Rod Marsh: 1947 – 2022
Rod Marsh, a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1982, died on March 4, 2022, aged 74. A superstar in the Australian side of the 1970s, Marsh had 3,633 runs and a then world record 355 dismissals from 96 Test matches, and was remembered in the 2023 Wisden Almanack.
MARSH, RODNEY WILLIAM, MBE, died on March 4, aged 74. Pads and long hair flapping, moustache bristling, Rod Marsh was at the centre of the powerful Australian team that ruled Test cricket for most of the 1970s. A wicketkeeper who improved from chunky stopper to acrobatic stumper, he was also an aggressive left-hand batsman. He was the master of the put-down too, once asking the talkative batsman Derek Randall if he thought he was “at a fucking garden party”. And he formed a deadly partnership with fast bowler Dennis Lillee, at state level for Western Australia and with the national team. Both finished with 355 Test victims – records at the time – while Marsh’s 95 catches off Lillee’s bowling remain the most for a Test combination. Marsh was partial to a beer – he was helped from the plane on a luggage trolley after allegedly sinking 51 cans of lager en route to England in 1975 – but the macho image was something of a front: in private he was a wine lover who debated matters, especially cricket, with passion and charm. He was, said The Guardian, “essentially the romantic he pretended not to be”.
One of Patrick Eagar’s most memorable photographs – a flying Marsh catching Tony Greig as England collapsed during the 1975 World Cup semi-final at Headingley – adorned the cover of Marsh’s first volume of autobiography, You’ll Keep. It shows off the athlete he had become, after an unpromising start. It also depicts a surprised Ian Chappell at slip, as the catch is poached from his grasp: “He covered more territory standing back than any keeper, and while this was a great asset, it could also be a source of frustration. When Greig edged Gary Gilmour’s awayswinger, it was headed to my right. It never reached me. ‘Listen, you thieving bastard,’ I exploded, ‘I don’t mind you catching ’em on my left-hand side, but when they’re on my right, it’s my catch!’” But Chappell understood the implications: “I had to move wider, and second and third slip would go wider, and as a group we covered so much more territory.” In the 1974/75 Ashes, when Lillee and Jeff Thomson found edge after edge, few escaped the cordon.
To begin with, Marsh did not keep wicket for Western Australia, since Gordon Becker was the regular. Not quite 21, Marsh made his state debut against the 1968-69 West Indian tourists at Perth as a promising batsman, but was bowled by Charlie Griffith for a duck as WA declined to 39 for seven. He escaped a pair when he was dropped at leg slip early in the second innings, and went on to make a robust 104. “I could hardly believe I’d made a first-class century,” he wrote. “I hadn’t thought myself capable.”
He was still a roly-poly figure, and kept his flannels together with safety pins after various wardrobe malfunctions. When the World XI toured, the South African fast bowler Peter Pollock asked: “Which piano did you get those legs from?” He picked up his lifelong nickname when the train taking the team to Melbourne stopped at the country town of Bacchus Marsh. “I was pleased to be rid of my previous nickname – ‘Shadow’, as in ‘He casts a giant shadow.’”
Things changed in 1969/70. Becker retired, and Marsh – who had started to sweat off his excess weight – took the gloves for WA, settling in immediately with five catches against Queensland. There were a few more runs, too, although a second century remained elusive: he fell for 99 against New South Wales. However, another assured innings against them, early the following season, proved significant. Marsh had little trouble against Test spinner John Gleeson in scoring 64, a fact not lost on the watching Don Bradman, then Australia’s chairman of selectors. Marsh, though, had given scant thought to the Ashes against Ray Illingworth’s England tourists in 1970/71: “Brian Taber was the incumbent, Ray Jordon had travelled to India and South Africa, and John Maclean had been selected ahead of me for the New Zealand tour, so I was nowhere to be seen, really.” But Bradman had other ideas. For perhaps the first time, Australia chose their wicketkeeper on the basis of batting ability rather than glovework.
Marsh missed three chances on his debut, and it didn’t help that he was up against England’s Alan Knott. Another unwelcome moniker, “Iron Gloves”, started doing the rounds. But the selectors stuck with Marsh, who repaid them with an undefeated 92 in the Fifth Test at Melbourne. Ian Chappell, installed as captain at the end of the series, wanted Marsh in his side. Team-mates approved of his attitude, too: “We would all have died for the Baggy Green,” said Greg Chappell. “But Rod – and Ian Redpath – would have killed for it as well.”
In England in 1972, Marsh bashed a defiant 91 in defeat at Old Trafford, and helped square the series at The Oval. The tour cemented his alliance with the man whose electric fast bowling enlivened the series. “I have been lucky to be part of this bloke’s life on and off the field,” said Lillee, “and can honestly say he is as constant a person as I’ve met.”
In a busy home season after the Ashes, Marsh became the first Australian wicketkeeper to score a Test century: his 118 against Pakistan at Adelaide included four sixes, propelled by chunky forearms. In successive matches for WA during the lead-up, he had cracked 236 against the Pakistanis at Perth, 132 against Queensland at Brisbane, and 117 not out against New South Wales at Sydney. “It was due largely to the experience I had had in England, batting under different and sometimes difficult conditions,” said Marsh, who also benefited from a promotion up the order: “I was placed at No.6 for the first Shield game, but presented a case to captain John Inverarity for a rise to No.5!”
Marsh was now a fixture in the Australian side. A five-hour 132 – his highest Test score – against New Zealand at Adelaide in January 1974 set up an innings victory, and emphasised he was much more than a slogger. He did well in England the following summer, and lit up the Centenary Test in Melbourne in March 1977 with his third Test hundred, another fighting knock after the first two innings had been low-scoring. Late in the game, with Randall well set on 161 as England fought back, Marsh recalled him after the umpire had given a low catch out: “The ball did not carry to me. It was a simple decision, really.” Despite his reputation, Marsh was always keen to play the game the right way. A few years later, he was appalled when Greg Chappell told his brother Trevor to roll the last ball of a one-day international along the ground so New Zealand could not score the six they needed to tie. In vain, he advised: “Don’t do it, mate!”
Behind the scenes at the Centenary Test, however, revolution had been in the air, and Marsh was a willing signatory for the World Series Cricket breakaway, even though he would probably have become Test captain – a prize that eluded him. He had been encouraged by his brother, Graham, who raked in much more from the professional golf tour. The Packer schism overshadowed the 1977 tour of England, but Marsh had few regrets: “World Series Cricket would never have got off the ground had the players been treated fairly by their respective boards.”
The Packer games were no exhibition matches. “The actual cricket part was by far the hardest I ever played,” said Marsh. “We were one big family – except when we played against each other. Then it was all-out war.” With most of the world’s fast bowlers hurtling in, batting was tough, even after helmets became standard issue. Marsh’s own batting never quite recovered: in 52 Tests before WSC he averaged 32, but only 19 in 44 matches afterwards, with a best of 91.
Once peace broke out in 1979, Marsh and his fellow rebels returned to Test cricket. There was, inevitably, mistrust: the captaincy pinballed between Greg Chappell (when available) and Kim Hughes, despite several of the older players favouring Marsh. This was a problem in 1981, when an Ian Botham-inspired England roared back to grab the Ashes, and Hughes at times looked lost. “Kim was a fantastic player at a very young age, and I don’t think he ever realised his full potential,” said Marsh. “There was a lot written about the way Dennis and I treated him as both captain of WA and Australia. I wish it had never been made public, but I only have myself to blame for that. The criticism should never have left the dressing-room.”
In that epic series, Marsh made headlines when he and Lillee took advantage of the 500-1 odds against England winning at Headingley. “A joke bet taken only because of the ridiculous odds,” he said. “I have no conscience about having a £5 bet.” Many disagreed. Years later, with match-fixing often in the news, their actions seemed unthinkable; back then, the English board were happy to accommodate betting tents inside the grounds.
No matter: Marsh was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1982. He continued playing Test cricket until 1983/84 when, in a sea-change for the Australian game, he, Lillee and Greg Chappell all retired after the home summer. “We were off to the West Indies after the Pakistan series,” Marsh recalled, “and to be perfectly honest I didn’t wish to play against them again. It seemed we’d played them every year since 1977, and I’d had enough. It was no fun batting against four great fast bowlers who bowled about ten overs per hour and were always at your throat.”
Marsh was never likely to be lost to cricket. He was a member of the Channel Nine commentary team for some years, and one of the early coaches at the Australian Cricket Academy, set up in 1987. He was its director from 1990 to 2001 when – to general surprise – he was lured to a similar position in England. Two years later, he became an England selector, helping secure the famous Ashes victory of 2005 against some of the talents he had nurtured for his homeland.
He returned to Australia in 2006, to take up a coaching position in Adelaide. He soon completed a unique double by joining the Australian selection panel, and became chairman in 2014; he stood down in November 2016, after a series defeat by South Africa. Through it all, Marsh was accompanied by his wife, Ros. They married in 1969, and had three sons, Paul, Daniel and Jamie. Dan Marsh played for South Australia (and briefly Leicestershire), and captained Tasmania.
Seventh Late in February 2022, Marsh suffered a severe heart attack in a taxi in Bundaberg, having gone to Queensland for a charity function. He was resuscitated and stabilised, then flown to a hospital near his home in Adelaide, but died eight days later. “I’m absolutely shattered, I just thought he was invincible,” said Adam Gilchrist, who had modelled his game on Marsh. “An absolute icon,” said Mark Waugh. “The best Australian keeper I’ve seen,” thought Ian Chappell. Paul Sheahan dubbed him “one of the smallest giants I think I’ve come across”.
Among myriad tributes was one from Shane Warne: “He was a legend of our great game, and an inspiration to so many young boys and girls. RIP mate.” On a devastating day for Australian cricket, this was Warne’s final tweet: he suffered a fatal heart attack a few hours later.
Marsh, Rodney William died on March 4, 2022, aged 74.