Green batsmen Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head have given Australia cause for optimism after their gritty resistance against a surging England attack helped them hold on to their 1-0 Ashes lead.
At 3-47, with lynchpin Steve Smith unable to bat and Jofra Archer on a rampage, Australia looked gone. Somehow they had to find a way to survive for almost three more hours in fading light against a skilful England attack that had a scent of blood.
Archer had already concussed the world’s best batsman in Smith and cracked Labuschagne’s helmet the second ball he faced with a nasty 148 kilometre-per-hour bouncer. The English debutant was bowling with a rare level of menace and the Test hung in the balance.
These are the kinds of arduous circumstances in which many batsmen crumble. International cricket is littered with batsmen who are commanding in favourable scenarios, but boasts few able to prosper when confronted by adversity.
Australia have made a habit in recent years of looking terrific with the blade on roads or when well in front but being unable to graft when batting is not easy. Australian veterans David Warner and Usman Khawaja, as I argued yesterday, have gone missing far too often in difficult circumstances overseas.
They did so again yesterday, handing the burden to Labuschagne and Head.
After Labuschagne was smashed in the grill second ball, everyone watching knew they were set to learn a lot about the 25-year-old’s character. You couldn’t blame him if he was intimidated. Smith had already been sent to hospital by Archer, who now had his tail up and was trying to hurt Labuschagne, too.
Yet the Queenslander, quite literally, did not take a backward step. Labuschagne has a pronounced forward press which he still looked to employ whenever possible.
Just minutes after copping that savage blow, Labuschagne strode into a full delivery from Archer and caressed it down the ground for four. It was a classic off drive. The signs were there that the Aussie was not going to be bullied out of his natural game.
One of Labuschagne’s other attributes is that, by Australian standards at least, he plays with soft hands. This would have been a key reason for his dominance in county cricket this season as he piled up five tons to be the leading run-scorer in Division Two. Batsmen who push at the ball with a stiff grip, like the Marsh brothers and Warner, tend to be found out in the UK.
Labuschagne’s gentle touch came into play just four deliveries after that drive for four. Archer bowled a testing, full delivery just outside off stump, the Aussie opened the blade slightly, kept his grip loose and deflected the ball through gully for four more.
It wasn’t a highlights-reel boundary. But for people familiar with the challenges of batting in England, this is the kind of subtle stroke that is equally as valuable as an imperious pull or a ferocious cut.
England opener Rory Burns has had a fine Ashes series so far and has seemingly scored half his runs in this same manner.
Labuschagne’s innings was not an ugly one, though. While he was forced to contort his body to avoid any number of ghoulish Archer bouncers, he also unfurled a range of gorgeous boundaries. There was a lovely clip off the pads against Chris Woakes. Not long after he laced a square drive against Stuart Broad, and then another off Woakes.
He was even more impressive against spinner Jack Leach, who was targeting the rough outside his leg stump. Labuschagne is a confident player of spin. He has fast feet, is not scared of advancing down the pitch, and is especially effective with the sweep due to the fact he rarely seems to premeditate the shot, instead playing it based on line.
Twice he swept Leach for four, before skipping to the pitch of the ball and sweetly timing a drive to the cover boundary. Five balls later, Labuschagne was unlucky to be dismissed for an invaluable 59 due to a Joe Root catch that was not clear-cut enough to be given out.
When Matt Wade was caught at short leg from Leach’s next delivery, Australia were again in strife. Now the focus turned to Head.
The 25-year-old had partnered Labuschagne in a pivotal 85-run stand that held up England for almost two hours. With five wickets in hand, Australia had to survive 11 overs.
Head remained composed, as he has so often in challenging circumstances across his brief Test career. The South Australia kept it perfectly simple – leave as many deliveries as possible, defend the good balls, and don’t forget to punish anything loose so as not to enter a completely defensive mindset.
Like Labuschagne, he copped a number of gnarly short balls from Archer, who came around the wicket to help his bouncers follow the left-hander.
Leach, meanwhile, posed almost as much of a threat to Head due to the generous rough outside his off stump. Head once had a justified reputation for being weak against spin. Not any more.
Clearly he has worked hard on improving his decision-making against slow bowlers and it shows. In his ten-Test career, he has faced elite spinners like Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja and Yasir Shah. None of those spinners have given Head sustained grief.
His biggest shortcoming as a Test batsman has been his proclivity for slashing with a horizontal blade at balls well outside off stump. This, too, has been improved upon by Head. His ability to learn from and address mistakes is very encouraging.
Head’s next challenge is to begin capitalising on his frequent good starts. He has been remarkably consistent in reaching 20 so far in his Test career – only five times in 18 innings has he been dismissed for less than that. Yet he has just one Test ton to his name.
That is a relatively minor quibble, though, at this stage. The bottom line is that Head has made an excellent start to his Test career.
After ten matches, he is averaging 50 with the bat. Head has also shown the ability to adjust to foreign conditions, averaging 37 from his four Tests in the UAE and England.
Of course, he is far from the finished product. Labuschagne, meanwhile, is even further from proving himself as a genuine Test batsman.
But Head has shown terrific signs over the past ten months, while Labuschagne’s knock at Lord’s gave the impression he may just have the temperament and technique to prosper at the highest level.