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Match Analysis

Marnus Labuschagne blossoms into a selector's dream

When he was dismissed, the batsman stood motionless in shock and disappointment at giving up his innings

For decades, selectors not wishing to be made redundant by simply using numbers to determine who should play in the Australian Test team, have offered the consistent refrain that "you can't just pick a team on stats".
After the events of 2019, culminating in a sparkling 185 at No. 3 against Pakistan at the Gabba, they can now add a new conclusion to the argument along the lines of "... look at Marnus Labuschagne".
This year dawned with Australia facing a vexing Test match assignment against India in Sydney, having just been beaten out of sight by Virat Kohli's men at the MCG. In response to an underperforming top order, shorn of Steven Smith and David Warner but also featuring an out-of-place Aaron Finch, the call was made to bring in Labuschagne and to bat him at No. 3.
It was a decision that, on a statistical basis, looked decidedly ropey. Labuschagne, given a start in Test cricket in the UAE as a wristspinning allrounder, had struggled for Queensland after his return home, and had never in five first-class seasons averaged better than 39 for his state. The selectors and Justin Langer may have loved his attitude, appetite for hard work, and willingness to learn, but there was only the flimsiest empirical evidence to back up these impressions.
Handed such a steep assignment, Labuschagne did his best, carving out a fighting 38 that seemed, at the time, to be about the best anyone could have expected. He went away from the home summer with another couple of Tests against Sri Lanka under his belt, and took up a county contract with Glamorgan where, bolstered by the experience, he made the technical change that seemed to be the key to unlocking so much more of the potential that the selectors saw more keenly than others.
There was an intriguing subplot here. Glamorgan coach Matthew Maynard had previously coached at Somerset, and been far less a technocrat than his assistant Chris Rogers. But their mix of approaches seemed to give Maynard a greater wellspring of advice to pass down, and in straightening up Labuschagne's back lift and alignment, gave him the ability to play down the line of balls that he had previously chopped across, making him a ready lbw candidate.
His defence suitably strengthened, Labuschagne found himself able to not only survive but dominate attacks in challenging English conditions, resulting in a breakthrough run of scores that surpassed anything he had managed for Queensland at home. That was enough to put Labuschagne in Australia's 25-man Ashes trial group in Southampton, where a battling 48 on a borderline dangerous pitch gave him enough credits to make the final squad.
This limpet-like desire to stay in the middle, searching every part of himself to do so, is something that was first glimpsed well away from the spotlight, and then seen when he was granted that oft-criticised chance to bat No. 3 against India in January
That innings was played out to a chorus that Labuschagne had become quite familiar with over his years in Australian domestic cricket, one that had only grown more fervent after his speculative elevation to the Test team the previous summer. Taunts of "you're not good enough" and other fruitier variations rained down on him from fielders who would soon be Ashes team-mates, as Labuschagne was drafted in as Smith's concussion substitute at Lord's.
What was immediately evident that tense final afternoon of the second Test and in virtually every innings after it was that Labuschagne had added the requisite technical tightness to the work ethic, eagerness and attitude of learning that had caused the selectors to smile upon him in the first place. At times in England, there was a tangible sense of disbelief among players and spectators on both sides that Labuschagne was now looking so at ease in Test match company, despite all earlier statistical evidence to the contrary.
For the national selectors Langer, Trevor Hohns and Greg Chappell - who retired from his post at the end of the Ashes series - it was a vindication. As Hohns put it at the end of the series: "With regards to Marnus, all credit to him, he got thrown in the deep end when Steven Smith got ruled out and he's made the most of that opportunity and that's all we can ask of anybody. He's another one of those players who just eats cricket balls. He works so hard, so it's no coincidence that the hard workers reap the rewards and we've seen that with Marnus."
What all this meant in determinations for the first Test match batting lineup of the summer was that Labuschagne was one of the first names on the team sheet, not only to bat in the team but to be placed at No. 3. Granted the advantage of a staunch opening stand by David Warner and Joe Burns at the Gabba, Labuschagne unveiled further exponential growth since England in how he not only showed how much he belonged in international company but now how badly he wanted to bat all day when conditions gave him the chance to.
The biggest challenge of the Gabba innings was not so much technical as mental, being a test of Labuschagne's desire to spend hours in the middle repeating all the disciplines he has learned ball after ball. And, across days two and three, he passed it comfortably, unleashing a more expansive array of shots in an innings that was assertive as well as attentive, finding the boundary 20 times amongst century stands with Warner and Matthew Wade.
As an exemplar of how early exposure to Test cricket had helped Labuschagne, giving him a chance to think through the problems he had encountered and find solutions to them quickly, there could scarcely be a better symbol than the fact that he was able to turn his first Test hundred into the highest score of his first-class career. Following five years of Australian first-class cricket in which he had never managed to average 40, Labuschagne has totted up averages of 65.52 for Glamorgan, 50.42 in the Ashes, 43.33 for Queensland in the Shield this summer, and now 185 at the Gabba.
The neatness underpinning Labuschagne's every shot, the shrewdness of his shot choices and the discipline of his defence moved the YouTube cricket maestro Rob Moody to upload inverted footage of Michael Hussey as a right-hander, creating an eerily striking resemblance. Hussey, of course, had been another player to dominate at Test level when chosen after years of solid if not quite spectacular returns in first-class cricket, because his attitude of learning was given its very best outlet at the top.
When, finally, Labuschagne succumbed to mental and physical fatigue to slice a catch to gully, he stood motionless at the crease for several seconds in a combination of shock and disappointment at giving up his innings. This limpet-like desire to stay in the middle, searching every part of himself to do so, is something that was first glimpsed well away from the spotlight, and then seen when he was granted that oft-criticised chance to bat No. 3 against India in January.
So, while Labuschagne's emergence as something close to the finished article will be widely lauded this year, it is worth remembering the circumstances in which those asked to make judgements on the merit of cricketers do so, and how every now and then they will find a diamond in the rough. Or, in Labuschagne's case, some batting gold in the Klerksdorp dirt.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig