The Ashes series is about to commence, and there is no doubt that if England are to be extremely competitive, their batsman will need to score runs against one of the best bowling attacks in the world.
Marnus Labuschagne’s extraordinary start to England’s domestic T20 tournament has the Test star staking a claim to make Australia’s T20 World Cup squad as an all-rounder.
Labuschagne has been in scorching touch for Glamorgan, starting the Vitality Blast competition with three consecutive half centuries, to go with four wickets at 16.
The Queenslander is very inexperienced in T20 cricket, having played just ten matches in his career up until the end of 2020.
This year, however, he’s blossomed thanks to heavier exposure to the shortest format, making 402 runs at 50, with a solid strike rate of 135.
Labuschagne is so prolific in first-class and one-day cricket that he always shaped as a potentially excellent T20 batsman. What has come as a surprise is his effectiveness with the ball.
While the leg spinner rarely rolls his arm over in Tests, this year he’s proven himself a potent T20 bowler, taking 12 wickets at 16 across his nine matches in the BBL and in England.
Wrist spinners are the most valuable bowlers in the shortest format. And Labuschagne’s pace through the air and heavy overspin make him a fine wicket taking option.
With this year’s T20 World Cup to be played on the subcontinent, Labuschagne’s spin could earn him a spot in what is expected to be a huge Australian squad, likely to include more than 20 players.
If he maintains his hot bowling form in England he could even potentially challenge for a middle order berth in Australia’s starting XI.
Four spots in Australia’s T20 batting line-up are all but cemented thanks to the excellent performances of Aaron Finch, David Warner, Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell.
But there’s a huge hole at number five in the order. Australia would prefer that spot be filled by an all-rounder to give them a sixth bowling option, to back up their favoured five-man attack of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Kane Richardson, Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar.
A host of players have been rotated through Australia’s T20 middle order in recent years. None have cashed in on that opportunity.
All-rounder Marcus Stoinis was probably Australia’s first-choice option to fill that role, having performed well in the middle order in recent T20Is. But according to media reports he’s now likely to opt out of the five-match T20 series in the Caribbean next month, and possibly also the following five-match T20 series in Bangladesh.
That leaves the door ajar for another all-rounder to push for the number five spot at the World Cup. All-rounders Mitch Marsh, Moises Henriques and Dan Christian all are likely to get middle order chances over Australia’s ten T20Is in the Caribbean and Bangladesh.
All three are decent options. Marsh has been consistently commanding in the middle order in the BBL, although he’s yet to make any real impact across his 20 T20Is.
Henriques boasts a cool head, a huge amount of IPL experience, and importantly is a competent player of spin, with slow bowling likely to decide this year’s World Cup, which will be played either in India or the UAE.
Christian, meanwhile, has turned himself into a truly rare T20 cricketer – a consistently destructive late innings hitter. He’s had a huge 12 months with the bat across three highly-competitive T20 franchise leagues – the BBL, England’s Vitality Blast, and the Pakistan Super League.
In 32 matches across those leagues over that period, Christian’s averaged 35 at a scorching strike rate of 170.
No batsman in Australia is better suited and more experienced at playing the finishing role in T20s than Christian.
Then there’s Labuschagne. Granted, he is a very green T20 cricketer. He’s also batted at three for most of his brief T20 career.
But if Australia’s middle order continues to misfire in the Caribbean and Bangladesh, the selectors may change tack. With lusty hitters having consistently failed at five for Australia in T20Is, the selectors could see Labuschagne as a safer bet.
Neither India nor the UAE are particularly high scoring T20 venues, partly due to the effectiveness of spin on their typically dry, slow pitches. This T20 World Cup is not likely to be a run-fest. I don’t expect sides to be regularly running up big scores of 190-plus against the top teams.
Australia could feel that in Finch, Warner and Maxwell they already have sufficient firepower for those conditions. That would create a potential opening for Labuschagne, should his blazing form continue. He could even potentially slot in at four, behind Smith, with Maxwell moving to five.
Of course, that’s a long way off just yet. First Labuschagne needs to continue to dominate the Vitality Blast. But he has certainly come from nowhere to make himself a realistic option for Australia’s T20 World Cup squad.