<
>

Inside the remaking of Mitchell Marsh

Mitchell Marsh hammered a 110-ball 95 Getty Images

Walk into the WACA Ground's Hay Street entrance and it is almost impossible to miss. A massive wall mount featuring Mitchell and Shaun Marsh alongside their father Geoff, their Test cap numbers and debut years. All beneath a strident slogan: "Creating History. Inspiring Champions." The Marshes, then, are not just a part of West Australian cricket. They ARE West Australian cricket.

A five-minute drive across the Swan River into South Perth, another WA cricket dynasty ticks over, albeit of a slightly different and lower-profile kind. The Meuleman family, starting with the patriarch and one-Test batsman Ken, have run a cricket supplies store and coaching facility since 1963.

Ken played his only Test in 1946 and played first-class cricket until the 1960-1961 season. His son Robert then played for WA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was the one who famously advised Adam Gilchrist to stick a squash ball in his batting glove to ease his bottom hand grip ahead of a blazing innings in the 2007 World Cup final. Robert's son Scott wore the Warriors' cap early this century and they are the one and only father, son and grandson trio to have all made first-class centuries in Australian cricket.

This week, Scott Meuleman is working behind the counter at one of the family's two stores, answering phones and hoping to catch a session or two of the final Ashes Test at the WACA Ground. Earlier this year, however, he was flinging balls at Mitchell Marsh in South Perth, coaching the allrounder as he sought to rebuild a batting method that had fallen short of expectations in his first stint as a Test cricketer, before shoulder surgery cut him out of international calculations altogether.

In many ways this was an obvious alliance. Meuleman had been a team-mate of Shaun Marsh, then later a batting mentor for the classical and attractive style the left-hander showcased to such great effect in the Adelaide Test. Nevertheless, Mitchell Marsh was a bit lost as a batsman by the end of last season, as he has since reflected.

"I was obviously under a lot of pressure and that happens when you're not performing at your best playing cricket for Australia," Marsh said. "I was totally fine with that and I learned a lot about myself. It's given me a bit of time to get away and create a recipe for my success and I feel like I've found that now and it's shown in the last couple of months in my form for WA. That's all I need to do. Go out there this week and stick to my game plan.

"When you have a lot of nerves going into an innings you're thinking about your spot, your form, you're trying so hard to make runs you often forget just the most important thing and that's to watch the ball. That's what I'll be taking out there if I get a chance on Thursday."

The journey to a better technical and mental method began in earnest during the winter, as soon as doctors gave him the all-clear to train as a batsman after shoulder surgery. First of all, Mitchell Marsh and Meuleman spoke about what they wanted to achieve - improvement of the allrounder's long-form batting game geared towards making him one of the top six batsmen in the country, with his bowling as a value-add. They also looked at how this could be achieved in a playing sense: a full Sheffield Shield season, and then next year a northern summer of county cricket, eschewing the IPL's riches. Meuleman believes that Marsh is one of numerous young players around the country struggling to mix and match formats while still learning their own games.

"One of the biggest things for him, he's still pretty young in the game, playing all forms, Twenty20 and one dayers," Meuleman told ESPNcricinfo. "Because of that shoulder surgery he really wanted to work at the ultimate goal of playing Test cricket again with an emphasis on getting back into the team purely for his batting, with bowling as that added bonus.

"When we first had a chat, a lot of it was about [the fact that] he hadn't really had that great a run of playing consistently in longer format cricket. He hadn't played a lot of Shield cricket in a row. The goal this year was to have a really good Shield season and he wanted to improve. He'd play a Shield game and then bang he'd be in an Australia one-day team or a couple of Shield games and then the BBL. I think even the most experienced players can struggle with that a fair bit, the chopping and changing.

"They're not the same techniques. The core technique is the same, but there are varying elements to it, and if you haven't fully worked out your game yet then it's pretty tough. For example, Shaun is a very good leaver of the ball, and Steven Smith is another one, leaves the ball brilliantly. But you go into a T20 game, you might leave one or two balls early maximum, and then you're trying to play at every single ball, so you get in the habit of hitting every single ball. In a Test or Shield match, the best players leave the ball well, and for the best players of a moving ball it's even more important again."

"It's about finding a balance for him. I think he is better than just a 'go out there and tee off' sort of batsman. Essentially what he is trying to work on is to be one of the best six batsmen in the country, pick him because he's one of the best six and then his bowling is that added bonus."

Scott Meuleman on Mitchell Marsh's talent

There had been a lot of debate and discussion about whether or not Mitchell Marsh should bat with the uncomplicated air of an Andrew Flintoff, using his immense power to pressure bowlers without thinking too much about defensive technique. Marsh himself had spoken of it in a few different ways, seemingly caught between the Australia coach Darren Lehmann's desire to see him swing freely, and the assertions of the WA coach Justin Langer that he could ultimately be a top-four batsman. In between were the Australian selectors, always in thrall to his talent but getting impatient about its blooming.

"He is that player with something about him who can score very quickly, he's been very handy at No. 6 in certain situations and can take the game away from the opposition, he does have that factor about him," Meuleman said. "[But] if he just bats normally he'll still score at a fast rate, just naturally with how much power he's got. A lot of the time he just leans on the ball and it goes to the fence in a flash. It's about finding a balance for him. I think he is better than just a 'go out there and tee off' sort of batsman.

"Essentially what he is trying to work on is to be one of the best six batsmen in the country, pick him because he's one of the best six and then his bowling is that added bonus. He is a very handy bowler and can bowl up to 140kph, but he's got an amazing amount of batting ability. Dad coached a few former Test players and Grandad did as well, so there's a bit in the family in those terms, but he's got a lot of ability with the bat. Hopefully that's what happens."

To that end, Marsh worked on the mental side of his game with Langer and others in the Warriors set-up, particularly around creating a repeatable routine between balls. Meuleman spoke ruefully of his own struggles to master the art of concentration for long periods in the middle, and said it was critical that Marsh was able to find a way to switch off and switch on for periods of what the selector Greg Chappell has referred to as "fierce focus".

"It's not easy to do - I struggled with it a bit throughout my career," Meuleman said. "Very mentally draining actually being able to switch on for a single ball and then being able to switch off when you're not on strike or anything, even if you are on strike being able to switch off when the bowler's walking back. Being able to every single ball be mentally switched on and challenging yourself to play each ball on its merits is a very tough thing to do, and that's what the best players in the world can do.

"I think it was something that Mitch had room for improvement on, and hopefully he's gone about improving that. He has definitely had a main focus on trying to improve his batting technique for the longer form of the game."

The technical tweaks were where Meuleman and Marsh then worked closely together, trying mostly to foster a better reading of length and the more expansive and effective use of the crease it can promote. "He's so strong on the front foot and the main thing we worked on was trying to get him to pick up the length better than he was," Meuleman said.

"It wasn't so much how he got forward but he didn't really get back as well as he could have and that was one of the big things for him and one of the things he has improved. He's good a really good pull and cut shots, but I don't think he was allowing himself to use those as much because he was so strong on the front foot. It's quite common and I think it is partly from all the one day and T20 cricket. When someone goes back they don't actually go back fully. Where you want Mitch to be back with his weight on his right foot, often they'll go back but still have their weight on their left [front] foot.

"He's an unbelievable driver of the ball but also getting him in a good position so his eyes are level, he's a little more positive with his head on the front foot and in turn bending his knee a little bit better to get him in a better position to allow him to play the ball a little bit later and under his eyes more on the front foot. Also working the ball on the on side on the front foot, getting his head into a more positive position. He's got so much talent and everyone's got their individual game, so it wasn't about changing too much, but maybe changing a couple things slightly."

Amid these sessions, Mitchell Marsh was named WA's state captain, bringing sharper focus to his long-form game as leader of a team seeking to win a first Sheffield Shield since 1999. "I think it's had a positive impact on my cricket, when you go out to play and you've got to worry about 10 other guys and getting the best out of the team it takes a lot of the heat off yourself and that's really helped me," Marsh said.

"I think having the added responsibility of making sure that I'm leading from the front on the field has really helped me. It's had a positive impact on my cricket. That probably helped me a little bit, not being in contention [for the start of the Ashes] because I knew that my main role was to be captain of WA and do the best I could there, and really just focus on my batting. I feel like I'm in really good form at the moment, which is a great feeling."

What followed was an outstanding domestic limited-overs tournament and then a very strong start to the Shield season. Mitchell Marsh's run-making was consistent enough and assured enough to mean that when he did begin bowling in rounds for and five, the selectors soon came calling once more. "Right now I've discovered a game plan that I'm going to stick to and hopefully I'll be able to do that for long periods of time," he said. "If you want to be a top-six batsman you've got to make bigger runs.

"There will be times in games in my position batting down the order you need to go out and get quick runs and I feel like I have the game to do that. But at the same time I've got to make sure I'm batting long periods of time for this team to do that."

For Meuleman, Mitchell Marsh's recall is a source of excitement, much as Shaun Marsh's century in Adelaide brought plenty of satisfaction "Maybe it's come slightly earlier than even he's thought about getting back into the Test team but ultimately it is because he has done really well with the bat and it's a credit to him," Meuleman said. "He's worked bloody hard.

"He's willing to listen, willing to improve, and it's exciting when you do coach someone like that. I personally think he has improved quite a bit, that's still yet to be proven at the international level, but he wants to keep working hard, he wants to keep improving and he's an unbelievably exciting talent in terms of being able to pick little things up that he can work on and how quickly he can change things, is pretty phenomenal really."

And as for the two family dynasties, playing, supplying and coaching cricket in the west for more than 30 years, Meuleman said that it had to be seen as more of a help than a burden. "Swampy's had so much of an influence, he's done so much work with Shaun and Mitch on their batting and it was very much the same with my Dad," he said. "I think it's only a positive thing and amazing that we have had such good father figures to guide us along the way.

"Ultimately you play the game because you love it, but having that support and guidance for those boys with Swampy and for me with my Dad and my Grandad, it's only a positive. I think sometimes people feel like there's added pressure because of the name but I don't think you ever see it that way. That's them, that's their name, Swampy did so well and now Shaun's got the old man covered for Test hundreds as well. He'll be happy about that..."