Somewhere between South Africa playing Test cricket and Australia playing T20, an ODI match was contested at the Mangaung Oval in Bloemfontein.
And as Marnus Labuschagne, who was originally not even in the Australian squad — forget the starting XI — dragged the Kangaroos over the line in the contest, it was impossible to not be bothered by the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’.
Why did it have to be Labuschagne, of all people, AGAIN, to find himself in a concussion-sub situation?
How did he pull off an extraordinary knock after being subbed in ONCE AGAIN, as if he’s the chosen one?
But more pertinently, how did THIS Labuschagne only average 31.37 across his first 30 ODIs?
You could use the terms ‘destiny’ and ‘clutch’ to answer the first and second question respectively, but how Labuschagne failed to crack ODI cricket in his first stint with the side will remain a mystery forever.
His showing in Bloemfontein on Thursday (September 7th) added to the mystery.
Finding a genuine ‘200 plays 200’ kinda surface in an ODI in 2023 is a rarity, but on Thursday, both Australia and South Africa were in for a surprise as the Mangaung Oval offered a wicket that was straight up ‘anti-batter’.
Batters in white-ball cricket find it annoying to bat on surfaces that are slow and dry. Here was a surface that was not only slow and dry, but also extremely inconsistent in terms of the bounce it offered. Inside the first three overs, you had balls that the wicket-keeper collected above his cap and also deliveries that straight-up rolled and hit the keeper’s shin-pad.
The first line of this article that referred to South Africa resorting to Test cricket was as much a fact as it was a jibe: at the 15-over mark, the Proteas were 45/2, having played out a staggering 61 dots (67.7% of the deliveries they’d faced).
The Australian bowlers were impeccable with their accuracy, too and thus, overall, for large parts, batting proved to be an arduous task. It took Temba Bavuma scoring arguably the best ton of his ODI career to drag the Proteas to 222.
At the halfway point of the game, then, Labuschagne’s thoughts would probably have entirely revolved around the next sandwich he was going to eat.
But being destiny’s favourite child, he somehow found himself shepherding the chase just an hour later, walking in at 72/5 as a concussion substitute.
Had Australia played conventional ODI cricket, Green, who walked off the field after copping a blow to the helmet, might very well have reappeared down the order, meaning there wouldn’t have been a need for a concussion sub.
But the Aussies being in T20 mode meant that there were only 34 balls between Green’s injury and the fall of the fifth wicket. And that ultimately forced their hand into subbing-in Labuschagne.
What followed across the next 29 overs was the finest knock of Labuschagne’s white-ball career yet.
72/5 was the score at which he walked in, but that soon became 93/6. And at 113/7, still 100 runs shy of the target on an extremely inconsistent wicket, Australia were staring down the barrel.
But with absolutely nothing to lose on a personal level, having anyway been left out of the provisional 15-man squad for the World Cup, an unburdened, unshackled Labuschagne finally did his talent and reputation justice.
Beyond the score (80*, his second-highest in ODIs), beyond the circumstances (113/7, with only Ashton Agar for company), beyond the surface, there was something about this Labuschagne knock that made it very, very special. It was just how, for the first time ever, he looked at home in this format.
Labuschagne was earmarked for ODI success owing to plenty of reasons, with the primary one being that his tempo and style of play would be perfect for 50-over cricket. Anchors and run-accumulators divide opinions in T20 cricket but in ODIs? Nah, they are the MVPs.
But for some reason, it never happened for him in this format. And that was largely because he simply was unable to find the right tempo. Labuschagne ended 2022 with a strike rate of 76.62 — and yet two of the three 50+ scores he’d posted in the calendar year came at a SR over 100. One of them was a 49-ball 59 batting at No.4 in Lahore.
What was perceptible in his knock today was how clear he was when it came to his tempo and how effortlessly he switched gears.
Labuschagne did not quite come out ‘swinging’, but it was apparent that he was consciously looking for a quick start. And he got just that: his first 20 balls yielded a total of six boundaries and he raced to 34, going at a SR of 170.00.
Labuschagne, of course, did get plenty of quick starts in ODIs in the past but he seldom made them count.
This time around, though, he ‘settled in’. Meaning he turned pretty much invincible once set — like he does in Tests — something he rarely (if ever) did in his first 30 ODIs.
To be an elite accumulator in ODI cricket, you need to master the art of ‘milking’ the bowling in the middle overs, and that’s something Labuschagne did not do in his first stint. Ironical in a way, considering it’s bread and butter for him in Tests.
In Bloemfontein, however, the 29-year-old, for once, batted the way he’s been expected to. After racing to 34 off his first 20 balls, 34 of Labuschagne’s next 38 runs came via singles and doubles. He batted with a control percentage of 90.9% during this period, not giving the South African bowlers a sniff, and that really was what ended up breaking the back of the chase.
The ‘milking’ allowed Labuschagne to see his side home, and by doing so, he recorded a first: the first instance of him finishing an ODI chase unbeaten.
Post the game, he admitted that he was helped by the lack of pressure.
“Didn't have the pressure last night of laying in bed and thinking about my batting. Nice that it all came together,” Labuschagne, named Player of the Match for his efforts, said.
“I've been disappointed with how I've played ODIs in the last 10-12 games. I tried to right some wrongs.”
But despite his heroics on Thursday night, the reality for Labuschagne is that he is unlikely to make it to the World Cup shortlist but for a late injury to an incumbent. For the time being, however, the 29-year-old is focusing on just one thing, which is controlling the controllables.
“Selection for the World Cup is not my job. My job is just to do whatever I can for the team to win. Whatever happens there is out of my control, but I'm happy with the win.”
Only time will tell if Labuschagne makes it to the World Cup squad, but, either way, Australia will be hoping that Bloemfontein 2023 proves to be the Lord’s 2019 of ODI cricket for Labuschagne.
It would be some coincidence if it indeed turns out to be that way, for Lord’s 2019 was also the beginning of a second stint in Tests for the Queenslander after an unsuccessful phase one.