When it comes to Test cricket, deciding the batting order ultimately boils down to two options – picking your openers, a pseudo opener at first drop with the technique to handle the moving ball and then the rest of the order from best to worse.
Marnus Labuschagne is perfectly suited to the No.3 spot. He could make a decent fist of opening if Australia go down that path following David Warner’s looming retirement but it’s unwise to weaken one position to boost another in any sport.
Australia coach Andrew McDonald has floated the option of elevating Labuschagne to partner Usman Khawaja at the top of the order, shifting Steve Smith up a notch to three to create a spot for Cameron Green in the middle order.
The Aussies would then have Travis Head freewheeling and dealing at five and Mitchell Marsh as a game-changer at six, buttressed by the security of a steadier option in Alex Carey before the tail.
In theory it’s not the worst idea. But it ignores the tradition of Test cricket needing specialist openers.
The first two don’t have to be the old-fashioned knock the shine off the ball kind of dour operators of yesteryear but they need to be used to seeing the shiny red cherry in the hands of the opening bowler from the start of their innings.
Whether they’re an attacking option like Warner or an accumulator like Khawaja, it’s a role that’s not for the faint-hearted and one that can quickly find players out at the highest level.
McDonald’s comments on SEN Radio will be a further dent to the confidence of Matt Renshaw, Cameron Bancroft and Marcus Harris as they try to convince the coach and his fellow selectors that they should get first crack at the Warner vacancy.
With Warner set to get his three-match farewell against Pakistan, the next opener will get a saloon passage into the role in the form of a two-Test home series against a West Indies side which will arguably be not much better than a Sheffield Shield outfit, if at all.
“There is always the idea that you can potentially shift the order to make room to put your best six batters, or what you see as best six batters, in a certain order,” McDonald said.
For Renshaw, Harris and Bancroft, they don’t have to read between the lines there to know that the coach doesn’t consider them among the top six batters in the land.
On the prospect of a Labuschagne switch, he added: “We have seen that in Australian cricket before. David Boon went from three to opening. Justin Langer went from three to opening. Shane Watson went from six to opening.
“There has been the ability to reshuffle and for that to be successful. (Green) has batted at six for most of his Test cricket, but he has been a fantastic number four for WA and averages close to 50 in Shield cricket.”
Perhaps the person McDonald should be taking advice on this topic is the guy who will be up the other end.
Khawaja on Monday laughed off the prospect of Labuschagne, the epitome of a player who will do the cliched “anything for the team”, being keen to abandon his favourite spot to become an opener.
“Have you asked Marnus this? I think he would give you a really clear, ‘hell no’,” Khawaja told reporters. “Marnus has got opening-itis. I think that is a long shot.
“Opening is not easy. I can tell you that because I have batted No.1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 for Australia and opening is by far the hardest. It is very hard to bring somewhere up there that hasn’t opened.
“I am positive if you put Marnus up there he would do very well but would he do as well as he does at No.3?
“There’s no point shifting around people, we have so many openers to pick from.”
Labuschagne actually broke into the Queensland team as an opener way back in 2014.
In his first-class debut, he opened with Joe Burns and made an encouraging start with 83 in his first knock against South Australia at the Adelaide Oval.
Aaaaand then he got a duck in the second innings as he scored an even 100 in his eight subsequent trips to the crease to average just 20.33 for the season. He not only lost his spot in the first XI by the mid-season BBL break but also his state contract at the end of the summer.
Labuschagne spent the next season toiling away in Brisbane club cricket before getting a second chance with Queensland in 2016 and eventually building a case for Test honours.
After starting out as a bits and pieces pick in the UAE to bowl leg-spin and bat at six in 2018, he was a surprise selection at No.3 for the New Year’s Test the following summer when his first class average was a mere 33.19, lower than the likes of Shaun Marsh, Rob Quiney and Alex Doolan who ultimately didn’t last anywhere near as long in the gig.
Labuschagne proved he had the mettle for a top-order gig on the Ashes tour later that year and has been a world-class No.3 ever since.
If converting him to opener is the answer, then the selectors are asking themselves the wrong questions.