Australia vs Pakistan: Marnus Labuschagne - From leg-spinner to exemplary batsman
What is with this trend of Australian leg-spinners turning into exemplary batsmen? Nine years ago, Steve Smith was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world as a leg-spinner with awe-inducing fielding skills. We know how that story unfolded. And now, Marnus Labuschagne’s Test career is following a similar curve as he is set to end the year neck and neck in race with Smith as this year’s highest run scorer. Only in his case it was more obscure.
Five years ago, Labuschagne was the Queensland rookie who had his first brush with fame after scooping up a catch off Varun Aaron’s bat as a substitute fielder at short-leg during the Brisbane Test in 2014. He was mainly a proxy act, making an appearance in the two-Test series against Pakistan in the UAE as part leg-spinner, part batsman. A gritty 38 in the drawn Test against India in Sydney first triggered whispers of Australia finally finding a long-term No 3 prospect. Australia were facing a torrid time then. Four batsmen, including Labuschagne, have been tried at that position since Smith was banned.
Usman Khawaja was given a long rope—eight Tests to be exact—till the selectors finally ran out of patience during the Ashes in England and dropped him for the fourth Test. By then Labuschagne had made quite a splash, coming in as concussion sub at Lord’s after Steve Smith was hit by a Jofra Archer bouncer, and holding fort with a resilient 59 that allowed Australia to draw that Test. Since then, Labuschagne’s scores read 74, 80, 67, 11, 48, 14, 185 and 126 (batting). With that last innings, scored under lights at Adelaide on Friday, Labuschagne has surpassed Smith to be the highest scorer for this year, with 793 runs.
Trailing by just 15 runs, Smith—yet to bat in Adelaide and probably itching to give it back to Yasir Shah after his seven-finger jibe in Brisbane—is expected to regain his position soon. But let it soak in how an understudy sprang to Australia’s rescue in cricket’s most storied rivalry, cementing his place at the most pivotal batting position and making them believe they need not always rely solely on Smith. Given the turbulent time Australia had to endure without Steve Smith—losing to Pakistan away and India at home—this comes as a huge relief.
A product of the robust Australian cricket structure, Labuschagne—who had migrated from South Africa at 10—made his way through age-group cricket and emerged as an opener with a copybook technique. His ability to stage a rescue act was apparent during his Sheffield Shield debut when he stood at the non-striker’s end as South Australia medium-pacer Chadd Sayers took a hattrick to reduce Queensland to 27/3. Labuschagne grinded his way to 83 before the middle order stepped up to take Queensland to safety. Later, when it seemed his Test career was not going anywhere, Labuschagne chose to play county cricket for Glamorgan before the Ashes, scoring 1,114 runs in 18 innings.
Taking corrective measures, seeking advice from peers and coaches are Labuschagne’s biggest qualities. “We talk about coaching players, there are no more coachable players than him,” Langer had recently said of Labuschagne. But it’s his relationship with Smith that may go on to have a telling effect on Labuschagne’s career. “Probably the most heartening thing is his relationship with Steven Smith, the best player in the world. They spend time, they talk cricket. They love it. Literally all they do is talk cricket. They eat together, they have breakfast and lunch together. They have coffee together. They have dinner together talking cricket,” said Langer.
It must have been a courageous act then, taking Smith’s place at Lord’s, shaking off a stinging bouncer from Archer and staying put. “It caught me flush but you just get up and get on with it. Out there it’s probably less nerve wracking than on the field. But when you are out there the adrenaline is rushing and pretty much all you do is watch that ball,” Labuschagne had said after the day’s play. Pakistan’s a relatively easier opponent but what sets Labuschagne apart is his willingness to buckle down. “I love fighting hard for runs, it’s fun,” he said after close of play on Friday. That is not just a random statement. When a batsman is ready to cop a few blows and happy to play the waiting game, it’s not good news for bowlers.