Getting around the boys. If the language of Australian football has infiltrated Australian cricket, there is no better example than this nebulous and well-intentioned phrase. Much like momentum - the term we heard so often before the Manchester Test - it is difficult to articulate what it means, but you know it when you see it. And there is nobody Tim Paine’s team like to get around so enthusiastically as Mitchell Marsh.
While the public might not fancy the all-rounder, those inside the dressing room always have. They aren’t immune to the below-the-line and social media abuse that comes his way on the basis of his modest poor overall with the blade (not helped by his surname) but they don’t care inside the cocoon. On the basis of the positive influence he has throughout the team, they have been willing him to succeed – to make it big – for years. They really do love him.
Thursday was doubly important for the recalled all-rounder for two reasons. Firstly, on the basis of how his last stint in the side ended. The summer of 2017-18 had gone so well, returning to the Test team the previous summer, crashing his first two tons – Ashes tons, no less – and earning the vice-captaincy in the sandpaper palaver. But then it all went horribly wrong.
He had a shocker in the UAE against Pakistan and was dropped before the home summer started against India. When he was brought in for the Boxing Day fixture, it ended just as dreadfully. Dumped, again. “I was certainly in a pretty dark space,” he’s acknowledged of that period.
Secondly, by virtue of Australia bowling first, he had a chance to prove his worth with the ball. Despite being picked on the basis of both disciplines since his debut in 2014, it’s always been his batting on which he has been judged. This time, it was a bit different. At the end of this long tour, Paine explained, they really wanted him to step up as a seamer. Ben Stokes was specifically referenced, his ability to both ball all day and then make runs. As the pitch was getting slower after tea, with England only three down after being sent in, he had a job to do.
That he had already accounted for Stokes before the break meant an awful lot. As Marsh celebrated, his teammates went wild. They got around their boy for the wicket that mattered most. He might have fallen due to a shot-selection error, but the first ball the Australian bowled to him two overs earlier hooped to prompt a bit of indecision. As Ian Chappell says, batting is easy when the decisions are straightforward and these were not the sort of questions he had been asked in this series to date, the visitors favouring the Broad/Anderson scrambled-seam approach rather than conventional curve.
It is forgotten that Marsh took five wickets in this corresponding fixture four years ago, Peter Siddle’s contribution of 6/67 in that dead rubber of more significance given it had taken him until that point to bring him into the XI. With the Victorian well short of his best on this occasion – not least when it came to scoreboard pressure – he was having to do that job too, giving up 17 runs in seven overs. Sure enough, then, it was he who Paine threw the ball to straight after tea alongside Pat Cummins. This is when he really got busy.
After conceding just one run between them to start the final session, it was Cummins who struck first with a near-replica of his beauty to Joe Root from last Saturday night, once again smashing his off-stump. Three overs later, Marsh – having beaten Jonny Bairstow outside the off-stump with his outswinger – brought back a glorious inducker that was correctly assessed as leg before wicket. Sam Curran was next, deceived by swing that wasn’t there after a series of balls where it was, edging into the cordon for his third scalp in a hurry. Lovely cricket.
The best of the set was Chris Woakes, doing England's number eight with the one that goes the other way, reminiscent of Damien Fleming at the peak of his considerable powers. This might have been the series of that scrambled seam for Cummins, Siddle and Josh Hazlewood, but the newcomer was getting the Dukes to go the old-fashioned way: seam up, through the air. The average swing in this series has been 0.7 degrees, according to CricViz, and Marsh was moving it on average 2.4. Only three bowlers since 2006 on this ground have been more pronounced by this measure on the opening day. It was a spell for the purists.
All told, he netted three wickets across eight overs. That second number was telling too, as it linked back neatly to what Paine said before the Test. With a nickname like The Bison he has always been a Big Boy, and it is true that another swing ace, Fred Trueman, attributed the size of his backside to what he was able to achieve. But when it came to the crunch, team management didn’t think Marsh was fit enough. The “honest feedback” he had been given when left out for the home summer was that he was carrying too many kilos to bowl the sort of long spell they wanted from him. This time he did and it worked a treat.
Granted, the work did catch up with him when called upon later, going off the field for camp before the close after three false starts. And if he doesn’t make runs later in the Test, it will be situation normal as far as the public discussion surrounding him is concerned. But if this new and improved version of Marsh the bowler can be matched by an improvement with the bat, there is still more than enough time for the country to get around him, too.
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