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Marnus form slump becoming a concern as Aussies grind Pakistan into Perth dust with all-round dominance

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16th December, 2023
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Australia should have no trouble wrapping up the First Test at Perth’s Optus Stadium but they have a new concern developing at the top of the order with the once-prolific Marnus Labuschagne amid a rare slump.

The star No.3 fell cheaply for the second time in the match when he was out for one in the second innings on Saturday when Australia elected to bat again rather than enforcing the follow-on after bowling Pakistan out for 271, a mammoth 216 in arrears.

Labuschagne looked tentative in his brief stay at the crease and departed for two when he top-edged debutant seamer Khurram Shahzad from the 18th ball he faced. 

He received treatment after a Shahzad delivery leapt up off a crack and struck him on the right hand but managed to continue before falling in the next over he faced from the rookie. It was later confirmed that he had gone for scans on the injured digit.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 16: Marnus Labuschagne of Australia looks dejected after being dismissed by Khurram Shahzad of Pakistan during day three of the Men's First Test match between Australia and Pakistan at Optus Stadium on December 16, 2023 in Perth, Australia (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Marnus Labuschagne looks dejected after being dismissed. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

The 29-year-old Queenslander has registered just 736 runs from 23 innings in 2023 at a modest average of 35.04.

After his career average was a superb 60.82 after the two-Test series cakewalk against the West Indies 12 months ago, it has now dipped to 52.15, his lowest in four years since he established himself as one of the world’s premier red-ball batters.

Labuschagne, who made just 16 in the first dig before he was trapped in front, has scored just one ton and three half-centuries this year to slip from No.1 in the world rankings to fifth, with Travis Head and Usman Khawaja poised to leapfrog him if his meagre returns continue.

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Since blasting 163 against the Windies in Adelaide last December, he’s been out for 30 or less on 14 occasions in 26 innings.

There is no question about Labuschagne’s spot in the team but after Cricket Australia chose him as one of two players to receive a three-year contract, the team can’t afford his downswing to continue with a new top-order player set to join the line-up next month when David Warner retires.

Labuschagne was sent off for scans by the team medicos – if they confirm a break and he’s ruled out of the Boxing Day Test, all-rounder Cameron Green would likely return to the side at No.4 in the line-up with Smith elevated a spot.

“He was just with the doc and physio for the last hour just chatting through it and doing a few tests on the finger,” teammate Josh Hazlewood said. “(It’s) pretty sore I think.”

Warner, who stamped his ticket to his retirement farewell at the SCG with his first-innings century, also fell early in the second innings after Pat Cummins elected to have a rest alongside his fellow bowlers after needing 102 overs to bowl the tourists out midway through day three. 

The 37-year-old left-hander also skied an attempted pull shot before troubling the scorers, also off Shahzad’s bowling.

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Usman Khawaja (34) and Steve Smith (43) swung the momentum back to the Australians to navigate their way to 2-84 at stumps, a lead of an even 300.

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Smith needed treatment after copping a nasty blow to the forearm but he said after stumps that he was fine.

“It’s all right, a bit of a bruise, but I’ll live,” Smith told Fox Cricket after play.

“That was challenging there. The light got a bit dark, and Shaheen’s got a whippy action with his wrist, so it was quite hard picking up the length of those, but I got through it.”

With the Perth turf starting to show variable bounce, the Australians will feel comfortable setting Pakistan a target anywhere north of 350 and are likely to bat into the second session on day four before trying to finish the job.

After resuming at 2-132, Cummins knocked over Shahzad early after he had fulfilled his nightwatch duties before Imam-ul-Haq and Baba Azam crawled along for 21 overs while putting just 48 on the board.

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Following his first-innings 90, Mitchell Marsh underlined his all-round value by dismissing Babar with a well-executed outswinger for 21 and Imam fell 14 runs later when he tried to smack Nathan Lyon out of the stadium but only proceeded in gifting Alex Carey a stumping opportunity.

Imam’s rush of blood was bizarre considering he had provided stout resistance for the previous 198 deliveries.

Mitchell Starc made short work of Sarfaraz Ahmed (three) and apart from cameos from Saud Shakeel (28) and Agha Salman (28 not out), the lower order offered little resistance with the final seven Pakistan wickets falling for just 90 runs.

Nathan Lyon looked set to chalk up his 500th Test wicket milestone as the tail folded but Travis Head burgled the last dismissal when Shaheen Shah Afridi mistimed a slog to Khawaja. 

It was a team effort by the bowling unit with Lyon leading the way with 3-66 from 24 overs, with Cummins (2-35) and Starc (2-68) offering solid support and Hazlewood, Head and Marsh chiming in.

“It’s a good day to sit in the air-con for us quicks,” Cummins told Fox Cricket when asked why he didn’t tell Pakistan to bat again.

With the temperatures in Perth hovering at 35 degrees, it was a popular decision among his fellow bowlers.

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While Lyon is just one wicket away from becoming the third Australian to take 500 in Tests behind legends Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Starc is now within striking distance of another baggy green icon in Dennis Lillee, needing just 21 more scalps this summer to move into fourth on the all-time list.

MOST TEST WICKETS BY AN AUSTRALIAN

708 – Shane Warne
563 – Glenn McGrath
499 – Nathan Lyon*
355 – Dennis Lillee
335 – Mitchell Starc*
313 – Mitchell Johnson
(* denotes: still playing)

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