'Boy to a man': How Marsh's bat kick-started BBL wonderkid
With 'Caribbean wrists' and Shaun Marsh's bat, Ollie Davies was taking on – and thriving against – the big kids even before he got to the Big Bash
Louis Cameron is a Melbourne-based journalist. A former Victorian Bushrangers fast bowler, Louis joined the cricket.com.au team with assistance from the Australian Cricketers' Association's Internship Program in 2016.
Among the many who have helped enrich the prodigious batting talents of Sydney Thunder wonderkid Ollie Davies, Shaun Marsh might be the most curious.
The origins of Davies' conversion to full-blown Marsh worshipper are familiar enough for any cricket fan who remembers how they first fell in love with the game.
Davies vividly recalls, as a 10-year-old, watching Marsh score a century in his Test debut against Sri Lanka in Pallekele from his home on the northern beaches of Sydney.
"I remember watching it and thinking, 'This guy is an absolute gun'," he tells cricket.com.au. "After that I knew he was my favourite player and I knew I was going to watch him, I was going to follow him, I was going to go for the teams he played for."
Two years on, Ollie's mother Simone, who had driven him and his mates out to Drummoyne Oval for a Western Australia-South Australia domestic one-dayer with the sole purpose of watching Marsh bat, called out to WA coach Justin Langer as he walked around the boundary and asked if Marsh would sign an autograph and take a photo with the eager youngsters.
Davies was wearing a Perth Scorchers shirt.
"He came down for a while and had a chat with everyone and took a photo," says Davies. "I remember posting it on Instagram later that arvo and he commented on it saying, 'Great photo' or something.
"We just stayed in touch over the next few years. At games, if I was there he'd come over to me and have a chat on the sidelines."
By the time Davies made a Cricket Australia XI side for the Under-17 national championships a few years later, Davies was using a bat that belonged to Marsh, who had generously sent it to him.
"I'd be toeing them and they'd go over the boundary," he laughs. "I just had this ridiculous cricket bat compared to everyone else at the time. Everyone wanted to use it."
If Davies has looked immediately comfortable playing against far more experienced players in his first KFC BBL season, it's because he has had a bit of practice.
Facing Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood on spicy greentop pitches during New South Wales' pre-season sessions last year was an eye-opener, but his exposure to the 'big boys' stretches back further.
Playing for that CA XI side back in 2016 when he was still wielding Marsh's slightly-too-heavy Gray-Nicolls Omega against bigger and stronger players was his first taste of some fresh thinking from CA that has helped accelerate Davies' progress.
The idea to bring a group of 15-year-olds together to compete against older boys was born out of former CA supremo Pat Howard's 'war for talent' as cricket looked to show a clearer path to a professional career for young athletes.
It was met with resistance by traditionalists who prefer talented juniors first prove they are good enough to play for their own state, but Davies insists it was a boon for his development.
To this day, CA believes it has had the dual benefits of throwing talented youngsters in the deep end while also allowing an age group of players from around the country to get used to playing with each other, with an equivalent CA XI also introduced into the U19 championships.
"There's been a hell of a lot of benefit to the concept," says CA’s national talent manager Graham Manou.
"The more opportunities they can get to play with one another, it helps speed up their development as a group, it allows them to hear different voices and see how the better players in their age group go about it, and how they can cope together as a group, rather than having that protection of the older player."
Only three batters during that carnival scored more than Davies' 321 runs but he says now that tournament was the biggest jump in standard he has encountered in his short career.
Victorian quicks Zak Evans and Will Sutherland only have six and 12 months on Davies respectively yet the pair provided him with an examination he would not forget.
"I remember facing being so scared – they were bumping me and doing all sorts, I was absolutely crapping myself," Davies says.
"But that was such a good experience for me. It was by the far the quickest I had faced at the time.
"That was the best thing to happen to me coming up through the junior ranks, playing against older players."
Thunder teammate Tanveer Sangha, who played years of junior cricket with and against Davies, says the one thing he has learnt about him is "not to bowl spin to him".
Davies believes his prowess against the turning ball is a direct result of his father Kevin's throw-downs. Ollie diplomatically says his old man "wasn't the quickest thrower", instead lobbing up spinners and forcing the youngster to use his feet.
His mother Simone might have something to do with it, too. Ollie jokes he has "Caribbean wrists"; Simone was born in Trinidad before she and Kevin moved to Sydney's northern beaches.
Ollie has considered pursuing a Trinidadian passport, which he hopes could help him win a Caribbean Premier League T20 contract in the coming years.
Manou vividly recalls how, during a series against Pakistan U16s in the UAE in 2017, Davies assuredly played spin bowling of a quality the young Aussies had not previously encountered.
"(That was) the first time that I thought we had a very talented young man," Manou says.
"Their spinners as you can imagine in those conditions in Dubai can be a real challenge for us – he had the ability to play off front and back foot and make really good decisions about how he played spin.
"The shots he was playing were like what you'd expect a man with a lot of experience to play. That was the first glimpse."
By the time he was playing in the U19s as a top-aged player, Davies was dominating. He made national headlines in 2018-19 when he smashed 207 from just 115 balls, belting 17 sixes including six from a single over.
Davies' experiences of ‘playing up’ meant he'd had a considerable head-start when he made the step to the first XI in NSW Premier Cricket as a 17-year-old the previous year.
Three-and-a-half seasons on and he now already has five first-grade centuries for Manly.
Yet for all Davies' feats and the excitement he generated at junior level, the biggest lesson he has learnt has come out of adversity.
Davies was the vice-captain for Australia's Under-19 World Cup squad that went to South Africa last year but having fractured his wrist earlier in the season, he was touch and go to be right for the showpiece tournament.
The Aussies took a punt on him and when he cracked 94 from just 24 balls including 11 sixes in a warm-up blowout against Canada, Davies convinced himself not only was his wrist fine, but he could continue to blaze away against stronger sides despite having been barely able to pick up a bat for the previous two months.
He was wrong. After scoring 0, 5, 2 and 0 from the ensuing four games, a friend sent him a brutal message pointing out he was averaging less than two and that his aggregate run tally had not reached double digits.
"I thought that I was just going to be able to go out there and just bang them after not playing or training for a couple of months," says Davies. "For me, it was a leveller."
For Manou, who had been in South Africa with the squad along with coach Chris Rogers, an hour-long phone call with Davies in June crystallised a growing feeling the right-hander had exited the junior pathway as a special talent.
"He spoke with such maturity and was so clear on the areas he needed to improve that I thought, This kid, this young man has got the tools to succeed at a first-class level and beyond," he says.
"The Under-19 World Cup was the first time he'd ever experienced any failure and he didn't have a coping mechanism.
"For him to identify and understand that post the World Cup in the manner he did was evidence to me that this kid is on the right track.
"On reflection myself, I thought it was the boy turning into a man."
That maturity, Manou says, was only enhanced by Australia’s Sydney-based Test players spending the winter training with NSW while international cricket was on hold due to the pandemic.
Davies has hit up Steve Smith for batting advice on playing spin in limited-overs cricket while Nathan Lyon has helped him with bowling his part-time off-spinners.
And after initially being in awe of Starc and Hazlewood steaming in at him, Davies gradually became accustomed to their pace.
So when he took on the Perth Scorchers' in his BBL debut for the Thunder, he was unfazed as he took on Australian limited-overs quick Jason Behrendorff, promptly depositing him for a pair of sixes before reverse-sweeping leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed for a boundary in an exhilarating knock.
The only downside was that his parents, in lockdown due to the northern beaches outbreak in Sydney, were not able to come to Canberra to watch.
"There were not many nerves at all," Davies says of his maiden BBL appearances, having since lost his spot when Alex Ross returned from injury. "I just went out there and had fun, I basically played like I would in a club game and took the bowlers on."
Davies followed his impressive debut by smashing four consecutive sixes off Mohammad Nabi in their clash with the Melbourne Renegades. It was fitting he made it five straight from the ensuing delivery he faced off Sutherland, the demon quick who had terrorised him as a 15-year-old.
It was equally appropriate that Shaun Marsh, now with the Renegades, had a front-row seat to the onslaught.
Davies was using his own bat this time.