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World class Smith and Labuschagne are failing to keep up to their standards

Last updated on 05 Jan 2024 | 03:41 AM
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World class Smith and Labuschagne are failing to keep up to their standards

Known for scoring big runs, the two have been guilty of throwing away 'starts' in recent times

If you have watched the first season of True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, you would know it was a masterpiece. The next two seasons weren’t too bad, but it was always going to be extremely tough to match the standards set by the first season. And this is exactly what the problem has been with Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.

The two have been so good in the past that despite averaging 42.04 and 35.96 in Test cricket since 2023, too many questions are being asked about their form. And they are not completely wrong, considering we are talking about two of the best Test batters of the modern generation. Smith was averaging 60.59 before the start of 2023, which has now dropped to 57.99. Meanwhile, Labuschagne’s average has taken a bigger hit, dropping from 59.06 to 51.76.

Smith and Labuschagne have always been known for scoring big runs once they get set. However, that’s exactly what they haven’t been doing of late. You don’t have to look too far behind, just look at what transpired on day three of the third and final Test against Pakistan on Friday (January 5). The two took their time to settle in on a slow SCG surface, adding 79 runs for the third wicket, before falling in quick succession.

While Labuschagne got a ripper from Agha Salman, Smith fell into a trap set right in front of his eyes. With the surface not offering much help, Pakistan skipper Shan Masood decided to put three close-in fielders on the cover region and asked Mir Hamza to bowl full outside off. The left-arm seamer did that and got Smith to play an aerial drive. Babar Azam, at short cover, timed his jump to perfection and sent Smith packing. 

The 34-year-old faced 86 deliveries for his 38 runs, survived a short ball barrage from Aamer Jamal in a leg-side-dominated field, before losing his concentration and throwing his wicket away. This is now the 9th time in his last 10 innings Smith has crossed the 20-run mark but not once has gone past 71. What’s more, Smith has faced more than 30 deliveries in each of those 10 innings. 

Smith started 2023 with a century against South Africa in Sydney and got two more in his first eight Tests of the last year. Every time he went past 40, the right-hander converted it into a hundred, something he hasn’t done in his last 11 innings. 38, 26, 50, 31, 45, 71, 54, 41, 17, 22 and 2 - these are Smith’s scores in those 11 innings. These are not the numbers that would suggest he is in bad form, and Smith knows it.

“I don't have to sort of reinvent the wheel. I think I've performed at a high standard for a long period of time. I was probably below my standards of what I want. So, for me, it's not overthinking it, not overplaying too much, not changing too much. Just going out and trusting what I do and doing it for longer periods of time hopefully to get the big runs,” said Smith before the three-match series, in which he has managed 190 runs in five innings @ 38.

From 2014 to 2022, around 30 percent of his dismissals came in the 31-90 balls range, which has now gone up to around 50 percent since 2023. He doesn’t have a particular weakness but has often fallen to traps set by the opponents, be it hitting straight to the fielders at the leg side or finding someone at the cover region. A short-ball ploy has also worked a couple of times against Smith. Then there is Labuschagne, who is having his first lean period since cracking the Test code in 2019. 

For someone who amassed 2990 runs in 30 Tests @ 62.29 between 2019 and 2022, Labuschagne hasn’t done justice to his potential in the last 12 months. 863 runs in 26 innings at an average of 35.96, with five fifties and one century, Labuschagne has been quite mediocre if you compare it with what he has done in the past. 

In this period, Labuschagne has failed to reach double figures in only five of his 26 innings. In fact, the No. 3 batter has been dismissed below 30 in 12 of those 26 innings, but only has one century to his name. 20 of these innings have come in England and India, where batting isn’t too easy. Labuschagne could only manage three 50-plus scores in those 10 games. However, his average at home also reads just 37.33. 

The 29-year-old has an average of 14.8 on deliveries moving away. Howbeit, that wasn’t the ball that got the better of him on Friday. In fact, it wasn’t even a pacer. Labuschagne was undone by a ripper from Agha Salman. It was a classic off-spinner's dismissal, with the ball turning in sharply from the rough area on a length and finding its way to the stumps through the gap between bat and pad. 

Labuschagne couldn’t have done too much about that, but this will count as another missed opportunity for the batter. 60 off 147 deliveries - this was the 8th time Labuschagne faced more than 100 deliveries in an innings since 2023. However, that match-saving 111 at Manchester still remains the only hundred in his last 30 Test innings. 

Both Smith and Labuschagne looked very comfortable during their stand on day three of the ongoing Test, which lasted almost 30 overs. That partnership was crucial, the 98 runs they got between them were crucial, but if you ask both of them, Smith and Labuschagne wouldn’t be too pleased with their efforts. They could have scored a lot more, and them allowing bowlers to dictate terms is starting to become a regular thing. It could cost Australia against better sides. 

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