Ben Jones looks at how Australia’s No.3 has changed over his first year in Test cricket.
Marnus Labuschagne. It’s a name which, in Australian cricket, invites discussion. The peculiarities of a South African name with a Queensland Bull on its chest, of an Australian batsman with a cluster of consonants which don’t typically sit underneath a baggy green, are clear. It’s a name which draws the eye and the ear, whether we like it or not.
Is it sh, or sk?
Is it Skakney, or Shane?
Broadcasters have meetings, deciding their policy; fans settle on the correct, the easy, the simple or the original. In the most literal sense possible, the Australian public have never quite been sure who Labuschagne was.
In a cricketing sense at least, his first few Tests revealed rather clearly a distinct, obvious sort of player, one who we all thought we had a technical handle on. His stance closed and his hands high, everything suggested that here was a man who wanted to score through cover, everything flowing down to send the ball past the offside infield – and he didn’t disappoint.
Across his first three Test series, a tour of the UAE and two home series against India and Sri Lanka, Marnus scored almost half of his runs through cover and mid-off. An exaggerated technique led him to an exaggerated game, a pattern of scoring that, whilst beautiful, felt unsustainable.
You wonder whether he felt the same way. Labuschagne’s second coming came, famously, when replacing Steve Smith after he was struck by a Jofra Archer bouncer. Yet, it seems, the most important replacement was not that of Smith by Labuschagne, but of Marnus 1.0 by Marnus 2.0.
The man who arrived at the Lord’s crease that day in August 2019 was not the man who had cover driven his way to cult-stardom over a series of intriguing knocks; instead, it was an accomplished, sophisticated, mature batsman with an almost entirely different set-up. With a new, more closed technique that negated LBW dismissals, Marnus’ scoring zones changed. This set-up certainly limited his ability to score through that cover region which had previously been his default, but it opened up other areas. Since Lord’s, his primary scoring area has been midwicket, knocking balls off his pads with assured consistency for five matches now.
This version didn’t look the same. This version didn’t play the same way.
This version made a lot more runs.
It’s not just that set-up, of course. There was a clear mental switch, a conscious decision to play the ball later, perhaps brought about by the swing-friendly conditions in England, but present nonetheless. Compared to those earlier series, Marnus 2.0 plays the ball about 20cm later; he used to make contact with deliveries 2.1m from his stumps, and now it’s 1.9m. It’s not an enormous difference, but it’s enough to demonstrate a change in approach. It’s enough to identify the new Marnus.
Before, the most pronounced trademark of Marnus’ batting was that flourishing drive, carving India’s victorious seamers through the covers as he resisted at the SCG last summer. Now, one year on, the most pronounced element of Marnus’ game is something altogether quieter, and less showy. Leaving on length in that distinctive Queensland way, trusting the bounce, has grown into a defining trope and into the backbone of Marnus 2.0 and the success that he’s found.
The cumulative effect of all these changes really has brought improved results. Either side of Lord’s, Marnus’ average has risen from 26.25 to 67.25. In his last eight innings, since that second Ashes Test, he has passed fifty more often that not, and whatever he’s doing, is working.
Yet perhaps, really, we should not talk of Marnus 1.0 and 2.0. Perhaps, really, this current incarnation is the Real Marnus, the true identity of a player that Justin Langer clocked as being the real deal, a young man worthy of being entrusted with Australia’s No.3 slot in an era of chopping, changing, and being seen to put the best foot forward. Perhaps the hierarchy of Australian cricket, be it Trevor Hohns or Langer himself, saw something that the rest of us didn’t and knew, knew better than Marnus himself perhaps, that this was the man he could become.
And the name does matter, you know. People will quibble over the pronunciation, over the particulars of the vowel sounds, the consonant emphasis, the shape of his name. It matters for all sorts of reasons. Yet we found out, on Day 3 at The Gabba in 2019, something rather more important; we found out who Labuschagne really is.
Because the easiest way to make people settle on one way to say your name, to slow and eventually remove the debate which surrounds it, is to make them repeat that name over and over, in praise and adulation, to cause such a stir with excellence and performance that, ultimately, they have no choice but to get used to it. You drag your experience into theirs, your otherness into theirs, and make the world walk in step, with your steps. On Day 3 at the Gabba in 2019, a young man stood and showed a country who he was and how he wanted to be seen. That man, was Marnus.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.