A Diamond Among the Marshes?
By Hunter Meredith
Shaun Marsh brought up his fourth international century for 2018 in Australia’s 1–2 ODI series loss to South Africa, but is the most maligned batsmen in the national system since Shane Watson the player Australia needs but doesn’t want, or a selection habit that Cricket Australia can’t kick?
If you subscribe to the ego-centric philosophies of The Grade Cricketer, last week Shaun Marsh would have been sipping on his CA-approved XXXX stubbie with a wry smile of satisfaction. He had just pulled off, apparently, the most lauded act in elite cricket; scoring a century in a losing side.
In a time where no spot in the National XI is secure, and the intensity of criticism never greater, Marsh could have easily cocked his head and said: “I did my part, what about you blokes?”
Batting at №3, Marsh strode to the crease with it all to do. For the third time this series Australia sent out their first drop within the first four overs with the score at no more than a dozen runs. For the second time this series that batsman was Shaun Marsh. And for the first time this series he went on to make a big one. Actually, it was his first “big one” in some time.
Well, actually not that long by Shaun Marsh’s standards. The Hobart century was Marsh’s first in seven innings, three innings quicker than his career average of 10 innings per 100+ run score and 1.5 innings better than his career median gap of 8.5 innings.
In Tests and ODIs Shaun Marsh has scored 12 centuries and on eight occasions the wait for the next ton was seven innings or more. The longest was 19 innings, the time between his 148 in the first innings of the Centurion Test against South Africa in February 2014, to his 182 against the West Indies in the Hobart Test of December 2015.
In that period Marsh was dropped three times (due to either injury or form) from either the Test or ODI XI and wasn’t part of Australia’s 2015 World Cup winning campaign. Of a possible 54 fixtures that took place during the time of his longest international century drought, Shaun Marsh played in 11. And in an act of selection that only Shaun Marsh could be involved in, after scoring his ‘daddy ton’ against the Windies, he was excluded from the proceeding Boxing Day XI to make way for Usman Khawaja in the name of ‘team balance and chemistry’.
Considering the state of Australian cricket currently, this most recent swashbuckling, stroke making, ‘stylish’ Shaun Marsh hundred is on the surface a timely performance for the player and national team alike.
Shaun Marsh has never been a ‘break in case of emergency’ selection, but more so a ‘select in case of a split decision.’
When in doubt, go back to the well and hope that this is that innings in ten that will be the biggie.
The question is however, is that sound decision making?
SELECTION DEBATE №1: SHOULD SHAUN MARSH BE SELECTED IN THE TEST SQUAD FOR THE AUSTRALIAN SUMMER?
In the afterglow of Marsh’s latest ODI century, SEN commentator Gerard Whateley hit the airwaves with a defence of Marsh’s newly accepted position as a keystone of the Australian set up.
“At the risk of starting a Monday morning fight, Shaun Marsh again showed why he has to be a key plank of every Australian batting line-up in this challenging summer of cricket.
That’s three centuries in six ODI’s, 416 runs at 59 this year. His Ashes summer netted two centuries and two 50s in seven innings for a total of 445 runs at 74.
His lone Sheffield Shield appearance last month produced 80 and 98.
Other than long-term prejudice, and a national blind spot, the case for Shaun Marsh at home is overwhelming.
While he might not be the batsman Australia wants, he remains the batsman Australia needs…”
Two statements from Whateley’s defence are immediately remarkable.
The first is the use of runs in ODIs to validate selection in all formats of the game. In the current version of Limited Overs cricket, the playing conditions in comparison to Test cricket couldn’t be any more different. Batsmen friendly pitches (even more so than what’s becoming the norm in Tests), fielding restrictions, bowling limitations and player rotations in and out of XIs, two new balls making it easier to score faster for longer — there are more differences than similarities between the two ‘codes’ of the game. Yet it seems both pundits and the Australian Cricket Coach Justin Langer alike regard all runs to be equal.
To this point, in an interview with Whateley on SEN, Langer explained why Glenn Maxwell was left out of the Tour of Pakistan Test squad:
“At the end of the day, in Test cricket and there’s a method to our madness, Glenn Maxwell is 30 years old and in everything above A-grade cricket he’s scored 17 hundreds.
I’ll put that in perspective for you, Steve Smith has scored 79 hundreds and David Warner’s scored 88 so we all know Maxwell’s a terrific bloke, he’s a brilliant fieldsman, he’s got talent to burn, but he’s also a very frustrating cricketer because he needs to score more hundreds…
…but take the name out of it, we’ve got to get back to a point in Australian cricket where it’s really hard to get into the team, otherwise we’ll keep accepting mediocrity and that’s not what we’re about.”
Other than the ‘double counting’ Smith’s and Warner’s hundreds, (as was pointed out by Cricinfo’s Daniel Brettig) the point initially makes sense. Don’t pick on name, or potential, pick on results — which in a batsman’s case is RUNS, and specially in the mind of Langer: TONS.
Where the philosophy of “making hundreds” breaks down however, is in the reality that centuries are rare, and while they are often match winning knocks, unless they are witnessed by a suitable support card they are often fruitless in terms of the result of the match, as Marsh found out in Hobart.
As you can see by the chart above, while Shaun Marsh might warrant selection under the ‘how many tons do you make’ mantra bandied about by Justin Langer, he fails to produce to an average level in any other supporting role.
As a ‘supporting opener / №3’ (Marsh has opened on 10 occasions and batted at №3 on 12) his role would be to soak up opening spells and (to drop into cliche) ‘take the shine off the ball’ or (in the case of the most recent Australian Test performances) act as a ‘pseudo-opener-emergency-repair-man’ when the Aussies lose 1-for-less-than-10, as they nearly always seem to be doing of late.
Marsh however is 11% more likely to go out early in his innings than the average probability for all Top 7 batsmen who have played for Australian since 2008. Furthermore, Shaun Marsh has the worst innings per duck rate of any Australian Top 7 batsmen in that time, scoring a blob once every six innings.
Marsh has spent the majority of his Test career (64% of his innings) batting in the middle order, ideally coming in with another set batsmen. The ‘supporting role’ in that circumstance, is to form a partnership with the ‘in’ batsmen and go about slowly building your own innings. Again however, on top of Shaun Marsh’s propensity to be dismissed early, he’s also 10% less likely than the average for batsmen of the last decade to make a score between 10–49. The only times when he is close to the average is when he crosses the 50 run threshold, hovering ‘only’ 3% below the average.
This is the problem with Langer’s Ton Tally system. You end up selecting hit or miss batsmen, who are only valuable when they go big.
As much as the current English Test captain, Joe Root is ridiculed for his low 50/100 conversion rate, he is a batsman that averages 50 runs and a batsman you can pencil him in for basically at least 50 runs each time he walks to the crease. With Marsh, he’s just as likely to score 25+ as he is to score less than 10.
It’s an obvious truism that you’d rather have Root in your side than Marsh due to their sheer difference in ability, but it’s also true — if the aim of the game is to win — that it would be better to select batsmen who you could more often than not bank on to scratch out 30+ runs, and bank on one of them going on with it, than selecting batsmen that score 100+, once every ten hits and bugger all the rest of the time.
The other flaw in Langer’s ‘Ton Tally’ dogma and by extension Marsh’s new found guaranteed spot in the Australian Test XI is that not all centuries are created equal, and this is especially the case when it comes to Marsh.
Of Marsh’s six Test centuries, only one occurred in a Test where he was the sole centurion and four came in Tests when there were three or more batsmen ‘tonning up’.
These statements aren’t to diminish Shaun Marsh’s career, but to challenge the notion that he is a walk up starter for the Australian Test summer. Even in Australia where he averages 44.65 (+9 on his career average of 35.28), he is still an even 33% prospect to score either less than 10, 10–49 or 50+, which isn’t the level required of a ‘protect-the-fortress-flat-track-bully’ batsmen to guarantee sure thing selection status.
Based on his scoring history, if he played in every Test this summer he’d score two centuries and have eight scores of 30 or less, which is arguably possible from any of the current successful domestic players including but not exclusive to:
Top Order Bats: Marcus Harris, Matt Renshaw, Joe Burns as well as… Middle Order Bats: Cameron White, Matthew Wade, Jake Weatherald, Callum Ferguson
Perhaps the Sheffield Shield naysayers and Shaun Marsh defenders are right, and there is no one ‘knocking the door down’ for Test selection, but there are at the very least half a dozen domestic batsmen who are politely waving outside the front window of the selectors house in an attempt to let them in.
Shaun Marsh could have a very good Test summer this year but history suggests that he’ll have an average to above average one. Marsh is not David Warner or Steve Smith. He isn’t and has never been ‘The Man’ for Australia but more so ‘One of the Boys’ and there are plenty of other ‘boys’ that could potentially become Australia’s next ‘The Man’ who have better current four-day form.
SELECTION DEBATE №2: SHOULD SHAUN MARSH BE SELECTED IN AUSTRALIA’S ODI SQUAD FOR THE 2019 WORLD CUP?
When it comes to Shaun Marsh’s selection in future ODI squads, there’s a more solid defence that can be made.
While Marsh’s ODI numbers are similar to his Test figures (2312 runs @ 40.56, 6 centuries) it’s been his ability to fill in the gap between ‘tonning up’ and missing out that makes his ODI case easier to fight for than his long form prospects.
In fact, in the period since his ODI debut, Shaun Marsh has the fourth best innings per 50+ score rate and among current squad members he is second only to current opener and captain Aaron Finch.
One can make the argument that the reason for Marsh’s ODI success versus his Test disappointments is where he bats in the order, in each form of the game.
With a quirk of the current playing conditions in ODI cricket being two new balls used simultaneously, Marsh is presented with balls that are harder for longer which in turn offer him more value for his shorts. As a stroke-maker, hitter and sometimes ambitious decision maker, batting at the top of the innings gives him the benefit of the fielding restrictions as well.
These conditions are basically the opposite of what he is offered in Test cricket, where batting in the middle to lower middle order he is faced with an older, softer ball, more defensive field placements and (depending on location) reverse swing or capacious turn and bounce.
Marsh’s recent ODI form also stacks up against his current peers vying for inclusion in Australia’s World Cup squad.
Marsh is the only Australian batsmen in 2018 to average over 50 or strike at a rate above 100. His top score of 131, which occurred during a disappointing away series for Australia against England was the highest by any batsmen for the year and he has the best innings per 50+ score rate for any batsmen in 2018.
There is one number however, in Shaun Marsh’s stat line that is concerning: seven — the number of ODI matches he managed to play in 2018.
It’s no secret that Shaun Marsh is injury prone. It’s another reason he has struggled for Test regularity, as a full series seems beyond his body’s ability.
He’s latest injury that saw him miss the first ODI of the series against South Africa for “minor surgery on an abscess in his buttock region” is an injury that only Shaun Marsh could suffer.
The 2019 ICC World Cup is doing away with its former convoluted formats and brackets, in favour for a simple, ‘everyone plays everyone once’ Round Robin followed by Semi Finals and a Grand Final. What that means however, is that each country is guaranteed nine games in a month long period, a fixture that approaches a Test series level of work loads — especially if Australia make the finals.
It’s no reason to exclude Shaun Marsh from the World Cup squad but it is reason to temper our output expectations of him. He played seven ODIs in a full calendar year. Expecting him to play 11 in little over a month is unreasonable.
The other wrinkle created by an ‘automatic’ Shaun Marsh selection, isn’t actually to do with Marsh but his supporting cast in the batting line up.
Marsh, as we mentioned before, is a stroke maker and a powerful hitter. Some would say an ideal batsman at the top of an ODI order. But one thing Shaun Marsh is not however, is ‘busy’ at the crease. Boundaries? Sure. Big Sixes? Why not. A solid enough defence for the odd good ball? Absolutely. But constant strike rotation, turning 1s into 2s and 2s into 3s? Ummm… Marsh is not your man for that.
The difference in ‘busy-ness’ between Australia’s Hobart centurion and South Africa’s tonning up duo was in their willingness to press for runs that weren’t boundaries.
So, while at first glance it’s obvious that both Millar and du Plessis hit more boundaries than Marsh in their innings, their hitting came at the back end of their partnership. South Africa found themselves at 3–55 after Aiden Markram departed in the 16th over, with their innings stagnating at a run rate of 3.43 runs per over. By the time Faf du Plessis was dismissed in the 49th over, South Africa had passed 300 runs and increased their run rate to 6.27 rpo.
Big hitting in the final ten overs from Millar and Du Plessis put the Aussies to the sword but it was their ‘busy-ness’ that firstly brought South Africa back into the game and then put them back on the front foot. The pair put on 252 runs for the fourth wicket, and of the first 200 runs of that partnership, over 50% were from non-boundary balls.
The result was a rattled Australian bowling outfit, unable to string together any sort pressure on either batsmen, the ball was either racing to the boundary or the batsmen were scurrying for doubles. That sort of scoring prevalence takes the tempo away from the fielding side (the side that usually can control the pace of play) and lets the batsmen get into a groove — a scoring ‘trance’ if you will. Batting becomes very easy, runs flow, bowlers rotate constantly in search of an answer, fielders are wheeled around endlessly and plans are thrown out the window.
Conversely, Australia were disappointingly stationary in their run chase, an issue that they faced in two of the three matches in the series.
The nature of ODI cricket means boundaries will be hit. Both Australia and South Africa hit 12 sixes for the series and due to Australia poorer bowling for the most part South Africa found the rope eight more times as well. What is telling however, is that the team that won the ‘busy-ness’ metrics in each of the fixtures won that individual match.
If both sides bowl to an appropriate standard, the percentage of boundary balls will be roughly the same. It means that the team that can turn dots into 1s and more importantly, 1s into 2s and 2s into 3s (on slower outfields) can accumulate runs under the nose of the opposing captain. It’s easy to tell that there’s a problem when the ball is flying over the fence. It sneaks up on you when a team is going at 6-an-over while seemingly just trotting between the stumps.
This lack of energy in batting partnerships is something the Aaron Finch acknowledged after the most recent series loss:
“If you look at our line-up on paper at the moment you’d say it’s an attacking side,” Finch said. “A fairly one-dimensional side in terms of attack, versus workers of the ball and your traditional batsmen. Not to disrespect any of the players by any stretch, but it’s probably that way and we haven’t got it right for a while.
And that does expose you in the middle order at times when you come upon some different wickets or a really good attack who get on top of you early. We’ve got a bit over two months until the next one-day games against India, so that’ll be a really good opportunity to sit down and reassess and start mapping out that process of how I and JL (Langer) and the leaders think we can be the most successful in this format.
The side we’ve got at the moment is that way inclined, it’s not necessarily the way we’ve been trying to play. So it’s going to be a combination of both, we have to either adapt our game plan a little bit around the way the side is structured best, or we slightly change our personnel to fit a style we think can win. That’s something that will come out over the next couple of months when we sit down and dig into it and find a way to get back on top of the world.”
How does Australia’s lack of ‘batting busy-ness’ affect the selection of Shaun Marsh? Well it doesn’t affect him individually but saying Shaun Marsh is a ‘lock’ affects the selection of Chris Lynn, Travis Head, Marcus Stoinis and Glenn Maxwell, to name but a few.
The quaddie of super aggressive hitters are currently caught in an a ‘purgatory of aggression’ — they hit out, or get out and leave the rest of the order (namely bowlers or if we’re feeling generous all-rounders) exposed late in the innings.
Meanwhile, batsmen like George Bailey (with ODI average of 40+ by the way)are watching on via their living room TV sets, probably shaking their heads in frustration. Especially since Bailey lead the CAXI side home for a win against a close to full strength South African side, with an unbeaten half-century in a classic ‘Bevan-Style’ match winning innings.
Selection and mindset changes need to occur for Australia to defend their ODI World Champions crown and perhaps the most telling insight was from under-fire and underperforming batsman Glenn Maxwell after his 31-from-34 in a loss to England during the 2nd ODI of their five match away series.
[Referring to his score in the match] “It’s a ‘start’, it’s not quite what the team is looking for at the moment. We’re looking for big hundreds and match winning scores and 60s aren’t match winning scores.”
But as Shaun Marsh found out in Hobart, 100s aren’t match winning scores either if there aren’t enough ‘busy-batsmen’ willing to chip in around you with scores of, you know… 60-odd.
Hunter Meredith is the editor of Sporting Chance Magazine and the co-host of deep dive cricket podcast “Nude Balls and Nuffies.” You can find him on Twitter via @HunterGMeredith tweeting about cricket at godforsaken hours of the morning.