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Cricket news - The cult of Marais

Marais is a cult attraction in a Giants' line-up who have scrapped their way into the MSL qualifier

Marais is a cult attraction in a Giants' line-up who have scrapped their way into the MSL qualifier

Marco Marais is the Spruce Goose of cricket, a puzzle in pads, an enigma of emphatic efficacy, a riddle on the run; a walking, talking mystery who shouldn't be able to do what he does.

Just like the Goose. Howard Hughes' eight-engined curiosity, built of birch and lumbered with an outrageous wingspan of 98 metres - longer than the Boeing 747-8 or the Airbus A380 - shouldn't have been able to fly. It did: for 26 seconds and 1.6 kilometres at an altitude of 21 metres and a speed of 217 kilometres an hour at Long Beach, California on November 2, 1947. And that was that - the Goose has never again been on the wing.

Marais has gone airborne exponentially more than that, but never less explicably than he did at Kingsmead on November 30. Malusi Siboto bowls a pace and length that can make trying to connect properly with his deliveries feel not unlike using a shoelace to hit a marshmallow across a room. So when Siboto steamed in for the Durban Heat to the Nelson Mandela Bay Giants' Marais in a Mzansi Super League (MSL) game last month, no-one foresaw what happened next.

Not even Marais: "I was quietly standing back while the fielder was fetching the ball and thinking, 'Wow! How did you just do that?'. We do practise range hitting but it's never over cover. And never off that length. But, having played against him before, that was the plan. When he went wide, I was backing my knowledge. Then instinct took over."

Marais cut Siboto over cover for six. That's the live scoring description. Closer to the truth is that what he wrought wasn't so much a cricket stroke as an affront to the accepted ideas of triangulation, and of what could and should happen when ball meets bat. The shot had a natural born brutal elegance, as if hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, abdominals and hips were made for hammering bowlers' offerings. Cut. Over cover. For six. It was flat, fluid and furious. It was a poetic shock, a dagger in a daydream. And it wasn't the first time Marais had done the undoable.

"It was the same when I scored the 300." Ah yes, that old thing. In November 2017 Marais made 300 not out for Border against Eastern Province in East London. Off 191 balls - the fastest first-class triple century on record anywhere. "There's a misconception. People think I must have just tonked [slogged] everything to the leg side. That's obviously not what happened, but that's a story for another day. I've been labelled a white-ball specialist, so if you read the articles [on that innings] the comments talk about match-fixing, or they ask how many times I was dropped. There's no recognition of, 'Jissie [heavens], you were dropped but well done - you still had to push through; you didn't give up the fight'. You do get dropped; once, twice - OK, I got dropped more than twice - it's going to happen. But it still feels unreal. I've got a video of me hitting the 191st ball for one, and running. It was amazing. When I hit the ball in that innings it was either four, six, or just over the fielder. Every time I looked up I had 50, 75, 100 more runs. Every time I'd reach a milestone, 10, 20, 50 runs flew past. It was unbelievable."

Marais spoke as if he was recalling an out-of-body experience, as well he might. At 1.85 metres tall and 84kgs heavy, he looks more like a gangly medium pacer in the mould of his father, Rico Marais, who played 15 first-class matches for Boland and 11 list A games for the province and the composite Impalas from December 1988 to January 1991. The apple has fallen a considerable distance from the tree this time. Marais the elder had a highest score of 82, his only half-century, in 39 innings across both formats. Marais the younger - he's 26 - owns six first-class tons, three of the list A variety, and two more in T20s. He is rawboned and rangy, which makes him seem blessed with too much lean distance between, say, shoulder and elbow to allow for the kind of sustained assault on the bowling that feeds the discipline needed to hammer 300 off 191 balls. Not that appearances should be allowed to count for much: batting isn't as effortlessly aggressive as he makes it look.

"Sometimes I try to hit the ball too hard. I'm very fortunate to have a dad who also played first-class cricket, and the feedback I always get is, 'Don't try and hit the ball too hard, because if you try and over-hit the ball you don't time it as well'. So the focus this season has been on trying to hit the ball as late as possible, and into the ground." Not, presumably, when he's cutting bowlers for six. Part of the method in Marais's madness is not to allow his hands to stray too far from his body. "Your power zone is a bit further away but I try and play in a box - that I draw mentally for myself - for as long as possible and expand from there. I found that, inside that box, that's a power zone that I hadn't known existed."

The crispness of his strokes is governed by their correctness. He is a strong argument that T20 batting doesn't have to be about graceless hitting. That said, discounting Tuesday's game between the Heat and the Jozi Stars at Kingsmead, 18 players have scored more runs in this year's MSL than Marais' 138 in seven innings, and there have been 41 higher innings than his best effort of 40 not out. But no-one has been as riveting to watch, even when he isn't sending the ball screaming for six. And even when he is at the non-striker's end, like he was in Paarl on Sunday when batting partner Heino Kuhn sent a pair of vicious drives thudding into each of his arms. The Rocks bowler, Isuru Udana, had the good manners not to run Marais out as he all but doubled over in pain well out of his ground.

Marais is a cult attraction in a Giants' line-up who have scrapped their way into the MSL qualifier, which will be played in Port Elizabeth on Friday with a place in Monday's final against the Rocks in Paarl on the line. The St George's Park crowd deserve another chance to see their team. "After games, whether I fail or do well, the messages will come in continuously: 'Marco keep going', 'Don't worry; keep your head up', 'Next game'. You almost forget about your previous performance, regardless of whether you did well or not. Then, when you go out to bat, you can play with freedom. There are so many people behind you and the team. We're not fighting just for each other anymore; we're fighting for the whole of Port Elizabeth, the whole of East London, the whole of the Eastern Cape."

The MSL is a fairytale for Marais, who is contracted by the Warriors but was playing at semi-professional level only two months ago. So he has licence to bubble forth: "We played against Morne Morkel the other night. We're playing against AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Wahab Riaz... there's so much talent here... Tom Curran. We've got the privilege of sharing a changeroom with Jason Roy, a World Cup winner, and Ben Dunk. The knowledge we've got in the team and the whole tournament is unbelievable. I mean, Gary Kirsten coaching the Durban Heat - it doesn't get better than that...

"If the goal of this tournament is to progress the players who are on the fringe of playing for South Africa, then it's serving its purpose. There's no other T20 tournament that we can play in. Not all the franchise players want to play in the [semi-pro] Africa [T20] Cup, where you're only allowed to play four franchise players. So this is the only tournament you have if you're not fortunate enough to be able to go and play overseas. These are your 10 of 12 games in the year, then you're done. Then it's either four-day cricket or 50-over stuff."

But, this being South Africa, it's not all good. Marais shows us what the MSL could be if only it wasn't what it is: a reckless drain on Cricket South Africa's (CSA) dwindling resources and a product of ego and vanity rather than the work of administrators who act in the best interests of the game. The MSL has delivered decent, entertaining cricket. But it has done so despite fires raging just beyond the boundary and all around.

"I don't want to say there's nothing we as players can do about it, but CSA have all the say. We have representatives and we get regular updates, but it would be good for CSA to tell us what they're doing so we can know whether we are packing it in or whether it's worth still trying to make a living from cricket. So that guys don't waste three, four, five years out of their lives in which they could have studied or gained work experience.

"If CSA employ the right people we have nothing to worry about. But I can't do anything about that. What they say is final. We can score runs, we can take wickets, we can try and win games. And if that's not good enough we can at least say, as players, we tried, and if you're not on a national or a franchise contract next year, so be it. Then you pack your things and go on to greener pastures."

Easier for Marais to say than for others. When he isn't cracking incandescent strokes around the ground he farms cattle and sheep near Stutterheim, some 90 kilometres from East London. You wonder, then, if his six off Siboto could be called agricultural batting. Just as you wonder what level of desperation thumps in the chests of his many peers who, unlike him, need CSA to grow up and run the game properly if they are to keep earning a pay cheque playing cricket.

If you're in McMinnville, Oregon, make a trip to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum to see the Spruce Goose, still stark and stately after all these years. So what? So sooner rather than later, if things keep going the way they are, the relic of what we have for many years called South African cricket will be similarly displayed.

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