back icon


The Marnus Labuschagne rollercoaster

Last updated on 22 Jul 2023 | 07:11 PM
Google News IconFollow Us
The Marnus Labuschagne rollercoaster

For two days and 172 balls, Labuschagne played a knock of perfection. But he might live to regret the 173rd delivery

There’s a good chance Marnus Labuschagne might just have played the most important knock of this Ashes. Labuschagne entered Friday with 3,656 Test runs under his belt but if Australia manage to hang on come Sunday — a very big ‘if’ — and retain the urn, the 111 runs Labuschagne put together across Days 3 and 4 at Old Trafford will go down in Ashes folklore.

Unquestionably Labuschagne would have loved to still be there, and have his team’s fate in his hands, but he’s played his part in Australia’s quest to an unlikely draw. 

Staring down the barrel at 108/4 in the second innings, Australia desperately needed a knock like this from Labuschagne, who once Travis Head departed was the last ‘specialist batter’ undismissed. But arguably, Labuschagne himself needed this knock more. To get the monkey off the back. To shrug off internal doubt and external criticism. To prove to both himself and the world that he was indeed fully worthy of the ‘Number one Test batter’ tag that he was holding until a month ago.

After the Adelaide Test against West Indies last summer, the Queenslander’s average touched 60 again — it was, in fact, close to 61 (60.82) — thanks to him smashing a hat-trick of centuries to make it four tons in five innings. The hot streak enabled him to become the second fastest batter in Test history to 3,000 Test runs, getting to the landmark in just 51 innings.

At this point, even the bravest punter would have hesitated to bet on the man with 10 tons in 52 innings to go century-less for 21 innings. But somehow, that is exactly what transpired.

Simply not getting centuries, getting out in the 70s and 80s is one thing — like Smith was, for a brief period during the pandemic — but Labuschagne averaged 34.16 in this period, passing 50 just thrice in 21 attempts. He almost turned into James Vince out of nowhere, getting dismissed between 25 and 51 a staggering nine times, including twice in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s. 

It was in the tour of India that this bad habit began. On the very first day of the tour in Nagpur, Labuschagne started off like a dream and looked set for a huge score but perished for 49 after getting his eye in. Stuff like that happens to — and with — every batter but two similar knocks followed in the next two Tests: a 35 in Delhi and a 31 in Indore. 

Alarm bells were not rung in the aftermath of the India tour — mainly due to the challenging nature of the surfaces — but by the end of the Headingley Test, inability to convert starts turned into a serious issue for the 29-year-old: between the WTC Final at The Oval and the third Ashes Test at Headingley, he got dismissed five times between 25 and 50. The last of those, which came in the second innings at Headingley, was in many ways directly responsible for his side’s defeat.

In the first innings here at Old Trafford, it looked like he’d finally turned a corner as he brought up his first fifty of the English summer but even the milestone proved to be a red-herring: he departed the very next ball after getting to fifty, missing a straight one from Moeen Ali. 

That dismissal in the first innings cried ‘lapse of concentration’, something which was the case with many of his dismissals in this period, including the miscalculated slog-sweep against Moeen at Headingley, the gift to backward-point off James Anderson at Lord’s and the dismissal against Mohammed Shami immediately after Lunch on Day 1 of the World Test Championship final at The Oval, where he got castled after missing a straight one.

Maybe the do-or-die situation helped. Maybe he constantly kept reminding himself of the above-mentioned dismissals. Or maybe he was super switched on because he felt guilty for under-performing all series, and felt like he owed the team one. But here in the second innings at Old Trafford, there were no such lapses. Well, not at least the 173rd ball of his innings anyway. 

For two days and 172 balls, it was a knock of perfection: both mentally and technically. 

After ending Day 3 unbeaten on 44 despite seeing his teammates, Steve Smith included, fall like a pack of cards, Labuschagne woke up on Saturday (Day 4) not knowing when or if play would commence. For the longest time it looked like a washout, but in the most English fashion imaginable, the weather cleared up out of nowhere to enable 30 overs of play.

It was good and bad news for Labuschagne. Good news because he got to do the thing he loves the most, which is batting. But, at the same time, bad news because on offer were the worst imaginable batting conditions: it was dark and cloudy, the floodlights were on and, on top of all that, Manchester was rocking.

In 90% of these situations, the batting side ends up getting steamrolled. A similar two-hour period spelt doom for Australia in the third Test in Leeds.

Labuschagne, though, with everything including nature against him, was keen to deny England. And ultimately, deny he did.

Far too often in these past 8 months, Labuschagne has tended to go into a shell after getting his eye in — case in point, the second innings of the WTC Final — but Saturday was not one of those days. Knowing and understanding ‘block, block and block’ will not work, the Queenslander was on the look-out for runs from ball one.

It was on the first ball of the 48th over that he collected his first boundary of the day — a late-cut off Woakes — but, by then, he’d already signaled his intent, collecting 8 off his first 15 balls. The running was really positive and from ball one; he made it a point to nudge even good balls for singles. 

Labuschagne brought up his fifty inside the first 20 minutes of the day’s play, meaning he entered the ‘uh oh’ territory but, on the day, in action was the Labuschagne that had racked up 10 tons in his first 52 innings; not the one with none in his previous 21. 

There was clarity of thought, a clear plan (to constantly keep the scoreboard ticking) and he had an answer for every plan England devised. From Wood bowling bumpers to Bairstow standing up to the stumps to Woakes England tried it all, but Labuschagne had a solution for everything. 

Until the 58th over, when England had to withdraw their pacers due to bad light, Labuschagne had faced 137 balls of seam in the innings and had batted with a control percentage of 92%. Like the good ol’ days.

Labuschagne’s eyes lit up once spin was introduced in tandem — England had no other choice — so much so that he went from 75 to 100 in just 16 balls, smoking Root for a pair of sixes down the ground.

But though he was scoring freely off Root, the off-spinner, for some reason, looked the most likely candidate to get the Queenslander. He almost got him on 93, deceiving the right-hander with an outswinger (yes, outswinger), but though Labuschagne got beaten, the outside edge flew past Crawley at first-slip to the boundary. 

As it turned out, it was indeed Root that got Labuschagne out eventually. The Australian tried to cut a short ball, but it took off, bounced higher than usual and caught the tip of his bat. And for once, Bairstow made no mistake. 

Labuschagne was visibly devastated, nowhere near as much as he was in the first innings, but you could see that he knew that the job was incomplete. He trudged towards the dressing room half-broken, knowing yet again he’d let a lapse of concentration get the better of him. Ten more minutes and he’d have made it through to Tea (and stumps).

This time, however, unlike the previous 21 instances, he walked back to the dressing room having gotten the monkey off his back. Time will tell if, along with that, he also put an end to England’s hopes of regaining the urn once and for all. 

Related Article