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Match Analysis

Marnus Labuschagne endures in battle of fraying minds and failing bodies

Australia's No. 3 has had generous slices of luck, but also worked his way through difficult periods

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
For a few tantalising milliseconds in the early afternoon, Australia stared another extremely low first-innings tally squarely in the face. Navdeep Saini had found a spot on a parched Gabba pitch to have the ball kick up at Marnus Labuschagne, and the reflexive miscue off the shoulder of the bat sailed fairly gently to the left of Ajinkya Rahane's trusty hands at gully.
No score had been added since Steven Smith flicked Washington Sundar straight to short midwicket, after neither David Warner nor Marcus Harris were able to deal with a modicum of early movement for the new ball in the hands of Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur.
Rahane, perhaps, had time to start thinking beyond the ball travelling towards him, to the triumphant scenes of a Test match and series win despite a surfeit of injuries and absences. Labuschagne certainly had time to think he was gone for 37, only to watch transfixed as the ball burst through Rahane, the captain leaving his hands stretched out in shock at the chance he had missed. The moment was compounded by the realisation that Saini, in bowling that very delivery, had suffered a groin strain.
Having already lost so many more seasoned bowlers, India were physically down for the count, but Australia for a time seemed incapable of finding someone with the mental reserves to stay in the middle long enough to take advantage.
Fortunately for the captain Tim Paine and coach Justin Langer, they have for the most part been able to rely upon Labuschagne to do that kind of hard, top-three batting, to the point that in reaching his fifth Test century and first since last summer's starburst of runs against Pakistan and New Zealand, he was able to tally up 400 runs for the series. No-one else on either side has managed more than Smith's 258.
Labuschagne has, of course, benefited from a good deal of fortune, dropped four or five times over the four Tests, depending on whether or not you consider a low edge on 48 grassed or half-volleyed by Cheteshwar Pujara. But he has also been able to work his way through multiple difficult periods against an Indian side that, for all their injury woes, has remained disciplined and well planned throughout.
"It was a matter of discipline early on, especially in that first session and a half, making sure you get yourself in, you get the pace of the wicket so that you can really cash in when the bowlers are a little bit tired and they're a bit cooked"
Marnus Labuschagne
They have been much too good for a half-fit Warner, again unable to stretch his groin enough to cover the movement on offer for Siraj in the first over of the match. They quickly found the measure of Harris, showcasing a more side-on technique than he had displayed against India, Sri Lanka and England in 2018-19 but unable to counter the swinging ball that he flicked all too casually into the hands of the man just forward of square leg.
As for Matthew Wade, who helped Labuschagne add a priceless 113 but then skied a pull shot just as he looked to be fashioning the sort of score he needed to remain assured of his place, the inability to maintain concentration or avoid unsightly dismissals has been a problem in every Test, whether he has been batting at the top or in the middle order. As much as minds are frayed by the usual rigours of a Test series plus the added constraints of biosecurity, Wade has been unable to match his prolific first-class record in the international cauldron.
"All the batters are going to make their own assessment of how they got out," Labuschagne said. "They're all international players and you know everyone gets judged harshly, but you're your harshest critic, and everyone will look at their dismissals for what they could have done better or could have done. I'm definitely disappointed not going on and getting a really big score, which would have put us in a better position as a team.
"Currently the physical, the mental and just trying to make sure you're staying on, it doesn't matter who's bowling at you, making sure you have 100% concentration. In Brisbane, it gets very hot and humid so you know if you keep the bowlers out there that it's really tough to keep backing up. It's definitely a mental challenge at this time in the series and with the way things are.
"It was a matter of discipline early on, especially in that first session and a half, making sure you get yourself in, you get the pace of the wicket so that you can really cash in when the bowlers are a little bit tired and they're a bit cooked."
The pace duels Labuschagne experienced with Siraj, Thakur, Saini and T Natarajan saw Australia's No. 3 take advantage of anything over-pitched and several short balls, while he was also able to score more freely against Sundar than anyone else in the top six. As a compulsive tinkerer and planner, Labuschagne enjoyed the need to make plans more spontaneously against a less familiar attack, and also on a Brisbane pitch quite unlike any he has seen before.
"Definitely today I had to formulate some plans on the run and keep understanding the situation of what they were doing and I think that's the part of the game that is really enjoyable, you've got to read the situation out there," he said. "You can look at stuff on a screen and see guys bowl, but only you know out there with the feel of how you can do things and what you can do differently to make life easier out there.
"I did feel like on 37 the ball did sort of hold in the wicket and kick up a little bit. I do feel like the wicket is considerably drier than it would be normally. I think those things could add some value, especially as we go into day two, three, four, five to the back end. I haven't seen a Gabba wicket that's really up and down, but it showed some signs today of a bit of dryness."
And while a final tally of 108 was not the big hundred Labuschagne had been seeking, before he too misread a short ball from the skiddy Natarajan, it was the vital platform Australia required, allowing Paine and Cameron Green to push on promisingly in a stand worth 61 by the close. Paine and Green, should they take fuller advantage of India's tyros on day two, will have Labuschagne to thank for clearing the way.
Rahane, meanwhile, may struggle to erase the image of that edge sailing towards him, well within reach of 87 for 4 and a very different tale to the one his miss allowed Labuschagne to write.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig