SYDNEY: The pessimists will surely dismiss Australia’s mighty batting performance at the SCG, where they reached stumps at a formidable 479 for 4 having lost a miserly two wickets on day three. It is a flat pitch, the snarky critics will wail. England’s tiring attack is crumbling at the end of a gruelling campaign, they will holler.
There is undoubtedly some validity in those ripostes but an emerging Australia must still feel pretty good about a shaky batting order that is finally clicking into gear. Since the last Ashes series in 2015, where numerous batting stalwarts waved goodbye, Australia has been trying to plug gaps and find the right batting combinations. Due to a mishmash of a batting order, Australia have suffered erratic performances – which would have been much worse if not for the herculean efforts of leaders Steven Smith and David Warner.
Undergoing a dearth of batting talent nationwide, Australia resorted to some familiar faces much to the chagrin of dubious sceptics. Temperamental batsmen Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh were recalled ahead of the Ashes, while allrounder Mitchell Marsh – sporting an eyesore of a Test average of 22 – came in midway through the series as selectors tried to gamely solve Australia’s batting riddle.
Truthfully, Australia has still relied on the genius of Smith to get them out of the mire throughout the series but the maligned trio left a mark during a batting domination on day three of the fifth Ashes Test. Smith was one of only two wickets to fall on the day as Australia’s lesser lights stole the show with Khawaja making 171, Shaun Marsh compiling an unbeaten 98 and his younger brother making a hard-hitting 63 not out. Forever mocked, the Marsh brothers compiled an unbeaten century stand – the third straight 100 partnership in the innings – with the promise of more to come on day four.
The three cricketers have long teased over the years and underwhelmed but showed why they were worth persisting with. The silky-smooth Khawaja has the ability to counterattack, an important trait for a number 3, and showcased his stout defence throughout his indefatigable 381-ball vigil.
“It’s (his first SCG Test ton) awesome. The SCG is where I grew up playing my cricket,” Khawaja told reporters on Saturday (January 6). I’ve been dreaming of an Ashes century for a long time. It is very satisfying and a really good feeling.
“For me, I always knew I could score runs on these types of wicket, especially on the SCG,” he added. “I had confidence I could score runs on this wicket. I love to play for Australia every single Test match. It hasn’t gone that way in the last year but all I can do is score runs for my team.”
Khawaja said he was used to dealing with the scorn from critics. “It’s disappointing, when I’m scoring runs I’m ‘elegant’,” he said. “When I’m not scoring runs I’m ‘lazy’. I can’t seem to win when things aren’t going well. But I have had that my whole career. It’s not like I’m going out there and not trying. It’s disappointing but I’ve dealt with that my whole career,” he added.
Shaun Marsh, much like Khawaja, has faced a chorus of naysayers due to a perception of being blase out in the middle. In a determined bid to erode that unwanted perception, the West Australian’s batting has been marked by defiance and stonewalling during the Ashes.
He has looked arguably the most solid batsman in the Ashes other than Smith. Like Khawaja, Marsh – a wondrous limited-overs player – can shift gears and put the foot down. It may have taken a while, he is 34, but Marsh has seemingly found the right tempo at Test level and looks totally in tune with his game.
His younger brother Mitchell, truthfully, had shown no evidence of being a top six batsmen at the Test level before the series. A serious shoulder injury sustained in the tour of India early last year may have been a blessing for the powerfully built Marsh, who was able to concentrate solely on his batting in the off-season. Mitchell looks much more organised and compact, and – like his recalled comrades – can eviscerate the attack, which he showcased with some pyrotechnics late on day three.
“Those guys (the Marshes) have copped a lot of flak,” Khawaja said. “To see them play really well is rewarding and couldn’t happen to better blokes.”
The trio of Khawaja and the Marshes blend together well and when on song plug the Swiss cheese type of holes plaguing Australia’s lineup. Of course, far more difficult challenges await them, starting with an arduous upcoming Test tour of South Africa but Australia must feel like they a step closer to finally eradicating their batting woes.