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COMMENT: Horrendously out of form or not, Australia would be mad to ditch Marnus now

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Editor
29th February, 2024
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Australia has a Marnus Labuschagne problem.

Many of the issues facing the team’s currently misfiring batting order can be traced back to the form of the man sitting in the most crucial spot of all.

Where once a steady supply of runs from numbers three and four could be relied upon to recover from early wickets and shield the middle order from both the new ball and a fired-up bowling attack sniffing scalps, Labuschagne’s woes are now deeply impacting both – and with Australia’s line-up in a state of flux following David Warner’s retirement, it could scarcely have come at a worse time.

It’s no surprise that, against fresher bowlers, a newer ball and in higher-pressure situations, Travis Head’s spectacular post-2021/22 Ashes displays have become fewer and farther between; ditto runs from the previously reliable Alex Carey at number seven.

It wouldn’t be fair to put the blame on Labuschagne for that; he is only responsible for his own performance at the crease. But with an average of 32.5 since blitzing the West Indies for three centuries in four innings in late 2022, a man whose average reached Steve Smithian proportions at its apex is now contributing barely more than half what he used to.

Suddenly, it’s Labuschagne in the selectorial hot seat, especially now that both Smith and Green have embedded themselves in their new spots with a pair of gutsy (Smith) and classy (Green) innings on Day 1 of the first Test against New Zealand, and Warner has ridden off into that good night.

The idiosyncrasies that were once charming when the Queenslander was accompanying them with bucketloads of runs – the flourishing leaves, the cry of ‘No run!’, the despair whenever dismissed – are now sources of further derision.

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All the same, for Australia to turn their back on Labuschagne now would be the height of idiocy, for numerous reasons.

Primarily, this one – no matter how much luck he inevitably had during his golden run with dropped catches, missed stumpings and botched run outs, no one averages 60 in Test cricket across four years without being exceptionally gifted and remarkably diligent.

Adam Voges was an Australian Test player for barely 18 months, allowing his average of 61.87 to stand as a perfect reminder of the imperfections of statistics; for more than twice that period, Labuschagne was even more spectacularly prolific.

To replace a player with that kind of record, even if it has noticeably declined in recent times, would require serious first-class numbers to justify it: yet the only Sheffield Shield batter who has scored to that extent is Cameron Bancroft, who appears, for now, to have had his cards marked.

It’s also worth noting that, while an average of 32.5 is not Test standard, it’s also only a sizeable drop-off by Labuschagne’s own lofty standards.

A batter averaging in the low 40s – a perfectly respectable Test figure – suddenly dropping to the same zone is rarely faced with equal scrutiny to what Labuschagne is now dealing with: Usman Khawaja had a similar lean patch between late 2016 and mid-2019, and his spot at number three was seldom ever in real jeopardy.

Marnus Labuschagne.

Marnus Labuschagne. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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What punted Khawaja from the side in the end? Only the arrival of Labuschagne in the 2019 Ashes, who was able to prove beyond all doubt a better alternative for that role by virtue of a dominant County Cricket stint and the seizing of his Test chance as concussion substitute for Smith.

That call was one backed up by all available evidence, and not a gut feel decision, which dropping Labuschagne now for a fresh face would indubitably be.

The ‘home-track bully’ tag also doesn’t pass much muster either beyond the stats: second behind Smith for significance with the bat in the 2019 Ashes, with daylight in third, he scored a century on a turning pitch in Galle in 2022, while he made key contributions in all three Tests against Pakistan earlier that same year.

His one score of note, home or away, since December 2022 was an Ashes-saving ton against England in the fourth Test which allowed the Manchester rain time to intervene and rescue Australia from certain doom.

Labuschagne’s greatest problem throughout that series, incidentally, wasn’t one of form, but of capitalising on starts. In four out of six Tests in England, including the World Test Championship final, he had at least one score of 30, but regularly found a way to throw his innings away once set, with his second-highest score of the series behind his ton 51.

He made three 50s in the home summer just gone, all against Pakistan, and while he never looked the Labuschagne of old, he found a way to score runs at reasonable amounts.

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Other players have found the going far tougher, for far longer, in less successful sides, and not paid the price with their spot: Mark Taylor famously was little more than a specialist captain for 18 torrid months in the late 1990s, while Michael Hussey’s timeline was eerily similar to Labuschagne’s now – a remarkable start to Test life, followed by years of his swollen average normalising amid a prolonged slump in form.

Both Taylor and Hussey made good on the selectors’ faith, finishing their careers with form reminiscent of them at their best: Hussey, notably, averaged above 50 in the last two years of his Test career, retiring well and truly on top.

For both, form was just one innings away, with Taylor rediscovering his touch with a memorable century in defeat to begin the 1997 Ashes, while Hussey’s death-defying 195 in the first Ashes Test of 2010/11 was a rare highlight on a miserable summer in which he was far and away the standout bat.

Labuschagne is 29, the second-youngest player in Australia’s XI. Along with Green, he will be the bedrock of the top order long after Smith, Khawaja and Mitchell Marsh especially have said their goodbyes. He will be an asset for another half a decade and more if and when he can turn it around.

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Batters of his calibre don’t grow on trees, and even the fact everyone acknowledges his form is a far cry from what it used to be is the proof.

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There is no Marnus 2.0 biding his time at first-class level who has earned the chance at usurping him as he did to Khawaja. Any replacement will, at best, fall comfortably short of the 60 average Labuschagne posted at his peak, and at worst, do little more than the low 30 mark he is currently providing.

No doubt his form will need to pick up, and soon: the amount of credits he built up with his three brilliant years between 2019 and 2022 was considerable, but there will come a point, most likely soon with home series against India and England on the horizon, when they run dry.

But Australian cricket can afford to give Labuschagne every possible chance to turn it around; actually, they can’t afford not to.

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