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Feature

Marnus Labuschagne, the pure being of batting

There's something so beautiful about this magical average being attached to someone as happy to be in Test cricket

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
25-Dec-2021
Romance and regression are two words that come to mind when you look at Marnus Labuschagne's batting average.
The romance comes from his batting mark being so damn high, and that it's happening to the most eager batting junkie around. You might be annoyed by the loud 'no runs' or the cut-price Carlisle Best impersonations. But for an Australian cricketer, Labuschagne is abnormally likeable. And he was even before you heard Shane Warne and Andrew Symonds laugh about beating him up.
Labuschagne is a cricket fan who absolutely loves playing the game and is magnificently talented at it. It is hard not to be excited that this player who wasn't seen to be something special, with a moderate first-class record, has transformed himself into a top run-scorer through faith in what he does and endless hard work.
Marnus Labuschagne's a pure being of batting.
That is the romance covered. What about regression? We are in an age of Test cricket where so many players (a few key teams aside) come into the game and play a lot of cricket in a short time. Kyle Jamieson has managed ten Tests in less than 12 months. New Zealand have only played that many in a year 12 times.
If you are a player like Jamieson with obvious Test class, coming in when you're not young, playing a bunch of matches in a row with favourable conditions could make your figures look extraordinary. Remember that Jamieson benefited from playing in New Zealand and then England for his first few matches. But his first-class average is 24 (not counting his Tests) - now that may be higher because he was a late adopter to fast bowling, and once it was clear he was fantastic, he was brought in.
But after ten Tests, he has a bowling average of 16. That went up after two games in India, but all things considered, he bowled pretty well there too. And when you look at the greatest bowling averages of all time of seamers with a minimum of 200 wickets, Joel Garner and Curtly Ambrose join Malcolm Marshall as the only guys with averages under 21 - being tall, fast and skilful means that no one gets on top of you. But no matter what, Jamieson won't continue to average 16, because it would be virtually impossible in modern cricket.
Axar Patel is another case, his current average is less than 12 from five Tests. That mark actually went up in a Test he took 5 for 62. Which shows what a ridiculous thing this number is. In Axar's fifth Test, you could see how different he looked on a more standard Indian wicket than some of the friendly ones he got early on.
But again, Axar's first-class record is good, he averages 27.3 outside of Tests. Like Jamieson, he comes in with obvious international talent; he is tall, bowls real fast, can't be swept safely, is deadly accurate and spins the ball. That should work in many places, but not with the same pretty average. But until Jadeja is injured, it is hard to see him playing in places without three spinners. And the wickets that need them, will mean Axar's record should stay abnormally low.
Labuschagne is the third of this crew; he wasn't picked when he was very young like the other two. But unlike the bowlers, he didn't come into Tests with a successful past nor a set method. He tightened his game after his first two games. He was given those because of his ability to provide a second spin option in the UAE against Pakistan. And it was really a purple patch of form in the county game, followed by Steven Smith's concussion, that propelled his good form to the international level. Since then, he's maintained this incredible amount of runs he had never produced before.
That is the weird bit. We have seen players come into Tests and score incredible amounts of runs, but it usually comes with being picked a bit later. However, compared to other fast starters, Labuschagne was still tinkering with his game.
Mark Taylor's late selection became a storyline when Peter Taylor the spinner was picked before him. Jimmy Adams had to wait for Viv Richards to move on to get a spot in the West Indies middle order. Michael Hussey got stuck beyond a great Australian batting line-up, but also was once dropped by Western Australia. Adam Voges had a great career, but really, he surged late and was picked at the peak of his batting.
Voges is one of those players who will remain with a high number. There are others like Graeme Pollock, who averages over 60. Would he have been able to keep up that record? Even with his talents, it seems unlikely. You can add George Headley to that, whose career was ruined by the war. Both were obviously brilliant talents, but they played 55 Tests combined.
We know what happened with Taylor, Adams and Hussey. Taylor averaged 63 after 17 Tests, in a remarkable run over almost two years. He averaged 40 from the rest of his career, even with a 334*. After 17 Tests for Adams, he had Taylor covered with his 78 average. He would bat at 29 for the rest of his career, which included a severe injury from a bouncer and a mysterious finger cut. Hussey averaged 81 until his 21st match. He would average 43 from then on. In fact, it was 31 for his next 21 matches before he had a late flourish at the end. That's a harsh regression.
Over time, averages flatten out. Players get injured, old, or just found out - usually a combination of all three. But currently, Labuschagne's Test average is 62.
His first-class average outside of Tests is 43 and he was averaging 37 before a Test. But since making his Test debut, he's made lots of runs for Queensland, Glamorgan and then Australia - averaging 48 for Queensland is his lowest mark. But his Test average is still the highest.
There are also three elements of luck in Labuschagne's Test record. One is that he has played a lot at home, or in conditions he likes - no different to Jamieson or Axar. That's been a tremendous help. But it's also worth noting lots of players get these kinds of advantages early in their careers and don't have phenomenal records like this.
The second is when Labuschagne has lost form. He's only had one bad patch since he started making a cargo-ship load of runs at Glamorgan. But luckily for his Test average, that was actually back in Wales. In six matches for Glamorgan in 2021, he averaged 32 without a hundred.
The third is what the host broadcast said during the last Test: Labuschagne has been caught 12 times in Tests and dropped 12 times. You would expect him to be caught around 75%, as that's the catching rate in Tests. But this is a short period, so you could easily see a run like this happening, followed by 12 straight catches. And being dropped by England right now seems about a 50-50 shot. But anyone who makes more runs is bound to be dropped more. Long innings are rarely chanceless, and he's made a few.
And even if you factor in the amount of home Tests, the drops, and the fact his slip-ups were for Glamorgan, it's still a lot of runs.
Someone else has made a similar amount, but for longer. That other player was also picked for Australia because he bowled handy legspin, Smith. However, when Smith made his debut, he averaged 56 in first-class cricket. The real question with Smith always was whether what he did would translate at Test level. Almost no one believed it would, but we were all wrong.
Labuschagne is not really like Smith outside the superficial squawks and leaves. He is much more traditional in his batting. Though clearly inspired by Smith. He has a supernatural understanding of his off stump, but he doesn't play across the line in the way that Smith does. He's not as good against the short ball (at least before Archer hit Smith). And we don't know how he will travel. Smith currently averages 40 in every Test nation except for his Two Tests in Bangladesh.
Will Labuschagne be able to match that? Probably not, because in the history of Test cricket, the only person with over 2000 Test runs and a higher average than Smith - other than Labuschagne - is Don Bradman. But I suppose it also depends on your view of the world. Some will believe in Labuschagne until the end, others will wait for the numbers to become more realistic.
The regression is more likely, but the romance is hard to give up. Maybe Australia just stumbled on this batting prodigy. And even if you believe that the drop will come, there's something so beautiful about this magical mark being attached to someone as happy to be in Test cricket as the pure being of batting that is Labuschagne.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber