Marnus Labuschagne won legion fans during the Ashes with his mix of grit, intelligence and classical strokeplay. The one common criticism of him leading into this series was his inability to convert his frequent 50s into big, match-shaping scores.
At first-class level he had the poor conversion rate of nine tons and 29 half-centuries. In Tests he had been impressive but had yet to make a century from nine matches. Labuschagne had looked in prime touch in the Sheffield Shield this summer yet had not converted any of his four 50s for Queensland.
It is an odd shortcoming to have as a batsman, the inability to make the most of good starts. Batting is meant to be at its hardest in the first hour at the crease before getting easier and easier from then on.
For some reason, though, certain batsmen encounter a mental block once they pass 50. There are few better examples than Labuschagne’s Test teammate Travis Head, who has reached 50 no fewer than 54 times in first-class cricket yet has made only 11 tons. That bad habit has continued in Test cricket, where Head has converted just one of his seven 50s.
For Labuschagne, his first season in English county cricket this year has changed him in many ways. Up until he landed in England, the 25-year-old had made a paltry four tons from 50 first-class matches. That was an extremely low total for a player of his obvious talents.
Since then, Labsuchagne has churned out six tons from just 21 first-class matches amid a monster haul of 1975 runs at 62.
Australian coach Justin Langer has repeatedly praised Labuschagne’s extreme passion for cricket and his voracious appetite for batting. He rivals renowned cricket tragic Steve Smith in his obsession for the sport and for improvement.
Labuschagne reportedly works at his game relentlessly. He also is a fitness fanatic, like Langer was as a player. Yesterday, as Labuschagne batted on and on and on, these attributes came to the fore. While some batsmen, once they are well past 100, can start to look a bit lazy or contented or fatigued, Labuschagne appeared fresh, focused and hungry.
As the players left the ground for the tea break he could have been forgiven for looking drained. Labuschagne was, after all, on 171*. Instead the youngster was striding energetically, joking and smiling with his captain Tim Paine. He looked as if he had just started batting, not as though he’d been out there for two full sessions.
In this way he reminded me of Smith, the batting machine, for whom enough runs are never enough. In Smith’s mind 50 should always become 100, which should make way for 150 and then be replaced by 200. Labuschagne yesterday seemed to be playing with this same admirable greed.
While he never seemed to be batting for himself, to be aiming for milestones, Labuschagne’s aggression was controlled. Again and again he respected the good balls and then flayed anything in his scoring zones.
When finally he was dismissed, playing a rare loose shot, Labuschagne’s reaction was telling. For nearly ten seconds he was crouched at the crease, with disbelief and disappointment etched on his face.
This was not a satisfied cricketer. This was a batsman whose first thought upon being dismissed, even after making 185 in front of his home crowd, seemed to be, “Damnit, I’ve left runs on the table”.
Maybe that was a force of habit given how many times he had wasted good starts prior to his golden summer in England. This time, though, Labuschagne had made the most of his opportunity. He had turned a neat 50 into a sparkling 100 and then a big ton. In the process he provided further evidence of why many observers consider him one of the most promising young Test cricketers on the planet.