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Opinion

Marnus Labuschagne: Made in the image of Steve Smith and now on top of the world

Saurabh Nagpal new author
Roar Rookie
29th December, 2021
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Saurabh Nagpal new author
Roar Rookie
29th December, 2021
1

The Ashes of 2019 was a series of reckoning for Steve Smith and David Warner, two of Australia’s greatest batters.

It was the occasion of their re-entry into international cricket following the year-long ban imposed on the pair for ball-tampering.

The fortunes of either could not have been more contrasting in that series.

Smith showed the world what the pinnacle of Test match batting looks like, amassing a colossal tally of 774 runs in four matches, while Warner remained embarrassingly tangled in the web created around the fourth-stump line by Stuart Broad, scoring merely 95 runs and averaging 9.5 in five games.

From an Australian point of view, the divergent narratives of these returning heroes took the centre stage in the series.

However, brewing just under the surface was the emergence of the then-25-year-old Marnus Labuschagne, and that series became a turning point in his journey to the top.

Marnus Labuschagne.

(Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Called in to replace a concussed Smith in the second innings of the second Test of that series, within a span of under two years, Labuschagne has jumped above his teammate and everyone else to claim the premier spot in the ICC men’s Test batting rankings.

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The fact that he is the first batter outside the ‘fab four’ to reach the summit in 2228 days, and that his rating is higher than Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara ever accomplished, reflects the remarkable nature of his achievement and acumen.

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In order to acquire his crown, the 27-year-old has scored 2114 runs at a mighty average of 60.40, which was until recently second only to Sir Donald Bradman’s batting average in Test cricket (minimum 20 innings).

His many runs include six tons, 12 half-tons, and the highest score of 215, which came against New Zealand in Sydney in early 2020.

Before the rise of Labuschagne, the Aussies were becoming too dependent on Smith, as echoed in the 2019 Ashes where he scored 35.50 per cent of the team’s runs despite essentially playing only 3.5 matches.

However, in Labuschagne, they have found a perfect companion for Smith.

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Marnus Labuschagne of Australia is congratulated by Steve Smith of Australia after scoring a century during day two of the Second Test match in the Ashes series between Australia and England at the Adelaide Oval on December 17, 2021 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Labuschagne, whose adoration for and camaraderie with Smith is well known, is in many ways similar to the latter.

The pair of them possess a lethal cover drive but targeting the off side is not their primary game plan. Shuffling across the stumps and actively looking to leave as many balls outside off stump as possible is a critical aspect of their game.

This tactic of playing the waiting game works well for them as the bowlers are forced to attack their stumps, and both of them back themselves to not get hit on the pads and also capitalise on the on side.

Interestingly, similar to Smith, Labuschagne first got his baggy green because of his ability to both bat and bowl, but not for his mastery in either.

He also didn’t leave a big mark right after his debut and peaked as a batter only after a stint away from international cricket.

Even when it comes to their personalities as cricketers, the commonalities among the two are aplenty.

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Like Smith, Labuschagne has a hint of eccentricity about him and is a cricketing geek of the highest order.

There are batters who love to bat, and then there are batters like these two who have a quasi-religious obsession with their art form of batting.

Marnus Labuschagne

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

In the middle, they manufacture and function within a bubble-like zone of their own.

This is perceptible in, for instance, the manner in which both leave the ball, often jumping and turning their backs to the bowler just to keep their eyes on the ball as it enters the gloves of the wicketkeeper.

Or in the manner in which Labuschagne keeps talking to himself while batting. Both give the impression that there is nothing more joyful for them than batting at the crease.

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The misfortune of Smith missing the second innings of the second Ashes Test in 2019 actually proved fruitful for the Aussies as they, by hook or crook, landed on Labuschagne.

Ever since, he has taken to perhaps the most difficult and crucial batting position in Test cricket – number three – like a duck to water, facing 3100 balls and gathering 1677 runs at an average in excess of 70 in 24 innings.

In the ongoing home Ashes series, he has already scored 229 runs – which includes his first century versus England – in three games, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that in the remaining three games of the series he will let the tourists off the hook.

However, in the longer run, one thing that we still do not know about the new world’s number one Test batter is how he will navigate the turning tracks of the subcontinent.

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