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Labuschagne, Head heed Championship lessons to tame England in their own conditions

Struggles in seaming conditions in 2021 pay dividends as England let the moment slip

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
The punches that Marnus Labuschagne threw were critical and initiative-seizing  •  Getty Images

The punches that Marnus Labuschagne threw were critical and initiative-seizing  •  Getty Images

Rumour has it that in the 2021 County Championship season, Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head were among the Australia overseas pros in a WhatsApp group named "Stevo's gonna get ya". The group was named in honour of Darren Stevens, the Grand Old Man of Kent, and sure enough, he frequently did, his ageless wobblers giving both men grief en route to a haul of 39 wickets at 18.58 at the age of 45.
Twice in the space of a month, Labuschagne fell to Stevens in identical fashion: lbw for 11 on a Cardiff greentop in April on the eve of his birthday to boot, and lbw for 11 in a rain-wrecked rematch in Canterbury in May. In between whiles, Head was bowled for 20 in their solitary match-up in Hove.
Ollie Robinson played in that latter game too, reeling off the impressive figures of 18-4-29-3 as Kent were rolled over for 145 in the first innings; so too Zak Crawley, whose criticism of county pitches made headlines on the eve of this Test. Whatever the vagaries on display in Sussex that week, he transcended most of them in making 85 from 144 in Kent's second innings.
And so too, in an extraordinary second-hour onslaught in Hobart did Labuschagne and Head, as they ripped the initiative back from a rampant England team in Ashes conditions that might have been spirited directly from the sort of Division Two tussle that is getting such a bad rap at present.
For the first hour of this contest, delayed by a band of cold, polar-originating rain that might as well have been hovering over Old Trafford in 1997 or Trent Bridge in 2015, it was as if the 2023 Ashes had arrived a Test too soon. It could not have been further removed from the sort of sun-baked moonscape that England have invariably been routed on in Perth, the original venue for this contest. This surface was actually under water two weeks ago - New Road, eat your heart out.
Shane Warne has barely let up about Robinson's lack of pace throughout this series, but when the ball is offering up 1.2 degrees of seam movement - almost twice as much as on any other surface all summer - good areas are really all that matters, as Stevo's latest contract extension will amply attest.
And so it proved, as Robinson chugged to the crease with that cloud-snagging delivery point, dropping the ball on a perfectly full length - closing his eyes and whanging it down, as Matthew Hoggard used to say of his most productive spells, when the ball is on a string and the methods that you have honed over so many seasons are just surging to the surface.
At the other end, battle was rejoined between Stuart Broad and David Warner - the version of the battle that Broad had won so unequivocally with seven dismissals in the 2019 series, and which England had chosen not to rejoin at the outset of the series at the Gabba.
The what-ifs abounded as Warner was pinned down for the longest duck of his career - tormented as ever by Broad's around-the-wicket line but finally snagging Robinson's angle across his bows to depart for his fifth Ashes zero, his first on home soil. Steven Smith then managed just two balls before snapping his trapdoor down late on an off-stump lifter, as inexorable as Mike Atherton succumbing once again to Glenn McGrath's half-a-bat's-width of movement.
And in between whiles, Robinson should have made it three ducks for Australia's three kingpins, only for Crawley's spill at slip to add to Labuschagne's burgeoning tally of reprieves in this series.
And just like that, it was as if Labuschagne and Head had chosen to own all those indignities in English conditions, and throw them straight back at their suddenly emboldened opponents. Labuschagne in particular played an extraordinary innings - and though it ended in extraordinary fashion, bowled around the legs and floored in the same movement by a Broad straight ball - the punches he threw in his 53-ball stay were critical and initiative-seizing.
In particular, he climbed into the man who has caused him more bother than anyone else in his Test career. "I'm ready for you, Woody," Labuschagne was heard to say through the stump mic, as Mark Wood entered the attack for the final over before drinks.
In terms of match-ups, Wood was the right man for the moment, having claimed Labuschagne's wicket three times in as many innings of late; but in terms of the conditions, his skiddy pace slipped all too greasily off the deck and into the middle of an eagerly flung bat. Labuschagne greeted Wood with a sublime fifth-ball flick off the pads, then he and Head combined with a brace of boundaries to take 11 runs from his second over, and suddenly the mood had changed.
A penny for James Anderson's thoughts as he sat in the dressing room, filling out the crossword. He has spent 15 years traipsing around Australia, burgling his wickets through discipline, hard toil and an ability to seize on even the most fractional assistance on a litany of soul-sapping decks.
Now he was sitting out of a contest that could not have been more tailor-made for his methods. You might have assumed Chris Woakes would be a handy understudy - his haul of 94 wickets in 25 home Tests has come at a better average of 22.63 than even Broad and Anderson. But Woakes' first ball was a nervy half-volley, duly slammed away, as if his toothless displays at the sharp end of the series had drained him of any residual belief.
And so Australia recovered from 12 for 3 after ten overs to 85 for 4 after 24 - hardly a position of authority by the standards of the series already gone, but more than just a toe-hold in the sort of circumstances that England, with their experience of such bowler-friendly combat, really should have had the weapons to boss from first ball to last.
And the fact that Labuschagne and Head were able to claim a share of the morning honours suggests that that WhatsApp group may have had more value than mere banter exchange.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket