successful England team via the academy. That is precisely what Marsh has been doing for Australia this past decade.

Since 1990 he has been director and chief coach of the Australian Cricket Academy. The results have been glorious. Of the players at the academy, 70 per cent have gone on to first-class cricket, 27 individuals have represented Australia and, perhaps most tellingly of all, nine of the 12 who cut a swathe through England's Ashes dreams last summer were graduates.

And now he has switched nations. He was in this country last week to assume control, and next Sunday he and the 17 players, aged between 18 and 25, who make up the first intake will fly to Adelaide. For its first year at least, England's National Academy will be in the premises already occupied by the Australian academy while negotiations about a permanent home site are concluded.

Marsh does not share the general astonishment at his apparent transfer of loyalties. If it is a coup for England, he is a willing participant. Having observed that it was the nature of Australians to want to beat Englishmen, he said that he now wanted to make it the nature of every Englishman to want to beat Australians. "That means you're going to have a hell of a contest," he said. "That's what the world of cricket wants, I believe, very strong sides competing against each other, going at each other's throats as hard as they possibly can and providing a great spectacle.

"It's not much fun if one team are so much better than anybody else, it becomes boring, no matter which team. You want contests, that's what makes you watch the game and love it. I think I've got to change the culture that people seem to be so worried about in this country, to make, somehow, these guys totally competitive, and more than anything else, even if they don't play for England, putting an enormous amount of pressure on those in front of them."

This did not sound like somebody for whom Australian ascendancy was para-mount. Nor is it these days. The man who kept wicket to Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in their salad days, who indeed was missing for only one of Lillee's 70 matches, who held the world record for dismissals, who can still be seen in the mind's eye launching his stocky frame sideways for another catch, moustache and shirt-tail flying, who never took a step backwards in the national cause, has a broader perspective now. "I don't think I've ever felt sorry for an Englishman," he said, refusing to countenance sympathy as a reason for his move. "It's funny, when you get older you just want to see the game really going forward. The result is really of no moment, what is is the development of the game.

"When you get a bit older you get to the stage of thinking what a wonderful life you've had because of the game of cricket, and you feel a sense of responsibility. You don't sit on the edge of the chair like you used to when you'd just played a bad shot and got out, what you do is sit there and hope there's some good cricket played.

"It's a strange feeling. I changed when I became a coach, probably 11 years ago. I looked at some coaches and saw how intense they got about winning and thought they were doing it for the wrong reasons. It should be about how the players are developing. That seems to be more important than a game of cricket in Wagga Wagga or wherever."

Marsh had his new charges from hello. He delivered his introductory address on Sunday evening and they were still talking about it on Monday afternoon. He comes with the track record, 96 Tests, a legend. But there are countless numbers of that ilk who cannot transfer their genius or persuade others to believe in themselves. "The terrific thing is his brutal honesty," said Simon Katich, the most recent graduate to have made Australia's Test team. "You would have to go to a meeting with him to discuss your physical and technical progress and he would let you know exactly where you stood rather than just say something for the sake of it. But he isn't slow to praise either when it's due.

"He's got immediate respect because of what he did, and a presence. I was wondering whether to go to the academy when I was invited but I was persuaded to by others who'd been, and at the time it was the best six months I'd ever spent. I was playing with the best young players and getting some fantastic advice. He's since said mine was the worst year ever, but I learned a huge amount."

Having the best available young talent at your disposal and making something of it may not, to some, sound the most complex of coaching jobs. But, as Shane Warne exemplified, it is possible to cock it up. Just before Marsh's time, Warne left the academy early, piqued because they "were treated more like schoolchildren than young adults". This has not, however, clouded Warne's view of the academy.

"I do not see how anybody can fail to learn listening to Marsh. Unlike the coaches when I was in Adelaide, he commands respect. But I would guess the best of it is the casual chats with him in the dressing room during and after games. The sort of knowledge a man like that can pass on is priceless and not to be found in any textbook. One criticism that used to be levelled at graduates was that some of them came out with a superiority complex. I think that word got back to the academy, and Marsh has made sure that today's kids know what they have to do to build on the excellent foundation he has given them."

Marsh was first selected for Australia in 1970 against Ray Illingworth's England. He was shortly to acquire two nicknames. The first was Iron Gloves, because of his primitive style of wicketkeeping. He never did become pretty, but 343 Test catches later (and a mere 12 stumpings, because these were the days before Australian leg-spin was resurrected) he had demonstrated his effectiveness. Marsh was the first of the flying wicketkeepers. His runs were no less important to the legend.

The other nickname was Bacchus. This also seemed appropriate. He had a reputation for liking a drink occasionally (did he not for many years hold the Australian touring team's record for tinnies consumed on the flight to England?) and the odd bet (with Lillee, he backed England at 500-1 in the incredible Headingley Test of 1981 only to be staggered at collecting the money). Sadly, his team-mates were not classical devotees who gave him his second sobriquet after the Roman god of wine and giver of ecstasy. Rather more prosaically, he was named after a town in Victoria called Bacchus Marsh.

If Bacchus Iron Gloves came to personify Australian-ness, he knew about the spirit of the game as well, long before it became necessary to enshrine that phrase in the laws. The most celebrated example was in another incident involving Derek Randall. In the Centenary Test of 1977, Randall was playing the innings of his life and England were pursuing the improbable target of 463 for victory. Australia were edgy. Randall nicked one, Marsh dived and rolled over, Randall set off for the pavilion. Marsh called him back. The ball had not carried. Not a garden party, but not a cheat's charter either. Thirteen runs later, Randall was really out. The Aussies won by 45 runs.

It is the combination of having done it all and seen it all in cricket, off and on the field, that makes the enlistment of Marsh so heartening for England. "If they want to go and get drunk every night that's up to them," he said. "But they won't be playing for England, it's as simple as that. It doesn't work that way in top-level sport, but if they're silly enough to want to do it I'll tell them once but I won't tell them again, because that's not the way I operate. I think it's ridiculous if someone believes they can get away with that, because you can't. There's too much opposition around."

The way he operates is to treat his charges as individuals, to get to know them and their foibles. Indeed, he may be able to do this more with the English than with the Australian academy, where the support staff was smaller and where he was also, he said, chief cook and bottle-washer.

"I've come here with no idea about these guys," he said. "I reckon I've done well to remember most of their names so far. Psychologically I don't know how they strong are yet, but at the end of this week [yesterday] I'll have a better idea, and in six or seven weeks' time I'm sure I'll have a really good idea."

He will work on their fitness, on their cricket skills, but he will be looking for the ones who help themselves as well. He will parade before them the likes of Ian Chappell, Terry Jenner (Warne's guru – excellent news for Chris Schofield, the Lancashire leg-spinner), Ashley Mallett and John Inverarity. Australians all, but all, like Marsh, with a greater sense of duty to the game at large than simple adherence to the present prospect of their country retaining the Ashes in perpetuity.

Marsh said: "From my point of view, if from our first year eight fellows go on to represent England and only play one Test match I think we will have failed, because we won't have produced eight Test players. If they go on and play for England I would expect that they play bloody well and play for a long time. That's what we're after, not fly-by-nighters." Of the 27 Aussies, six have played only one or two Tests, seven have played only one-dayers. The rest have made enduring careers. That is what England crave, nay expect. The chances are they have chosen the right man for lots of reasons, not least because even England's 17 young tyros recognise the legend.

Marsh has his own philosophy as well. He summed it up in answering the question about whether he was concerned about flying to and fro in the present climate. "I don't worry about things like that because I think life goes on and when your number's up, it's up."

Biography: Rodney William Marsh

Born: 11 Nov 1947, Armadale, Perth, WA.

First-class career: Western Australia 1968-69 to 1983-84. 97 matches.

Test career: Australia 1970-71 to 1983-84. 96 matches.

Statistics: Career 257 matches, 11,067 runs at average of 31.17, 12 centuries; 803 catches, 66 stumpings. Tests 96 matches, 3,633 runs at average of 26.51, 3 centuries; 343 catches, 12 stumpings.

Academy: Appointed director of Australian Academy in Adelaide in 1991-92. Appointed director of English Academy in July 2001.