On Boxing Day last year, Mitchell Marsh was greeted with a loud ring of boos. It was not in Cape Town, nor was it at Edgbaston, but it was in Melbourne, by his own countrymen, who jeered the all-rounder as he walked in to bowl against India.
But how did it even come to such a situation? It was only a year prior to that the Western Australian was celebrated as a hero at the very same venue, post his 181 at Perth in the third Test which subsequently helped Australia seal the Ashes. Now, almost two years post his Perth heroics and a year post the Melbourne nightmare, Marsh will walk into enemy territory, trying to make his golden touch work yet again and snatch the urn away from the English.
It is fair to say that Marsh Jr's career will go down as one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in modern-day cricket, despite him being just 27 years of age. At just 20, he made his ODI and T20I debut and by the time he was 23, Marsh made his much-awaited Test debut. By 24, he had displaced Shane Watson as the country’s #1 all-rounder and had already proved his versatility - grinding out runs on slow and low pitches in the UAE while also ripping the Indian bowlers to shreds on rather flat wickets. The talent and ability were visible for everyone to see and now thanks to his performances, the weight of expectations started to mount on his shoulders.
Cue the 2015 Ashes. Australia have put Watson out of his misery and now have a new face, someone who can not only bat down the order but also provide an extra edge with the ball. Marsh entered the 2015 Ashes as a boy who was seen as the next superstar who was ready to move to the next level, but he instead left the series as a novice gamer who got schooled by the pros - beaten, broken and damned, looking undercooked to be competing at the highest level.
The scars of the 2015 Ashes cut so deep within Marsh, that it wasn’t until 2017 against the same opponents that he found his mojo back again. In 25 innings between the 2015 and 2017 Ashes, Marsh averaged 18.13 with the bat and 32.75 with the ball. Perhaps, he would have loved to reverse those numbers. By this time, he had become a meme within the ranks of world cricket and amongst the Australian fans, and one can almost sense the “ugh, not again” expression in their faces the moment his name was printed in the team sheet.
Then came the brief period in 2017 to mid 2018 - back-to-back hundreds in the Ashes and a fighting 96 against an attack comprising Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander - a period where it looked like he’d finally broken the shackles and started doing justice to his talent. Such was the hope Marsh inspired that he was announced as one of the vice-captains of the Australian team and in all honesty, it did look like the management eyed him as the next captain. I mean, why not? This was a guy who had led his country to the U19 World Cup a few years ago, a guy who had seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and a guy who most importantly showed mental toughness in overcoming all his demons to come out on top.
But life, unfortunately, isn’t a fairytale and soon Marsh realized it. Post his 96 at Durban, he averaged a dismal 9.92 - accumulating a total of 129 runs in 13 innings that followed it. He was barely able to put a foot right. The frustration of the fans had now turned into anger, the “ugh, not again” soon became “Are you f*****g serious mate” and years of accumulated frustration finally led to the horrific, sad and disgraceful moment at the MCG where he was booed by his own “fans”. The people who sympathized with him were as helpless as he was in the middle of the ground and all everyone wanted was to put him out of his misery - for his own good. Finally, the selectors obliged and dropped him post the India series.
But amidst all the highs, lows, joy, misery and disappointment in the last eight years, one thing has remained the same - Marsh’s work ethic, his self-belief and his will to succeed. This despite his confidence getting pegged back not only due to failures but also due to injuries. He has made it impossible for the selectors to overlook him through sheer performances - be it for Western Australia or Perth Scorchers or Australia A. He has realized that it’s okay to just be a “backup”, but it is important to fight hard to actually stay the second choice.
Again, coming into the Ashes, he knew he was never going to be the first choice, but he made sure that he was always going to be the second choice. He has averaged 40 with the bat and has taken 11 wickets with the ball in three warm-up games and now with Matthew Wade out of form, he looks all set to step into the cruel format of Test cricket that once promised so much, yet has made him suffer immeasurably. But Old Trafford now presents him a golden opportunity to put all of the ghosts of the past behind and start afresh yet again - a story that is by no means new in his life, but who wouldn’t love to rewrite their own story if given another shot?
If indeed he is named in the starting XI on Wednesday, don’t be surprised if there are boos, abuses and discontentment among his own supporters. Don’t be surprised if there are “angry reacts” on Cricket Australia’s Facebook page with a bunch of hate comments. But then again, don’t be surprised if he fights through everything and tilts the series in favour of his country. After all, from David Warner to Steve Smith to Ben Stokes, 2019 has been the year of redemption, and if the plot needs a fourth protagonist for the same story, it needs to look no further than Mitchell Marsh.
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