Exactly two years ago today, Marnus Labuschagne began the county cricket stint that triggered one of the most remarkable growth spurts by an international cricketer in the modern era.
On April 11, 2019, Labuschagne made his first-class debut in the UK as an unlikely overseas signing for Glamorgan. I say unlikely because those limited overseas slots are crucial to county teams, and Labuschagne at that stage was an ordinary red-ball batsman.
Granted, he had already played five Tests for Australia. But Labuschagne struggled in those matches, averaging just 26, and was coming off an awful Sheffield Shield season in which he averaged only 24 across his 17 innings.
At 24 years of age, he had an underwhelming first-class record of 2812 runs at 32, including just four tons from 50 matches.
Those are not the type of stats that would normally earn a batsman a highly-prised, overseas player county slot. I remember being surprised by his signing and thinking he would be vulnerable on the typically green early-season wickets in the UK.
His key weaknesses, at that stage, were his relatively leaky defence and propensity to nick off while driving at balls outside off stump. That’s a well-worn recipe for failure in England.
Labuschagne, then, was under significant scrutiny as he walked out to bat at first drop on day one of his county debut.
Glamorgan were 1-27 and their opponents Northants boasted gun West Indies fast bowler Jason Holder. Just after tea, Labuschagne returned to the changerooms with a ton under his belt. He had cruised to 121 from just 177 balls.
He topped that off by taking three wickets and then making 27* in the second innings. When he was caught behind for a second-ball duck in his next knock it appeared as though this was the beginning of his regression towards the mean.
Not at all. In the second innings of that match, Labuschagne smashed the Gloucestershire attack. He thumped 16 fours and a pair of sixes as he sprinted to 137 from 171 balls. The Queenslander wasn’t just prospering in the UK, he was flaying the bowlers. That aggression was particularly notable given that, prior to arriving in England, he had been a sedate batsman, with a career strike rate of just 50.
Now here Labuschagne was in the UK – a difficult batting environment which normally favours defensive players – taking on the bowlers with abandon.
Suddenly, his signing by Glamorgan was being hailed as a masterstroke. They went from finishing dead last in county division two the previous season to finishing top four in 2019.
That vast improvement was driven, in a large part, by the commanding efforts of Labuschagne, who was the standout batsman in that whole division, piling up 1114 runs at 65, including five tons from only ten matches. Not to mention that he scored at a blazing strike rate of 76.
Labuschagne’s county season was so phenomenal that he suddenly went from at risk of being dropped from Queensland’s Shield side to being in Australia’s 2019 Ashes squad. What happened from there is well known.
Since he came into the Ashes as a concussion sub for Steve Smith, Labuschagne has been the world’s most prolific Test batsman. He has churned out 1675 runs at 73, including five tons in 13 matches.
Labuschagne hasn’t just been beating up on weak opponents either. Of those 13 Tests, 11 have been played against the three highest-ranked teams (other than Australia) in India, New Zealand and England.
The cricket world has been waiting to see if this was just a purple patch, if Labuschagne would come crashing back down to earth. “He can’t really be this good, he’s just in a hot run of form, it’ll end soon” was the rough opinion of many cricket observers.
These doubters started sharpening their knives when he had a sub-par start to this summer’s series against India. Then Labuschagne turned it back on. In the final two Tests against India he scored nearly 300 runs.
Labuschagne finished that series as easily the highest scorer from either side with 426 runs, miles ahead of second-placed Steve Smith (313). Then he went back to the Shield and cut loose, finishing the season with 629 runs at 70 for the Bulls.
He just cannot stop making runs. Since Labuschagne began that fabled stint at Glamorgan, he’s made an extraordinary 3767 runs at 66 in first-class cricket. That includes 13 tons from just 37 matches.
At this point, it’s fair to say Labuschagne is not just in a purple patch. He really is this good.