“Did I sing?” asked Rod Marsh nervously. It was the morning after a memorable evening during the 2013-14 Ashes series and the short answer was: “Yes.”
The news of Marsh’s death triggers a treasured memory of one of those supper parties that just took off magically for a few visiting Poms in Perth. It was attended by Western Australian royalty. Dennis Lillee, then the president at the Waca, organised it superbly. Rod Marsh and John Inverarity were there; so too Mike Brearley, and somehow so were my wife and I, which explains something straight away. It was not necessary to be a grade-A, high-octane achiever to be welcomed by Marsh and friends. Those Aussies just took everyone as they found them.
On that evening I recall Inverarity, Marsh’s captain at university and state level, telling me how Rod had the most warm-hearted, generous attitude imaginable towards about 95% of the people he ever came across. “But if you’re in the other 5%, watch out,” he added. At supper there were the adversaries of the 1970s and 80s, Lillee, Marsh and Brearley, debating, reminiscing and laughing like old friends do.
Then on the way back to the city in a minibus, Marsh, with some assistance from Lillee, burst into song (a wholesome song I should add) alongside Brearley and the Markses. To our mild surprise we joined in.
Rod liked to sing and he liked to drink but never fall for the bruising Aussie stereotype. Back in 1985, Brearley wrote about Marsh in The Art of Captaincy. “Behind the abrasive front was a thoughtful, astute and humorous man, whose players when he led WA were totally committed to him.” Brearley goes on to add that it was a “major mistake” not to appoint him captain of Australia in the post-Packer era.
In those days Marsh may have had words from behind the stumps – a long way back when he was keeping to Lillee and Jeff Thomson – but he played the game properly. During the Centenary Test of 1977, when he hit one of his three Test centuries, he famously recalled Derek Randall who had just been given out by umpire Tom Brooks. In an era when the cameras were not so all pervading he knew, but nobody else did, that he had not taken the catch cleanly. For him it was the obvious course of action. Four years later he was genuinely horrified when he realised that Greg Chappell had instructed his brother Trevor to bowl the last ball of an ODI against New Zealand underarm to prevent the batsman hitting a six.
Note the warmth of the tributes for Marsh from subsequent generations of cricketers – on both sides of the globe. Marsh had the capacity to engage with cricketers of any age, one reason why he was such a success when running both the Australian Cricket Academy before being enlisted to the same role in England. He knew how the larrikins operated and he enjoyed his little tussles with them, whether in Adelaide or Loughborough.
He once tried to justify to me the odd bout of heavy drinking when he was playing for WA. “I reckoned if I was a bit under the weather after a big night I would be so desperate the following day not to let my mates down that I would try doubly hard not to make any mistakes. Perhaps it made me a better player.” Nice try, Rod, but I doubt he would have swallowed that from any of his young charges.
For a while I ghosted his columns in the Observer, which was never a hardship because he always had something to say. The relationship was an unusual one. Most ghosts are desperate for their columnist to say something interesting and controversial and they encourage them to do so. More often I found myself intervening saying something like: “You can’t possibly say that about Duncan Fletcher,” one of the few cricketing men who did not gel with Rod. Marsh did not beat about the bush. Back in September 1986, he had demonstrated this to me when he phoned out of the blue. Not too much small talk but straight to the point within seconds. “Do you want to come and play for WA?” – another welcome invitation.
Towards the end of his time writing for the Observer he asked, almost sheepishly: “Do you mind if I try writing the columns myself?”
After a millisecond, I replied: “Not at all. Please do,” before pondering why he had not made this excellent suggestion earlier. Inevitably the pieces were very good and probably better than their predecessor’s.
However, rather than his writing, Rod will be remembered for his pugnacious batting, his wicketkeeping in a charismatic Australian side, his coaching on both sides of the world and for the warmth of his countless friendships within the cricketing community.
And, of course, his singing.