Labuschagne, Carey under scrutiny as Australia's batting questions remain

Both captain Pat Cummins and coach Andrew McDonald want the team to be more ruthless in the third innings

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Pat Cummins is adamant that Marnus Labuschagne is under no pressure for his place despite a lean run of form, but Australia's batting order is facing increasing scrutiny after letting an opportunity slip to bury New Zealand at the Basin Reserve.
Australia started their second innings 204 runs in front and even with the double failures of Labuschagne and Steven Smith on the second evening they led by 319 at one stage on day three with six wickets in hand.
But a collapse saw them bowled out for just 164 and gave New Zealand a chance to chase 369. It was still 172 too many with Nathan Lyon taking six wickets, but the win does not paper over the disappointing batting display. Cameron Green's first-innings 174 stood alone.
Labuschagne's form has become a point of focus. In his last three Tests, he has posted 10, 1*, 3, 5, 1 and 2. His career Test average has dropped below 50, having been above 60 in December 2022. But Cummins insisted there was no pressure on Labuschagne's place at No.3.
"Absolutely not," Cummins said. "I think he'd be the first to admit he'd like to score some more runs. And it's not through lack of trying in the nets. I think particularly that second innings was just one of those ones down leg. We're very clear that these six guys are the six best batters in Australia and although at times they might not have clicked altogether at once the story of our team has been someone's being able to stand up when they need to."
Australia only have one spare batter with the squad in New Zealand, Matt Renshaw, and were never likely to make a change unless there was an injury, regardless of the result in Wellington.
Australia coach Andrew McDonald also said there was no major alarm with Labuschagne's form but he wanted to see more of the positive intent he showed in the second innings rather than what he produced in his 1 off 27 balls in the first.
"I don't think there's any great concern from our point of view," McDonald said. "We want the top six, seven batters to be performing as a collective. So I think while the rest are performing around that and you're winning games of cricket, I think the concern levels are fractionally lower.
"Can he perform better? No doubt about that. Does he know that? He knows that. Is he working on it? Yes.
"Over time there's going to be some ebbs and flows in your career. And I thought in the second innings, and this is really hard to sort of quantify, but I thought the intent and the energy he brought to the crease, and that was only two runs so I don't want to get carried away with two runs, but that's what we see when he's at his best.
"We saw that at Sydney [against Pakistan] in the second innings as well. We saw that in Manchester as well where he came out there and he had the intent to score and put it back onto the bowlers. So that's when we think he's at his best."
There is also growing pressure on Alex Carey. His Test average has dipped below 30 after twin failures in Wellington, although he did make an excellent half-century in his last Test against West Indies. McDonald admitted the manner of Carey's dismissals at the Basin Reserve, where he holed out to cover twice, would be discussed.
"They're going on at the moment," McDonald said. "He's disappointed with that as a method to Glenn Phillips. He's encouraged himself to play off the back foot. It's an error in judgement. I think we're not going to hang him on one innings or two innings. Over a period of time, we'll see how that plays out."
Overall, McDonald noted that the batting group could improve as a collective, particularly when they were in front in the game.
"We feel like we can be better," McDonald said. "We feel as though at times we have underachieved with the bat which has left games open and it's probably more particularly in the third innings of games.
"I think if you go back across the last 12 months, we've had some chances in the third innings to really shut out the opponent and we've left the door ajar at times and potentially we've probably been in a hurry to get to the total that we think we should get to and then get the game moving forward.
"In this game, we played some shots that were probably up tempo for what the surface was going to allow. But we encourage our players to expand and apply their own method. And then it's just about reviewing that at the end of the game. So we left the door slightly open but as we saw there in the context of this game, the surface was offering plenty and it was difficult to bat."
Australia lost Tests in Delhi and Headingley last year with third-innings collapses when they were in front in the game. They also had third innings collapses at Lord's and Melbourne but were able to steady and win the game as they did in Wellington. Cummins wanted his batters to be more ruthless.
"I think it's something we can get better at, the whole 11 batters, particularly around that third innings where the game seems to speed up a little bit," he said. "I think when we're at our best, especially at home, it's [being] ruthless, setting them 600, 650. I think it's something we can look at."

Alex Malcolm is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo