Marnus Labuschagne applauded Mitchell Marsh as he stepped out to bat late on Day 3 at Old Trafford.
Marnus Labuschagne applauded Mitchell Marsh as he stepped out to bat late on Day 3 at Old Trafford. It may have made little sense to those watching from the outside, given the circumstances of the game and Australia’s plight. Travis Head, the visitors’ fourth wicket of the evening, has just fallen. They still had only 108 runs on the board and a 177-run deficit.
But Labuschagne was aware that this was the first time he’d batted beside the massive Western Australian all-rounder in a Test. And he wanted Marsh to be aware of it. So, after clapping the No. 6 to the crease, he walked down the pitch twice and patted Marsh on the shoulder. In an attempt to alleviate the rookie batter’s concerns, Labuschagne animatedly gesticulated that the ball wasn’t moving much and that there was nothing to worry about for his first-time partner.
In many ways, this little discussion summed up Marnus Labuschagne, the cricketer and the person, better than any of the oddities that have become synonymous with him. While his unrestrained enthusiasm and passion for cricket are well documented, it’s his tireless inquisitiveness and affinity for small discoveries that set him apart. In that moment of intense stress, few would have considered, let alone decided, to feel thrilled about batting with someone for the first time. It was the most Marnus Labuschagne-like thing I’d ever seen.
That was before he asked umpire Nitin Menon to examine the replacement ball, which had arrived on the field since the one England had bowled with up until that point on Day 4 was out of shape. Even if it meant drawing criticism from Ben Stokes.
“They weren’t pleased that I wanted to gaze at the ball. But I just wanted to look at the ball because it’s quite clear in this nation. You can pretty much predict what the ball will do just by looking at it once.” I looked at the ball and thought, ‘Well, this is going to swing,'” he explained later in the day.
He did, however, get his way. Anderson grudgingly tossed the ball to him. And all Labuschagne needed was a short peek before handing it back. It’s the same as him always double-checking the off-side bail before striking. It’s the same as his insisting on the stumps not being perfectly aligned at one point during the fourth day of play and ensuring the umpires got it right. It’s the same as his double-checking their accuracy by marking his guard three times, once for each stump. It is not always about him. His sharp vision is constantly spotting items on the field that he wants his batting partner to be aware of when batting. On the field, he does the same thing, and he’s never short of a proposal for captain Pat Cummins, whether it’s unsolicited or not.
Those who have seen him practice up close would tell you that his batting is also predicated on these oddities. Labuschagne rarely walks into the net and does anything spectacular. It’s always a tweak, never a change. He’s not searching for his hands like Steve Smith. He isn’t attempting to alter his trigger movement like some other hitters. He’s not attempting to reinvent his batting every time, like others do. It’s always about the finer points of his batting. A modest shift in defense. A modest repositioning of his back toe. His backlift has shifted slightly.
Some may argue that he overdoes it. But it’s this curiosity and overzealousness to get better that make him tick. He’s never shy about picking up good habits from others, Smith in particular.
“Smudge will never take a chance when there are already runs available.” “Just keep taking them,” he was overheard instructing Alex Carey in the nets at one point. And the conversation at practice is usually about cricket. If he isn’t working on his own batting, he is holding Smith’s hands and directing him to a batting theory he has. Or he’s making a suggestion to Cameron Green or Travis Head. Or he’s hollering at one of his teammates, Ohh, that’s like Jimmy’s out-swinger. Oh, you played that like Pujara.” Even if he doesn’t always get the desired input while bowling. “Tell me those two words, ‘Well Bowled’,” he once ordered of Smith. “No” was all he received in return.
This tour of England has been all about where Labuschagne has stood in his crease to offer him the best chance of guarding his off-stump while also avoiding falling over while trying to hit balls through the on-side. In the first Test in Birmingham, he succumbed to chasing wide deliveries. Rather than focusing on his failures, Labuschagne’s energies prior to the Lord’s Test were entirely focused on getting his head in better situations to score more through the leg side.
To that purpose, he had a regular monitor at the back of the net keep an eye on his back foot to ensure it didn’t end up within his off-stump line. He’d also opted to relax his stance a little more than normal in preparation for the same.
Before Leeds, having looked better in both innings at Lord’s without cracking on, Australia’s No. 3 had now turned his attention to avoiding nicking off deliveries that were passing his bat at around the fourth or fifth stump, as he had done in particular in the first innings against Ollie Robinson. It was time for a new guard, one with better middle and leg strength. And it appeared to work again, as he gained a start against the blistering pace of Mark Wood before playing at a delivery from Chris Woakes that was just outside off. Of course, there was Moeen Ali’s forgettable dismissal in the second inning, which probably swung the match and series around.
Labuschagne appeared to have found his finest setup, rhythm, and flow heading into the fourth Test in Manchester. He spent the first half of each session facing Todd Murphy and playing him aggressively, much like he did against Joe Root and Moeen late in the day on Day 4.
“Where was this shot last week?” he’d think to himself after a wonderful swipe off Murphy in the net at Old Trafford.
He also appeared to be obsessed with leaving deliveries coming at him from various angles and trajectories, courtesy of Michael Di Venuto and his sidearm. The final box he desired to be checked He’d also found himself another personal coach to work with at practice in Andy Flower. The former Zimbabwean captain turned coach, who has been working as a consultant for the Australians, was more than happy to oblige. The two had two distinct workouts, one outside and one inside, with the goal of getting the right-hander to shoulder arms for as many deliveries as possible. Flower would also tell Labuschagne to keep his head in the ideal position for as long as he could, and everything else would fall into place.
And things did fall into place in the first innings at Old Trafford, despite his failure to power on and make the most of his 51, the series’ first half-century. He left the ball much better than he had previously, but he also found his busy scoring tempo. It improved in the second innings, when Australia was under pressure and wickets were dropping at the opposite end on a regular basis.
And he might not have achieved a more vital Test ton for his country if the weather holds off or Marsh and company can put on a stunning show of defensive batting to salvage the day. Labuschagne will be nervously watching from the balcony, getting excited over the smallest of mysteries that only his eye can notice and his mind can process, basically doing Marnus Labuschagne things.
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