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Marnus Labuschagne's South African origins and the pronunciation conundrum

His paternal uncle recalls Marnus' initial years in South Africa and how the family knew he would make it big

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Marnus Labuschagne poses in the dressing room with his wife Rebekah, Australia v New Zealand, 3rd Test, Sydney, 4th day, January 6, 2020

Getty Images

What's in a name? Culture? Pride? Or maybe the opportunity to have a little laugh at oneself?
For the Labuschagne family from Klerksdorp, a town 170 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg, it's the last of those. In cricketing circles, they are known as the La-boo-shaynes, a mispronunciation that may have made them feel angry or disrespected but actually just makes them laugh.
"It definitely sounds funny and I think it's a bigger problem for us here in South Africa than it is for them there in Australia," Martin Labuschagne, paternal uncle of Marnus, tells ESPNcricinfo. "When they first moved over, they tried to get the Australians to pronounce Labuchagne but when they realised it was difficult for them, they just let it be."
Is it really that difficult? Australians can say Inverarity and Woolloongabba, Kasprowicz and Khawaja so what's so tough about Labuschagne?
Apparently the guttural "ag," in the middle, that South Africans use as a throwaway word for "oh," for example, "Ag please, will you just braai a bit more boerie."
Say what?
"Marnus' father is very big on a braai," his brother said. As if you weren't confused enough already.
The Afrikaans words used above have woven themselves into South African vernacular to the point where most people know that a braai is a method of cooking (usually meat) over open coals and an event that can start at lunchtime and end the next day, with the food likely to be served closer to the latter time than the former. Most braais worthy of their salt include boerie, short for boerewors, a spiced beef and/or pork and/or lamb, sausage. South Africans take great pride in their braais, which are held across the country, in homes, in parks, in sports stadia and among people of from all backgrounds.
When the South African branch of the Labuschagne family fetched Marnus from the airport two weeks ago and went to spend some quality time in the Pilansburg Game Reserve, they braaied. Marnus spoke Afrikaans, "like us, but with an accent," Martin confesses, laughing again. "It's all just fun."
At a time when racial and cultural sensitivities are high, especially in South Africa, it's unexpected to find someone as unaffected as Martin. He is an Afrikaans South African and proud of it, irrespective of how anyone says his name or regards his nephew, who plays for the team South Africans love to hate, Australia.
Martin is the oldest of three brothers, followed by Andre and Anthony. In 2004, Andre was offered an opportunity to move to Australia to work for a company that bought old mines and brought them back to working order. His son, Marnus, was nine-years old and cricket-obsessed.
"That's all he wanted to do," Martin remembers. "From the time he was five or six years old, he would sit and watch Test cricket and then he would come and bribe someone in the family to throw some balls for him."
Exactly how Marnus convinced his family members to help him practice is a secret Martin is keeping, but it sounds as though they didn't need all that much persuading. They knew Marnus had the right mix of talent and tenacity to make it big and they were only too happy to play their part. "One day we were at the beach and he was playing cricket and someone came up to Andre and said, 'your son will play for South Africa,' and we all thought he would."
But did they think he would play for Australia? "When they moved and he got involved with the club system there and did well, we thought it was possible," Martin says. "He is very committed. But we knew it would be quite a big thing for a South African to go and play for Australia because it's only happened once before with Kepler [Wessels]. We followed it in the media so we knew he was doing well and he was in the conversation. Then when he was picked, Andre phoned and told us."
That was in October 2018 but it was another 10 months before he really made his mark, as a concussion substitute for Steven Smith at Lord's. Four half-centuries in four Ashes innings later and Marnus was being talked about as the next big thing, before he actually became the next big thing over the home summer.
Marnus' 83-year-old grandfather Louis traveled to watch him play over the festive season against New Zealand but the rest of the family saw him in action for the first time on Wednesday, in the second ODI against South Africa. Members from his mother's side made the five-hour drive from Rustenburg, where they live, to Bloemfontein, only for Marnus to be dismissed for a first-ball duck. "It was very sad for him to be out like that, but that's cricket," Martin says. "It could be different next time.
Next time will be on Saturday when at least 50 members of the extended Labuschagne family and that many, if not more, friends plan to pack out Potchefstroom. Some of them will wear Australian jerseys as three of Marnus' cousins did on Wednesday, but most of them will resist the fan gear because "we don't want to stand out too much," Martin says.
But who will they be supporting, with the series already won by South Africa? "We really want Marnus to do well and I guess it doesn't really matter what happens but it's always nice when South Africa beat Australia," Martin says. "I'm a South African supporter and once you're South African, you're always South African."
And that's Martin Labuschagne with an ag in case you're wondering.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent