His “El Bandido” moustache is kept well trimmed these days. The belligerence he showed behind the stumps, and often in front of it too, has been reined in. He is almost unrecognisable as the wicketkeeper who made all those raucous appeals.
Once the epitome of aggression, Rodney William Marsh today is almost an establishment figure. Cricket still rules his life. But it is as a coach, guide and counsellor that he is associated with the game. He is no more the ex-player media type who wishes to point out everything that is wrong with the cricket world.
The world is full of the ex-player media types. Few have shown the inclination to take up the coaching route to give back something to the game that gave them so much. Marsh may have been considered the last guy to take up the teaching of cricket job. He is a different man today.
As director of the cricket section of the Australian Institute of Sport, Marsh is in charge of a whole system of support services that is set to produce international players for Australia. Considering that technically Marsh – hooted out in his first Test as “Iron Gloves” by a cruel crowd that had no sympathy for a burly Western Australian – was the player who improved the most, maybe he is the right choice for heading the coaching section.
Marsh had sent a risque joke in advance to India. He had told Dennis to tell the lads this tale about the two hippopotami, which cannot be reproduced here. He told Dennis to inform the lads that Rodney will be here.
The Rodney who landed here as head of the AIS team out on a learning trip to India may not, however, have lived up to the image of the beer-guzzling, joke-spouting Aussie. Strangely, he refused to be drawn into controversies. He said things were perfectly all right on the field even in the notorious sledging days of lan Chappell’s conquering Australian team.
“A glare is better than words,” he said. Maybe he has a point there. He is the ’keeper who refined himself through sheer application from a clumsy, fumbling figure to an athletic ’keeper who missed nothing. It is a tribute to his character that he should end up with the same number of victims as his friend and partner-in-destruction of batting line-ups, Dennis Lillee – 355. Caught Lillee bowled Marsh accounted for 74 of those.
Marsh has some refreshingly different ideas on coaching. He confessed that he is not the type to stand behind the net and grill in hours of technique-oriented coaching. His philosophy is simple. The mental approach is everything. A Test No. 11 cannot score a century even if he has the finest mental approach, but at least he can make his wicket dear. That is the kind of thinking Marsh likes to bring into the game.
The AIS has been phenomenally successful if one goes by the fact that four of its cadets were in the victorious Australian squad to England. The dedicated work that the coaches put in is reflected in the results. Naturally enough, Marsh is all praise for Lillee’s scheme for pace bowlers in Madras, which is also 100 percent effort-oriented.
He is no Messiah. He has no secret formulae to make Test cricketers. But give him the material and he will strengthen the mind behind the talent so that the talent comes out at the highest level. The message is simple. Marsh’s advice to coaches is to keep it simple. But put in 100 per cent effort. That was also the key to Marsh’s world record as ’keeper and his enviable record as a batsman – the first Australian ’keeper to score a century. He made three. And that may well be the key to the success of the institute that is producing Test cricketers so quickly under his guidance.
What do you think of this modern habit of picking batsmen who can also keep wickets? Don’t you see this as a terrible compromise at a key position?
I don’t think we have done that in Australia. Certainly England has done that. It is important to find a wicket-keeper who can bat rather than a batsman who can keep wickets.
It has no doubt become important for the balance of the team to have a wicketkeeper who can go in there and bat. It seems there are very few true all-rounders left in the game. As we all know, in Test cricket, it helps a lot if a team can bat all the way down to No. 11.
But then, did not Australia too temporarily abandon the principle of picking a specialist ’keeper who was expected to pick up on his batting?
In the case of Wayne Phillips, yes. He was certainly a better batsman than he was a wicketkeeper. But I think it is a matter of who is around at a given time. Australia has, however, stuck to picking a ’keeper most of the time.
Do you see a decline in the standards of wicketkeeping around the world? How do you compare today’s wicketkeepers with the craftsmen of your time?
I don’t think so. And I don’t really count One-Day cricket for too much. I can tell a guy can keep by looking at him. Naturally enough, Indian wicketkeepers are going to be more adept standing up to the stumps because of the pace of the pitches and the number of spin bowlers. Other ’keepers will be very good standing back and taking catches off fast bowlers.
I just do not believe there has been a decline. I think it is just a matter of time. You might find at a particular point in time there are a number of great wicketkeepers around. In the next decade, there may be only one or two. The more you keep, the more you improve. If a guy has been around Test cricket for three or four years, then everyone will say what a good ’keeper he is.
Did they not call you “Iron Gloves” when you made your first Test appearance?
Yes, they did. That is the point. If you are around and you are prepared to learn, you will get better and better.
You were also the first ’keeper to score a Test century for Australia. Does that prove the point it is right to pick a ’keeper and give him every chance to improve as a batsman?
Tallon, Grout and Jarman were all handy batsmen. So, maybe, my scoring the first hundred for Australia is just a statistical freak. Statistics are not the be all and end all of everything. Sometimes a good 50 can be better than a 100.
How would you compare the Australian team of ’93 which won the Ashes and the teams you went to England with, say, the 1972 team which set a new trend?
I would not like to compare across eras. I am sure Allan Border and some others would have played on our team. I am also sure many of our guys would have been picked for the ’93 team had they been starting their career now. So, it is very difficult to compare across eras. It is a simple matter of who are the best guys around at a given time and for those picked to make the best of their opportunities. How can I say whether this team of Allan Border is better than the Australian team of 1948 or the ’89 team was better than the ’93 team? It’s too difficult. All I can say is if you are champion in one era, you would have been a champion in any era.
Do you see a change in the behaviour pattern on the field? After all, the Chappells’ sides in which you played were the trendsetters in this raucous way of behaviour – sledging and so on.
We played the game aggressively. When you have a bowler like Lillee glaring at the batsman and at the umpire when the decisions are not in his favour, I do admit it looks very threatening from the side (outside).
But then, you will find not much was said out there. I always have believed that a stare is better than a word. No one can object to a bowler simply staring down a batsman. I do believe it is far better to play aggressively but not say anything. Maybe others saw it differently.
What are your views on coaching? Can it really make Test players? And then there are so many different systems of coaching. How does one choose among them?
What I am personally trying to do is not so much of hour after hour of drilling technique into players. I believe in being with them when they play matches and pointing out the mistakes they make, not necessarily technically. I try to teach them the mental approach to the game, the best way to attack the game.
At what age do you pick players? Isn’t cricket going the way of tennis with a lot of coaching to players when they are very young?
I prefer to take them on when they are leaving school. In Australia, there are a lot of distractions at that age. If they want to be cricketers, they have to learn the right approach. Otherwise, there are a lot of other things that can happen to them in Australia at that age. Primarily, what I teach is respect for the game. The lesson I drill in them is not to abuse the game or abuse themselves or their talent. It is very important that they prepare themselves mentally and physically for the tough cricket ahead.
Do you look upon your role as a counsellor and a guide rather than a coach?
A bit of both. There is no point in my looking at a fast bowler and then telling him to change his technique radically. When you have people like Dennis Lillee around, why should I bother to do that? The Australian Cricket Board pays him to look at pace bowlers just like MRF does here. It is very important that we use specialised coaching for specialised jobs. What I do is I listen to coaches and I get an understanding of what they are trying to do. I believe in trying to set them straight after the coaches come in.
Don’t you think it is extraordinary that four cadets from the Australian Institute of Sport (Adelaide) –(Michael) Slater, (Matthew) Hayden, (Damien) Martyn and (Shane) Warne – should make the Australian team to the Ashes series in England?
I don’t think it is extraordinary. These four guys would have played anyway. But I don’t think they would have played as quickly. That is the aim of the institute – to shorten the learning process.
How do you go about ensuring that they will be mentally ready for Test cricket?
That is my job. I have to make them ready for Test cricket, mentally and physically. My belief is if you are not technically good, you will not even be considered for Test cricket. Let us assume you have 100 players all capable of making Test hundreds, and all aged 21. The one with the best mental attitude is the one who is going to score the hundred first. The one with the worst mental attitude, even though he may have the best technique, will not ever score a hundred.
On the other hand, you may have a No. 11 batsman with the best mental attitude to batting, but he will never ever make a hundred either because he does not have the technique. Yet, even if he knows that, he cannot walk into a Test match and give his wicket away. He has got to put a price on his wicket even though he is a No. 11. If some of the higher-order batsmen put a similar price on their wickets, they will be better batsmen.
In the nine years since your retirement, what are the changes you have seen in the game?
Mainly fielding. Running between wickets. I don’t think the batting and bowling have improved dramatically in those years. We were very fortunate that we had a bowler like Lillee who could bowl 30 overs a day. I don’t think a fast bowler can bowl any more than that. And Dennis is a very fit man. I don’t think the other fast bowlers were fit enough. Nowadays, in the main, and there are a lot of exceptions to the rule; fast bowlers are a lot fitter than before. In fact, all cricketers are fitter than in my era. That is the main difference.
How much emphasis do you place on video as a form of coaching or in mental preparation?
Ah! I don’t believe much in it. I think the video should be left to One-Day cricket. I don’t like it interfering with Test match cricket. I do believe it will become more commonplace, but I do not personally like it.
But then, you don’t like One-Day cricket. You got into trouble once broadcasting your views.
I don’t like One-Day cricket when compared with five-day cricket. That is why it is called Test cricket with a capital T. And I hate seeing Test cricket spelt with a small t.
My problems with comments on One-Day cricket are all in the past. I think One-Day cricket has an important place in the learning process. We do place as much emphasis on One-Day cricket as we do on longer cricket. A player has to know how to play both.
How do you explain the fact that while youngsters seem to settle straightway into Test cricket, they seem to struggle in One-Day cricket? I am taking the examples of (Sachin) Tendulkar and (Vinod) Kambli, whose Test records are better than their One-Day performances.
Not so much in Australia. Maybe in India the boys are brought up on longer cricket. There, we bring up our boys on limited-overs cricket. 1 don’t agree with that, but that is the way the system works. Maybe that helps the boys settle straightaway to One-Day cricket.
I am given to understand that you play a lot of longer cricket. I think that’s good. People learn how to build an innings.
Test cricketers like you may have been lucky that One-Day cricket came along just when your career was starting. Don’t you think it is far more challenging to be able to do well in both forms of the game?
Yes, of course. If you pick the best side of One-Day cricketers from the ’70s, maybe many of them would not get into a team of today. But if you give them the same opportunity to do all the work on fielding like today’s cricketers have, then they would have found a way to be as good as the current Australian players. We would have found away because good teams find a way to win.
Don’t you see a clear decline at least in bowling standards in Test cricket when compared to 20 years ago or even 10 years ago?
The West Indies are the pacesetters. You judge everybody else from them. If you look at the West Indian bowlers of the last few years, I think Curtly Ambrose is just fantastic. He is the greatest bowler in the world today.
If you take the four – Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft – then they are better than the four the West Indies has got now. Seen that way, perhaps, there has been a slight decline.
That has been nullified by the fact that generally world fielding standards have gone up. These things compensate for each other.
It is a very difficult question to be certain about your answer. I saw the Indians bowl in Australia last year and I thought they were very good. I could not positively have said the same thing about the attack of the previous Indian team in Australia. To that extent, any decline cannot be universal.
But then you saw that the batting was not so hot. Did they not let the bowlers down by failing like that?
They did. But it is not so easy to adjust to pitches, and that team had virtually no time for adjustment. This is the great danger of modern tours. Had batsmen like Tendulkar and (Mohammad) Azharuddin been given time to adjust, they would have ripped apart any attack in the world.
Don’t you agree that players arrive quicker in India? Batsmen like Tendulkar and Kambli are already veterans, while others of their age are just starting out on the first-class road. How does the system work in Australia?
We tend to pigeon-hole people. The best players play the under-19 and what the states want to do is to win the under-19 carnival. But I think if a guy is 15 and he is good enough, he should be playing Sheffield Shield cricket. It’s as simple as that. Age should be no barrier. If they are physically strong enough and talented enough for senior cricket, why not?
Looking back, do you justify the (Kerry) Packer intervention? Where would the game have been if not for someone like Packer arriving to correct imbalances?
Oh, yes! Cricket, being such a traditional game, had dropped behind the times. People wanted instant results because it is a busy world. People no longer had the time to sit and watch five days of cricket. If they can go on one day and see a result, that’s the way the world wanted it.
In that respect, it was a very important stage of the game. Maybe we are yet to strike the right balance between One-Day cricket and Test cricket and hopefully that will happen.
If someone like Packer did not come along, you would have found good players retiring much earlier to seek a career outside cricket. In a way, that may have been for the good of the game, but then you are not going to get the most talented youngsters into the game if cricket was not a lucrative career.
Cricket could still struggle in Australia because there are so many other and obviously more lucrative avenues. What is your view? Is Australian cricket able to attract the best youngsters?
With all the unemployment in Australia now, you will find that the standards of cricket will improve. There are young people out there who know the Australian cricketers are making plenty of money. They will dedicate themselves to the task of getting into the Australian team. This may help improve the overall standards of Australian cricket. In a peculiar way, recession may help improve Australian cricket.
The number of young players of quality outside the Test team is staggering. Imagine the likes of (Justin) Langer and Martyn and Hayden and Ponting being just outside the XI.
What is your assessment of the leg-spinner Shane Warne, who is suddenly making leg spin fashionable?
He has done exceptionally well, though he is only a baby in the game and he will continue to improve. We have not seen a good leg-spinner since Richie Benaud. There is no doubt in our minds that Shane Warne is the next best wrist-spinner after Richie Benaud. We had two good off-spinners in Mallett and Yardley.
But we have struggled in finding a good left-arm spinner; there have been none since Ray Bright. But now, with Warne succeeding, a lot of young bowlers would love to bowl wrist spin. In about 15 years, you may find a number of wrist-spinners developing in Australia.
But Warne is not a classical leg spinner in the Benaud mould? Does he not push the ball through round-armed in order to get turn?
No. What about Clarrie Grimmett? He used to bowl from there (arm merely waist-high). Warne is a combination. Who is he like? O’Reilly? Grimmett or Benaud? He combines all three. If only he can combine the best of all three, what a bowler he will become!
What would be your advice to coaches? How much should they dabble in technique correction? How much should they combine the coaching of attitude with technique?
My advice would be keep it simple. Don’t try and make everyone play the same way. If you start
cloning players, all it would need is a bowler to find out a way to get one of them out and he would have the whole lot soon. You must let the natural flair come through even though it may not be technically correct.
What do you think of the concept of a scheme like the MRF Pace Foundation?
I think it’s fantastic. Dennis Lillee has taken a lot of information from us. He has gathered the best information h can find from all over the world. If his efforts and those of the MRF must come through to bear fruit, all the states of India must send their best fast bowlers to the foundation. It will not work if only some states send their best bowlers. For the sake of Indian cricket, I hope inter-state jealousies are forgotten and the best young fast bowlers of India are given the benefit of coming to the foundation to absorb the knowledge.
In my mind and in the minds of many, many knowledgeable cricketers, Dennis Lillee is by far the best fast bowling coach in the world. It’s important that all the young bowlers who aspire to bowl fast for India should get the opportunity to come and learn.
What is the AIS like? All residential?
All cadets reside here. But due to extenuating circumstances, all the best youngsters do not come here. Some are at university and they want to complete their courses. We understand because education comes first. If they take a year’s deferment in their studies and come to us, we can do wonders. But then, it is up to the youngsters. It depends on what they want.
( This interview was first published on Sportstar on September 25, 1993 )
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