Marnus Labuschagne may have missed out on his debut Test ton last night, but he shapes as a potentially crucial cog in the Australian Test team moving forward and not just due to his gritty batting.
It took a run-out last night to dismiss Labuschagne for 80 as he cruised confidently towards three figures, all the while helping Australia to earn what should be an Ashes-clinching lead of 358.
The Queenslander’s third consecutive pivotal knock gives him a haul of 213 runs at 71 since being vaulted into the second Test as Steve Smith’s concussion substitute.
At that time Smith’s loss looked as though it would cripple Australia. The series hung in the balance when he went down and Labuschagne looked like an inadequate replacement. Yet even Smith could scarcely have performed better than has the 25-year-old.
His second-innings 59 at Lord’s was as ballsy as you’ll see from such an inexperienced batsman. Jofra Archer was bowling with such pace and menace he was terrifying even television viewers, yet not Labuschagne. After helping Australia secure a draw and protect their precious 1-0 lead, Labuschagne again was lobbed into horrendously difficult circumstances in the first innings of this third Test.
In poor light against a hooping Dukes ball on a pitch offering startling seam movement, he was again a sketch of calm and organisation. With his 74 Labuschagne single-handedly outscored England in the first dig. But Australia weren’t over the line yet and he knew that.
Their first-innings lead of 112 was decisive yet not insurmountable for England. Australia still needed to bat well to set the hosts a total that would be truly beyond them. So Labuschagne bolted himself to the crease once more, withstanding high-quality spells of swing, spin and raw pace.
He batted for almost four hours before finally coming unstuck while trying to steal a second run and shield tail-ender Nathan Lyon from the strike.
There was a sense Labuschagne deserved a ton last night. Not just because of how well he batted in that innings but due to the cumulative value of his efforts in Smith’s absence. When the world’s best batsman was removed from proceedings someone, anyone, needed to stand up for Australia. Labuschagne answered the call.
In just three innings, he’s already achieved more than Aussie number three Usman Khawaja has from his 22 Test knocks in the pace-friendly environments of England and South Africa.
Khawaja, as has been the case too often in his career, has gone missing away from home again in this series. The left-hander has, overall, been a valuable Test number three, regardless of his failures overseas. But since the retirement of Ricky Ponting, Australia have yearned for a first drop who can consistently anchor the team’s innings in challenging foreign conditions.
While it is early days, obviously, Labuschagne has shown signs he may just possess the technique, skill and mental fortitude to become such a lynchpin. For the time being Khawaja is likely to keep his spot at first drop, with Labuschagne moving to five behind Smith in the fourth Test.
That’s just fine. It will give Labuschagne time to further embed himself in this Australian team.
Already he offers this side invaluable balance. Partly because of his adaptability with the bat. He looks capable of operating anywhere from three to six in the order while batting either in a dogged, circumspect fashion or with a generous amount of aggression and flair.
Partly because of his talent with the ball. His presence as a handy fifth bowling option means that, down the line, Australia need not entertain the idea of playing a bits-and-pieces all-rounder like Mitchell Marsh.
Having a competent fifth bowler is often necessary in modern Test cricket given the compressed nature of the schedules and the batting-friendly pitches in Australia.
What the Aussies have needed, for many years now, is either a genuine all-rounder in the mould of Ben Stokes or a bonafide batsman who also offers value with the ball like Mark Waugh or Andrew Symonds.
If this is not a false dawn, if Labuschagne really is as good as he’s looked in the past three innings, then Australia will be in a fine position. They will be able to play their six best batsmen while still boasting an effective fifth bowler.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Time will tell.