Marnus Labuschagne was five years old when he watched through tears the final moments of South Africa’s 1999 World Cup semi-final capitulation against Australia, writes HENRY HARPER.
A fierce Proteas fan even as a child, Labuschagne joined his country in lamenting what might have been in a tournament many South Africans felt was there for the taking.
‘I remember it as clear as day,’ he told cricket.com.au. ‘Where we were watching, what happened, everything. I grew up a South African. The roots of the culture were there, definitely.’
Two decades later, Labuschagne’s coming of age on the other side of the Indian Ocean would have saddened some South Africans in contemplation of what might have been, but the neutrals – and of course, the Aussies – have sat back and enjoyed a starburst to rival any this generation.
Much has been written and said about Labuschagne – the ICC’s fourth-ranked Test batsman at the end of February – over the past 12 months. Before that, the canvas is largely blank, but there is a simple explanation for that: as a middle-order batsman with Queensland with a first-class average that hovered around the low- to mid-30s, there had never been any great cause for excitement. Even his debut Test series, against Pakistan in the UAE in October 2018, failed to contain a fifty and was notable more for his wicket-taking leg-breaks and a run-out at the non-striker’s end where he failed to ground his bat.
But Australia coach Justin Langer identified a couple of telling traits during that tour. Principally, he liked that Labuschagne was a willing and fast learner, as well as the fact ‘he would literally do anything to play cricket for Australia’.
‘He’s one of those guys who is like the heartbeat of the team,’ Langer added. ‘In terms of work ethic, desire, focus.’
Those characteristics gave the Queensland product some extra rope at the selection table. There was a media backlash when he was picked for a second time in the New Year’s Test of 2019 against India, and while an impressive 38 didn’t quell the critics, former skipper Ricky Ponting saw enough to publicly mark Labuschagne a certain Ashes tourist.
Then came the runs, and the praise, and the hundreds, the records and the awards. From the second Ashes Test through to the end of the home summer, Labuschagne has barely paused for breath, his incredible spree making him comfortably Test cricket’s most productive run-scorer in 2019 (1 104 at 64.94). Having emerged from seemingly nowhere, his arrival was capped in February when he was named Australia’s Men’s Test Player of the Year.
A week earlier, the tributes towards this Test batting sensation reached a dizzying new high when Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar offered his two cents’ worth.
‘I happened to be watching the second Test match at Lord’s between England and Australia. When Steve Smith got injured, I saw Labuschagne’’s second innings,’ Tendulkar said. ‘I was sitting with my father-in-law. I saw Marnus get hit off the second ball from Jofra Archer and, post that, the 15 minutes he batted, I said, “This player looks special.”
‘His footwork was precise. Footwork is not physical – it’s mental. If you’re not thinking positively, your feet don’t move. That clearly indicated to me that this guy is mentally strong because if you’re not, your feet will not move. His footwork was incredible.’
Of course, things are never quite as straightforward as the end result will have us believe, and Labuschagne’s sudden success is a case in point. The Queensland No 3 has spent years toiling in Australia’s first-class system. He has been dropped, had his technique picked apart by canny veterans and this time last year, he had only four first-class hundreds to his name from around 50 matches.
Ironically, the turning point for the South Africa-born Australian happened in the UK. When Labuschagne signed with Welsh club Glamorgan in Division Two of the County Championship, he could have had no idea the work he would do with head coach and former England batsman Matthew Maynard would transform his game from Test hopeful to world-beater.
‘For me, his bat path wasn’t great. It wasn’t coming down on the line of the ball,’ Maynard told cricket.com.au. ‘So we addressed that balance to keep his hips a little more side on and therefore keeping that back foot parallel to the crease.
‘All of a sudden that righted the bat path to the ball. It wouldn’t have worked if he had a closed mind. Marnus was very keen to learn, he’s got a very open mind … it was not long in adapting that – just three or four sessions.’
Labuschagne later stressed the technical tweaks in England were no miraculous solution; moreover they were just another cog in the wheel en route to his ambition to become a more complete batsman.
‘There is a long, long process to this,’ he said. ‘It didn’t just happen overnight with everything just magically clicking. You have to go through the ups and downs of Shield cricket to understand what it requires to keep coming back. There will be many more of both, but if you can understand that early, you are better placed to take the chances when they arrive.’
Tendulkar wasn’t the first Indian megastar to laud Labuschagne, who toured the subcontinental country for a whirlwind three-match ODI series with Australia in January. He made his debut in the format in the opening match, though he did not bat as the visitors won by 10 wickets. When he had his chance in games two and three, he made assured contributions of 46 and 54 from No 4.
After the match, Virat Kohli was asked what he thought about Labuschagne’s transition from Tests to ODIs.
‘He’s a quality player,’ Kohli said. ‘We were talking outside … he’s sure of what he wants to do … body language, intent – he’s there, he’s running hard between the wickets, he wants the ball in the field.
‘I think he’s got the right mindset to be a consistent player; to be a top player in the world. He’s shown it in Test cricket, he’s shown it in one-day cricket, and I’m sure if he plays T20 cricket, he’ll show the same clarity there too.’
To those who have watched Labuschagne closely in the 50-over format at domestic level, his ability to switch so seamlessly on the international stage was no surprise. In 2016, he was the Player of the Series in Australia’s one-day competition, while in the past three domestic 50-over tournaments, he has piled on 926 runs at 51.44 (SR 93.63).
They are impressive numbers that speak to consistency in the middle order, something Australia has lacked in recent times. The five-time World Cup winners will doubtless be viewing a semi-final exit at last year’s tournament as a failure. As they begin tracking towards the 2023 tournament, Labuschagne, at 25 and with his ability to pace an innings while also moving through the gears when required, looks an ideal long-term option at No 4.
And what of Kohli’s prediction? Will Labuschagne make his way into Australia’s T20 side before this October’s World Cup? After batting with him during a century partnership in the first Test against Pakistan last summer, David Warner came to the same conclusion as his Indian counterpart.
‘He was great to feed off out there, and his energy between the wickets and the way he came out and started, I looked up at the scoreboard and he was on 50 straight away,’ Warner said.
‘That’s the energy and excitement he brings to the game – he’s a fast scorer and I think his white-ball game is going to come into it too. I think he’s definitely a three-format player.’
It was an interesting comment from Warner who, as his country’s most successful all-format batsman, is well qualified to judge. At the time Labuschagne had not made any kind of mark in the Big Bash League, where he plays with Brisbane Heat. This season, he returned from India for the back-end of the Big Bash and made one telling cameo of 24 not out from 13 deliveries while batting with AB de Villiers. The innings included a pair of sixes and showcased – albeit briefly – an extra dimension to his game.
For now, though, it appears Labuschagne will have to bide his time, after Matthew Wade and Mitch Marsh were preferred in the T20I squad for the recent series in South Africa. With Warner, captain Aaron Finch, Smith, Glenn Maxwell and wicketkeeper Alex Carey all certain starters, it appears there’s one place still up for grabs in what is shaping as an ominous Australian top six.
Rest assured, Labuschagne will have been watching that T20I series. He will have heard the Australians talk about flexibility in that middle order, and he will believe he can do the job. It would take a brave man to bet against him.
0 vs Pakistan, Dubai 2018
13 vs Pakistan, Dubai 2018
25 vs Pakistan, Abu Dhabi 2018
43 vs Pakistan, Abu Dhabi 2018
38 vs India, Sydney 2019
81 vs Sri Lanka, Brisbane 2019
6 vs Sri Lanka, Canberra 2019
4 vs Sri Lanka, Canberra 2019
59 vs England, Lord’s 2019
74 vs England, Leeds 2019
80 vs England, Leeds 2019
67 vs England, Manchester 2019
11 vs England, Manchester 2019
48 vs England, The Oval 2019
14 vs England, The Oval 2019
185 vs Pakistan, Brisbane 2019
162 vs Pakistan, Adelaide 2019
143 vs New Zealand, Perth 2019
50 vs New Zealand, Perth 2019
63 vs New Zealand, Melbourne 2019
19 vs New Zealand, Melbourne 2019
215 vs New Zealand, Sydney 2020
59 vs New Zealand, Sydney 2020
14 matches 23 inns 1 459 runs 63.43 average
DID YOU KNOW?
In 23 Test innings Labuschagne has only been out for a duck once – and it came in his debut, against Pakistan in Dubai in 2018, when he was out to the second ball he faced in Test cricket.
This feature appears in the current issue of SA Cricket magazine