The Australian selectors gambled by picking untested Marnus Labuschagne over in-form pair Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja, but last night he repaid their faith with his maiden ODI ton in South Africa.
With a calm knock of 108 from 108 balls, Labuschagne offered a rare highlight for the tourists as they were thumped by six wickets to lose this ODI series 3-0.
Australia’s batting lineup again underperformed, making just 7-254 batting first and leaving their bowlers vulnerable, although no one could blame Labuschagne.
It was a controversial decision in January to pick the Queenslander and ditch Marsh and Khawaja, who had carried Australia’s ODI batting lineup during the year-long ban to stars David Warner and Steve Smith.
From the start of those bans up to the point Marsh and Khawaja were dropped, the former made 877 runs at 49 in ODIs, while the latter made 1,089 runs at 49.
Khawaja’s lack of middle-order experience presumably contributed to his axing, while Marsh’s age probably worked against him. Labuschagne is 11 years younger. No doubt Labuschagne’s extraordinary Test form was a contributing factor, along with his good List A record.
Rather than trying to emulate the chaotic batting style of World Cup holders England, who cut loose from overs 1 to 50, Australia appear to be aiming for a more balanced approach, based on the selection of Labuschagne.
Their first-choice XI has a pair of aggressive openers in Warner and Finch, and middle order hitting power in the form of Glenn Maxwell, Mitch Marsh and Alex Carey. Sandwiched between those groups is the bedrock of the batting lineup – Smith and Labuschagne.
Australia will hope at least one of that pair bats deep into the innings every ODI to allow others to take on the game around them. Do-or-die World Cup matches are rarely high-scoring affairs and Australia probably feel the tight techniques and unflappable temperaments of Smith and Labuschagne will glue their top seven together under pressure.
Last night’s ODI in Potchefstroom was hardly a high-stakes encounter – it was a dead rubber in a random bi-lateral series. Even still, Labuschagne constructed the kind of innings he was picked to play.
With his team in peril, after the early wickets of Warner, Smith and then Finch, the 25-year-old put out this fire and then slowly lit his own.
As Labuschagne sought to halt the charge of the home side, he crept to 25 from 43 balls. Now well set, and with SA’s momentum stalled, he took the game on cracking 83 from his final 65 balls.
As in Test cricket, Labuschagne looked equally comfortable against pace or spin, pierced the gaps expertly, ran hard between wickets, and picked the correct moments to attack or defend.
It was not a spectacular ODI innings. Australia won’t get many of those out of Labuschagne or Smith. Achieving the spectacular will be left to the likes of Warner, Finch and Maxwell. Instead it was an assured and well-paced knock, the kind that acts as the backbone of a team innings.
Of course, such knocks must be complemented by more dynamic performances. Last night Labuschagne lacked for allies. Finch (22), Smith (20), Marsh (32) and D’Arcy Short (36) all frittered away good starts, while Alex Carey finished his poor tour of SA with a duck, and Warner (4) was undone by a fantastic delivery by express quick Anrich Nortje (2-35).
After bowling tidily and fielding exceptionally well, SA was well served by its very green batting lineup. Three members of their top five were rookies – Janneman Malan (3 ODIs), JJ Smuts (5) and Kyle Verrynne (3).
Yet they showed no signs of inexperience as they guided the Proteas to an easy six-wicket win with 27 balls in hand. Smuts (84), Verrynne (50), and Heinrich Klaasen (68*) bossed an Australian attack missing new ball pair Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins.
After a terrible performance in the 2019 World Cup, SA displayed encouraging depth in this series as they flourished without key players Kagiso Rabada, Faf du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen. Australia, meanwhile, are in a vulnerable state as they head into their home ODI series against New Zealand this week.
With Labuschagne having stepped up, Australia will hope for similarly influential efforts against the Kiwis from the likes of Starc, Warner, Carey, Finch and Marsh, who laboured in SA.