These past few weeks have been tough for many cricket followers. Tougher still for those who identify as passionate and long-time supporters of the Australian cricket team.
Cricket has been an integral and intimate feature of my life for as long as I can remember. Nevertheless, the deaths of Rod Marsh and Shane Warne earlier this month, within 24 hours of one another, affected me in a way, and to an extent, I would not have anticipated – notwithstanding the numbness and disbelief I still feel when recalling the tragically premature passing of another wonderful Australian player, Phillip Hughes, back in 2014.
But as the days have passed since March 4, and I have begun to reflect upon the way the game of cricket first found me more than half a century ago, and how it has intersected with my day-to-day life for all of those decades in between, I feel I am finally beginning to understand why these latest two departures have hit me so hard.
When I accompanied my father to my first ever day of live Test cricket at the mighty colosseum that is the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 22 1971 it was Rodney "Bacchus" Marsh who stole the show, winning the hearts of tens of thousands of onlookers with a swashbuckling innings of 92 not out. Looking more like a Mexican bandit than an Australian cricketer, Marsh’s catchcry seemed to be “There’s more room in the air than on the ground fellas” as he belted the English attack to all parts. Sure, he had a bit of luck along the way, with at least a couple of skied chances slipping through English fingers in the sweltering heat of the afternoon, but fortune favours the brave don’t they say? And as we now well know, Bacchus was always that.
It came as a complete surprise to all and sundry when, with an hour or so left in the day’s play, and Marsh just eight runs shy of what would have been an historic century – the first ever by an Australian wicketkeeper – the team’s captain, Bill Lawry, declared Australia’s innings closed. Many in the crowd, albeit predominantly Victorians from whom the local skipper might have expected unflinching support, were bemused. Some, like me, were outraged. “What’s going on Dad? Why would they do that? Marshy would have got a hundred for sure”. Ever the voice of calm reason, my father did his best to justify Lawry’s perplexing decision to me. “He wants to get the English batsmen out there before the end of the day so we can get a couple of wickets. He probably figures they’ll be pretty tired after fielding for nearly two days. He’s thinking about what’s best for the team”.
As I look back now and see that Australia’s number 11 batsman, Allan Thomson, faced 17 balls over a period of almost 20 minutes without scoring a single run late on that second afternoon, I realise Lawry had almost certainly done all he reasonably could to give Marsh a fair crack at that elusive ton. But the poor bugger just couldn’t get enough of the strike!
And in the end, as Dad was at pains to explain to me, the team had to come first.
Thankfully Rod Marsh would only have to wait a couple more years before becoming the first Aussie wicketkeeper to reach that celebrated triple figure milestone in a Test match; an honour he achieved against Pakistan in the home series of 1972-1973. But it is his unbeaten 110 in the third innings of the Centenary Test, played at the MCG in 1977 – a game I regard as the greatest Test match I ever saw – that will live on with me. The 50-odd runs added by Marsh and the ridiculously brave Rick McCosker, his head swathed in bandages after having his jaw broken by a bouncer from Bob Willis in Australia’s first innings, would prove decisive in a match ultimately won by the home side by just 45 runs. This was, amazingly, the very same margin of victory achieved by Australia in the game’s first Test match, played at the same venue 100 years earlier.
I have fond memories too of lying in bed, partway to slumber, listening keenly on my newly acquired transistor radio to descriptions of the closing minutes of the 5th test of the 1972 Ashes series in England, as Marsh (43 not out off just 51 balls) and Paul Sheahan batted Australia to victory; thereby levelling the series at 2-2, and ushering in a period of blissful domination for the men in the Baggy Greens, and their army of dedicated followers.
What I did not discover until many years later is that in the changerooms after that hard‑fought win at The Oval it was Rod Marsh who, for the very first time in a national cricketing context, recited four lines of verse that are now synonymous with our team’s post-match victory celebrations – Under the Southern Cross I Stand. It is said that only eight players have had the official honour of leading the team’s victory chant in the 50 years since, but it will always be Rod Marsh who did it first. Not too many 24-year olds have made a greater contribution to the annals of Australia’s national sport than that methinks.
Fondly as I recall Marsh’s batting heroics all these years later, that is almost certainly not what we, you or I best remember him for. Four years after that first day out at the MCG, as I entered Year 7 at high school, now a fully-fledged cricket nut, my fascination with wicketkeeping was verging on an obsession. Most afternoons you would find me bouncing a tennis ball or a golf ball off a fence or a wall somewhere, testing my reactions and catching skills, and providing my own commentary. And all because of Rod Marsh – the man who had, by that point in time, become the benchmark for all aspiring wicketkeepers around the country, and perhaps the globe.
This is how bad things had gotten. I used to wear my club cricket cap around the house day in and day out in the hope that I could develop a kink in the back of my (painfully straight) hair just so that I could emulate my idol. A one-handed specky in the back yard, let alone in an actual match, would have me dreaming of gloved glory well into the wee hours. And if I could have grown a bushy moustache like Bacchus – then or now! – you know I almost certainly would have.
The word hero is bandied around a lot, but Rod Marsh was exactly that for me at a time in my life when cricket meant everything. And I suspect, indeed I optimistically anticipate, that I will carry a little piece of him with me forever.
You don’t need to me to tell you that Shane Warne was one of the greatest cricketers the world has ever known. But until this past month I don’t think I ever really knew just exactly how I felt about him. Unlike Rod Marsh, Warne was younger than me; a factor that straight away makes hero status a little more difficult to achieve. And then, of course, there were the scandals that dogged him throughout his career, and beyond. The kinds of incidents that made me wonder to myself many times just exactly what sort of man this headline-grabbing “rockstar” cricketer was without a ball or a bat in his hand.
When Warne made his Test debut at the SCG in January 1992 I was there in the stands with my then girlfriend as Ravi Shastri and an 18-year old prodigy named Sachin Tendulkar put the Aussie attack to the sword, sharing a partnership of almost 200 that occupied most of the day’s play. Although it was Sachin, rather than Shane, who thrilled me that afternoon, there was still something about Warne that defied you to look away – which may well be why I took a photograph, one I still possess, of his first Test dismissal; indeed his only wicket in that match:
Shastri caught Jones bowled Warne 205.
It was a day that also confirmed I was onto a winner in the romance stakes. Any girl who can sit through a full day’s Test cricket, let alone one in which the international opposition bats on and on, losing just five wickets along the way, is clearly a keeper (and no, I don’t mean the Rod Marsh kind). In the 30 years since I am proud and grateful to say that girl has become my wife, the love of my life, borne me two extraordinary sons (cricketers both), and been a constant and inspiring companion, both off the field and on.
15 years later, almost to the very day, on January 4 2007, I was there again at the SCG, this time with my father, when Warnie collected his final Test wicket:
Flintoff stumped Gilchrist bowled Warne 7.
My dad had booked the tickets to that day at the cricket, and informed me accordingly, some months earlier. However in the lead-up to Christmas 2006 – as is my want - I forgot all about that arrangement. As a consequence of which I found myself away with my family, holidaying at one of the country’s southernmost points, as we ushered in the New Year. Not wanting to let my dad down, I assured him when he called me in the days preceding our long-awaited cricketing get-together, that I would be there for sure, with bells on. A hastily arranged flight to Sydney on the morning of the match saw me arrive at the ground with just minutes to spare. (Happily for me, another passenger on my flight that day was the one and only Ronald Dale Barassi – almost as celebrated a champion in the field of Australian football as is Shane Warne to Australian cricket).
That day is one I’ll never forget. Not only was it stinking hot – the first time I had ever seen the bars at a cricket ground supplying free iced water to patrons – and not only did Warnie thrill the crowd with a typically brash innings of 71, from just 65 balls, before taking that final Test scalp, but it would, as it turns out, be the last day of live Test cricket I would ever share with my father. The man who introduced me to the game; the man who showed me, not just by his wise words and instruction, but by his own actions on those occasions when we took the field together, how the game should be played; the man to whom I owe so much for who and what I have become.
Fast forward another 12 years to January 2019, and I find myself sharing a post-match beer with a man I have never previously met, or played against, but who I now know as David. David is a little younger than me, and his son, aged 12 or so, is loitering close by, waiting expectantly for the chance to spend some precious minutes with his dad, hitting a few balls, and rolling his arm over, on the recently vacated centre wicket. Although it is now well after 6pm the young bloke is still dressed in his cricket whites from a game played earlier in the day, which of course makes me warm to him immediately. I ask David if he is hoping to play cricket with his son in due course, once the lad is strong enough to hold his own against older opponents, and keen enough to try. David assures me he has every intention of staying in the game long enough to do just that. I, in turn, assure him there is nothing he will do in his cricketing life that will give him greater pleasure. I recount to him in proud detail a few highlights of recent seasons shared playing with my own two boys; one at a time initially, and then, more recently, together – primarily in Sydney, but also on an epic and memorable cricket tour to England in 2016.
The unintended emotion I display when discussing my sons clearly strikes a chord with David. Our newfound connection encourages him to talk longer than he might otherwise have chosen to - much to his young bloke’s frustration it must be said! As we share stories of cricket and life, as only diehards can, it emerges that David was the captain of the First Eleven at Mentone Grammar School at a time when that team boasted a teenage Shane Warne amongst its playing roster. He confirms what I recalled having read in Paul Barry’s fascinating Warne biography, Spun Out, some years earlier; namely, that Warnie was, from an early age, a law unto himself – a young man who bent the rules, and occasionally broke them, but for whom allowances were almost always made because of his prodigious talent, and considerable charisma.
Six days later, and just a week after I last shared a cricket field with him, my younger son Ben would die in a tragic accident at an Australia Day party. It seems absurd, I know, to mourn the fact that I will never get the opportunity to play cricket with him again. But I am so thankful for my ongoing certainty that he knew full well how much it meant to me to have done so over those preceding years, how much I loved him when he died, and for the place he holds in my heart forever.
I have not seen David again since that afternoon back in 2019. I sincerely hope he and his son have had the chance to share a cricket field at some stage since, and that it has been the thrill of a cricketing lifetime, as I promised him it would be, and as it will always remain for me.
I never met Shane Warne. Nevertheless, like many of us, and as is often the case for people who have grown up in the public eye, I felt I knew him. Immense as his cricket talent was, there was always a sense for me that, notwithstanding the bravado and self-assurance, this was a guy who desperately sought the approval of the general public, not just as a cricketer, but as a man. I am the first to admit that, for many years I withheld mine.
But as the weeks have passed since Warne’s death, and as a vast number of glowing tributes to his character have emerged, it has become clear to me there was far far more to the man than I ever gave him credit for. Not only did he give we cricket fans year upon year of rapturous delight with his audacious feats on the field, but it seems he has been an equally exceptional friend, colleague and mentor to many within his broad circle following retirement from the playing arena.
Though a small part of me was initially aggrieved by the fact that Warne’s unexpected demise had overshadowed the death of my hero, Rod Marsh, just hours before, it would be impossible for me to suggest that any player in my lifetime has cast a greater shadow over the game of cricket, and Australian cricket in particular, than Warnie. And the recognition given to his life and achievements, both on and off the field, which continues unabated three weeks after his passing, has been well-earned and entirely justified.
30 years ago today, on 25 March 1992, I watched on with enormous pride as my uncle, Donald Cordner, then the President of the Melbourne Cricket Club, officially opened the Great Southern Stand at the MCG at the start of the final of the 1992 World Cup Cricket Tournament, played between England and Pakistan. If recent announcements are borne out with action, it seems the Great Southern Stand will very soon be renamed the Shane Warne Stand. There could be no more fitting tribute for such a giant of the sport; the idol of those many cricketing fans who worshipped him from that stand throughout the course of his illustrious career, and who will, I am sure, continue to do so in the decades ahead.
But it is those snapshots of special moments shared over the past 50 years with those who mean the most to me that I will hold dearest as I continue to remember these two all-time greats of the game in the years to come; a game I love more than any other, and always will.