Marnus Labuschagne levels his eyes, cocks his blade and waits for the next delivery.
Pakistan seamer Mohammad Abbas cruises to the crease, lifts his left arm next to his ear, pulls it back down past his hip and rhythmically releases the pink Kookaburra ball. The visiting quick appears to have complete control over the delivery, which skims off the Adelaide Oval pitch towards the top of Labuschagne’s off stump.
This is exactly where Abbas wants to be. His generous Test success has been built on deliveries just like this. Many Test batsmen in this modern era do not possess a solid forward defensive shot and so Abbas has ran amok with such disciplined offerings.
His opponents over-commit towards the ball and make their front pad a target. Or they get caught on the crease and extend their hands instead of their front leg. Or they hang back and allow the delivery too much time to misbehave.
On this occasion, though, Abbas’ stock delivery is met with the centre of a flat blade. Labuschagne has, with the minimum of effort, stepped towards the ball, bent his knee, kept his head over the delivery and struck it with a dead bat right under his eyes.
Experienced international bowlers commonly describe such a stroke as the most demoralising they’ve encountered. It is one thing to over-pitch and be driven for four, to drop short and be pulled for six, or to drift on to the pads and see the ball struck to the square leg rope.
It is another thing altogether to watch your best delivery dead-batted with calm and an apparent lack of effort. Such batting renders a bowler impotent. From there, where can they go? The answer is outside of their comfort zone.
When a bowler’s stock delivery becomes ineffective, it is natural for them to seek an alternative. Maybe throw one wide, or try to gain extra pace, or surprise the batsman with a bouncer, or roll their fingers across the seam, or change up their speeds.
This might work. Or it might play right into the hands of the batsman, who has just forced their opponent to abandon their strengths and search for a new approach.
This is just what Labuschagne does.
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
It is the least noticeable element of his batting yet perhaps the most influential. When quicks hit their preferred area – when they land the ball on a nice length on or outside off stump – the Queenslander has two predictable answers. The first is to shoulder arms and watch the delivery waste away outside off stump. The second is to step forward, crouch over the ball and defend it with an alarming degree of surety.
Bowlers would rather concede four runs from an adventurous slash outside off than watch the ball trickle for a dot from an assured forward press. When a batsman does this again and again and again, smothering an opponent’s best deliveries, the bowler invariably starts to experiment. They begin to feed the strengths of the batsman. A low-carb diet of top-of-fourth-stump deliveries becomes a hillbilly feast of half volleys and short balls.
Labuschagne has patience and he uses it as a weapon. His mentor and apparent idol Steve Smith does the same, boring opponents into feeding him junk deliveries.
It is a strategy that has been an astonishing success for Smith, leading him to a Test average of 64 and the number one Test batsman ranking. His understudy, meanwhile, has exploited it to shock the life out of Test cricket this year.
Even Labuschagne fanboys must not have predicted in January that he would have 793 runs at 66 for the year by this stage.
It looks and feels like a misprint. Until, that is, you watch Labuschagne defend a good delivery. Then it all makes sense.
Ronan has been a reporter for 15 years and now travels the world as a photojournalist, contributing words and photography to more than 70 magazines and newspapers across the US, Europe, Asia, Middle East, Canada and Australia. He contributes to the likes of CNN, BBC, The San Francisco Chronicle, Toronto Star, The Independent (UK), The Guardian, Irish Examiner, Australian Financial Review, South China Morning Post, Singapore Straits Times and many magazines. Before becoming a freelance photojournalist he spent nine years working at daily newspapers in WA where he variously was a chief crime reporter, political writer, health reporter, features writer and sports reporter.
Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls and Colin de Grandhomme may be New Zealand’s fresh batting stars but veterans Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor remain the key to the Kiwis ending their Test drought in Australia. For years Williamson and Taylor held together a rickety New Zealand Test batting line-up. Now, over the past two years, they […]
Pat Cummins admittedly didn’t quite have the smoothest entry into Test cricket, with his second Test coming five and half years after his debut, but with 27 Tests now under his belt, it’s hard to fathom that he is yet to face New Zealand in a Test match.