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Why Rod Marsh was a legendary figure far beyond the cricket pitch

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It says much that Andrew Sinclair, president of the South Australian Cricket Association, spent as much time Friday reminiscing about Rod Marsh the man as he did about Rod Marsh the cricketer.

“For a generation of Australians, Rod epitomised the spirit of cricket on the world stage,” Sinclair said.

“Rod attracted people to him but not deliberately. He got under your skin in an entirely endearing way. He didn’t mean it, but he showed us how to live,” he explained.

“A man of utmost honesty and integrity. He mixed that spirit with a verve for life, and South Australian red, that produced a great and rare Australian blend.”

It is an apt tribute.

Marsh died at the age of 74 on Friday a week after suffering a massive heart attack.

His death prompted an immediate flow of tributes from cricketers past, present and international, but also from ordinary Australians who felt a loss of someone who was part of their lives for decades.

Marsh’s sporting achievements were legendary – 355 dismissals in 96 Test matches supplemented by a sterling 26.5 average at a time when wicketkeepers contributed little with the bat – but he remains one of those characters who have become known far beyond their chosen profession.

‘Caught Marsh, bowled Lillee.” Are there any other four words that so vividly sum up Australian sport in the 1970s and early ‘80s? And, arguably too, Australian life.

Check out the online photographs of Rod and Dennis and Greg Chappell. These are men who stand out as heroic yet somehow retain that accessible feel – we could stop and say hello in the street or, more likely, offer to buy them a beer and they’d buy us one back.

And the moustaches. What were they thinking? Colossal efforts all and indirectly setting the tone for how Australia the country was perceived at home and abroad. Sure these men came with great substance, but they came up with a great image too.

The names Marsh, Lillee and Chappell were once inseparable. Photo: Getty

Often overweight, straggle-haired and with his catching fingers perpetually embalmed by bandages and plasters, Rodney William Marsh didn’t always look like the immensely talented, elite sportsman he became.

And this is not to denigrate an outstanding cricketing career, but Marsh was so much more than just another sportsman adding the larrikin/everyman touch so admired at home and – more hidden but it was there – abroad too.

The stories are legion, particularly the beer drinking variety. No medical professional of course could condone such endeavours, but as part of the building of the modern Australia myth and character they are peerless.

David Boon stands as the king here after an extraordinary 52 tinnie session on his flight to London for the 1989 Ashes.

But the template for that ill-advised beer drinking effort was set by Marsh, who just a few years earlier was credited with 43, 44 or 45 beers respectively on a single flight to the UK.

Astonishingly, so enthralled was the aeroplane’s captain with Boon’s heavy lifting that he jumped on the PA to tell his passengers that the portly Tasmanian had sunk Marsh’s record.

Boon meanwhile was less upfront.

“We played our cricket in an era where blokes learned never to let the truth get in the way of a good story,” he told Fox Sports.

Rod Marsh would have understood.

SACA member Murray Tyler grew up watching Marsh in the 1970s in their hometown of Perth. He remembers a television program that felt very convincing to a Year Five child, yet in hindsight has the feel of the heavily fabricated.

“They were playing in Hong Kong, I think. There was a tall building nearby with just one window that had never been broken. Rod hit a massive six out of the ground and broke the window,” he said.

“That’s the legendary status that built up around him and Lillee. They were part of our childhood, they were there for a very long time.”

And don’t forget the infamous betting coup at the 1981 Test match in Leeds where, with Australia forcing England to follow on, the on-ground bookies rashly offered up odds of 500 – 1 for a home victory.

At which point Ian Botham and Bob Willis went on to play the game of their lives but not before Lillee, with a £10 flutter, and Marsh with £5 had bet the Poms could indeed come through. Which they did.

Marsh rarely looked like the elite athlete he became. Photo: Getty

There was no suggestion ever of their joint, and staggering, £7,500 winnings affecting their performance, but as a further larrikin promoter it did the trick nicely.

Marsh, of course, was never conventional, his role as one of the lead players in Kerry Packer’s breakaway World Series Cricket in 1978 most probably ended his chances of the Australia Test captaincy and led to a rift with the future, and more conventional, captain Kim Hughes.

The enduring genius of Marsh was that he was so much more than the irreverent rebel he so often appeared. Indeed his contribution to his sport after retiring from Test cricket in 1984 arguably surpasses his exploits as a player.

He excelled also as a coach, mentor, selector and administrator, heading up for more than a decade the Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide, where he helped shape the careers of Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie. Some testimony.

He kept his hand in always and was, until last year, a SACA board member and, until just six years ago, national chairman of selectors.

Marsh made his mark off the field, most recently as national selector. Photo: Getty

And don’t forget – the larrikin once more – that he temporarily switched sides to bolster the England team as director of the ECB National Academy, a grounding that led to the famous 2005 Ashes win for the Poms following a winless 16 years in the Ashes.

It is perhaps fitting that the Australian Test team is playing Pakistan today (a historic occasion in its own right), the country against which in 1972 Marsh became the first Aussie wicketkeeper to score a century.

Current captain Pat Cummins offered his condolences by video.

Marsh was “a personable, life-loving character, a huge figure for Australian cricket,” Cummins said on Friday.

“When I think of Rod I think of a generous and larger-than-life character who always had a life loving, positive and relaxed outlook, and his passing leaves a massive void in the Australian cricket community,” he added.

And in Australian life too. He will be much missed.

We’ve Already Come Too Far To End This Now.

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