It has been a career-changing summer for Marnus Labuschagne. He went into The Ashes as an understudy and has emerged out of it as someone who cannot be dropped after showing his potential at the international level.
Going into The Ashes, Australia were not sure of their No. 3. Usman Khawaja’s unbeaten 101 against Sri Lanka in the final innings - six months before The Ashes - perhaps helped him keep his place. But with scores of 13, 40, 36, 2, 8 and 23 in the first three Tests against England, a change was inevitable. Maybe Travis Head or Steven Smith?
But in what turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Labuschagne was brought in place of Smith at Lord’s in the second Test as the first-ever concussion substitute – another first for him after becoming the first player to be penalised for fake fielding a few seasons ago.
The 25-year-old grabbed the opportunity with both hands and while Khawaja managed to score a fifty just twice in 10 innings before The Ashes, Labuschagne scored four 50-plus in his first four innings of the series itself. With Smith fit and ready to play the fourth Test at Old Trafford, it was a straightforward call to let Khawaja warm the bench and allow Labuschagne to occupy the coveted No. 3 spot, with Smith at 4.
Labuschagne batted mostly at No. 3 for Glamorgan in the 2019 County Championships, for whom he scored 1,114 runs at 65.52, which included as many as five tons and five fifties. The appetite to bat for long periods was clearly visible, with the fact that he was acclimatised to English conditions being an added bonus. Of course, that does not guarantee you success. Just ask Cameron Bancroft.
Both Smith and Labuschagne have similar characteristics when they bat, especially their mannerisms when they leave the ball alone. Both are strong off their pads and every incoming ball they play gives an impression that it is going to thud against their pads, but their excellent hand-eye coordination helps them whip the ball away on the on-side and very rarely do they fail to make a connection. That’s one of the reasons why the duo are among those who had the least false shot percentage in the series.
Only Ben Stokes (17.3), Tim Paine (17) and Smith (13.3) had a lower false shot percentage than Labuschagne (18.7) among batsmen who have at least 200 deliveries in the series.
29.4% of the deliveries Labuschagne faced, he left alone, thereby making the bowler bowl at him – areas where his strengths lie.
Smith and Labuschagne built a strong partnership every time they came together. In fact, they had the highest partnership average (55) for Australia in the series.
Australia were perennially two-down with barely any runs on the board and it was the combination of Labuschagne and Smith – at least in the last two matches – who saved them from sinking further. Labuschagne provided perfect support for Smith, which helped his partner play his natural game, by keeping one end steady.
Unlike Smith, Labuschagne has always been a top-order batsmen who can bowl a bit. He picked up 19 wickets with his leg-spin in the Championships. With the bowling at Australia’s disposal, he very rarely got an opportunity to bowl in The Ashes, but he did manage to break the resistance shown by Jack Leach at Old Trafford to help Australia retain the Urn on English soil for the first time in 18 years.
The series might be known for years to come for Smith’s exploits – 774 runs at 110.57 – and rightly so. But Labuschagne, who was not expected to play a major role in the series, has emerged from the shadows and carved out a name for himself. A big century eluded him, but that too is not far away.