Marnus Labuschagne — Scaling new heights

Labuschagne talks us through how he prepares for a big contest, how he deconstructs bowling strategies ahead of and during a series, his battles with Ravichandran Ashwin, and more.

Master strategy: “I think it all comes down to learning from every game. It is easier at home, but when it’s overseas, you need to research a bit more, get to know the bowlers and use the skills to combat what they have got,” says Marnus Labuschagne.   -  AFP

Marnus Labuschagne rose to the No. 1 spot in the Test rankings for batters following an impressive performance in the last Ashes, which Australia won 4-0. For Labuschagne, it’s the first time at the top spot.

Labuschagne has had a purple patch in Test cricket since coming on as a concussion substitute for Steven Smith in the Ashes Test at Lord’s in 2019 and currently averages 56.92 from 23 Tests.

In this interview, Labuschagne talks us through how he prepares for a big contest, how he deconstructs bowling strategies ahead of and during a series, his battles with Ravichandran Ashwin, and more.

When does your preparation for a big series start?

Planning starts five-six months ahead. Using the Ashes as an example, I was already thinking about the bowlers I’d be facing — James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson. The physical preparation begins closer to the series, but the mental preparation starts very early. Thinking about what they are bowling, learning from the series that they are playing... so, I watched Jimmy over the last couple of series and thought he was bringing the ball back into the right-hander a lot more than in previous years. Broad was bowling a little bit fuller than he had previously — I’ve not played against Ollie but just understanding what lengths he bowls, what are his natural lengths and the same with Woakes.

When it comes time to play a match, you take the conditions into account and figure out what they might miss and what their weaknesses might be on that pitch. After that, you start building your game from there. I try to re-enact possible match scenarios. Broad and Robinson are quite crafty with the use of their crease — they come wide. So, making sure I face a lot of side-arm bowling in the nets... getting the guys to bowl that wider line.

Then there is learning from how people have bowled to me. They feel bowling a little straight with a leg-side field works against me. Understanding that a lot of teams will come with that plan. I think it all comes down to learning from every game I play and every game they play. It is easier at home, but when it’s overseas, you need to research a bit more, get to know the bowlers and use the skills to combat what they have got.

Do you watch a lot of footage before the start of a series?

I don’t, but I watch a lot of live cricket. Whenever England’s playing, I’m always watching. Sometimes, when you watch back-to-back footage, you do not get the same feel or trends. When you are following a game live, you can spot things like ‘gee, he hasn’t bowled an outswinger in a while’. I'm not into watching opposition footage. That said, sometimes when the opposition has mystery spinners, I watch videos to see if I can deconstruct their techniques, find what speeds they are bowling and what percentage of balls are within the stumps. By the time you reach the venue, you already have an idea of what lines and lengths they might bowl at you. Adapt your plans and work out the best ways to fire in those conditions. I go into a sort of autopilot.

Interesting duel: India’s Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates after dismissing Labuschagne in the second Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in December 2020. He is a great thinker of the game. He (Ashwin) is very good at assessing batsmen, and that’s why I have enjoyed facing him,” says Labuschagne.   -  Getty Images

 

In a recent interview, India off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin spoke about his duels with you and Steve Smith. He has picked up certain cues from how you play your shots. How have your match-ups been with Ashwin?

He is a great thinker of the game. He is very good at assessing batsmen, and that’s why I have enjoyed facing him. What I loved most about Ashwin was the fields he had for me and how I was trying to move the field in my endeavour to score runs. Just the way both of us were able to chop and change in the middle of an engrossing passage. It almost felt like a chess game. He bowled beautifully in Melbourne... got a few early wickets with the leg slip. Smudger (Smith) and I played him well in Sydney. He has picked up some things that I do when I play certain shots, and that’s why I love these four-five match series because you cannot be satisfied with what you’ve got as a batter, otherwise you will be found out by quality bowlers. You’ve to keep adapting. We’ve got a few sub-continent tours before my next trip to India, and hopefully, I can challenge myself in those conditions. I’ve a few tricks up my sleeve (smiles)!

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We started in Adelaide and it was quite hard to score over there because of the pink ball and the wicket had variable bounce. Melbourne had a little bit of grass and I got 48 off 150 (132) before being caught at backward square. In the second innings, Ashwin got me out at first slip — from round the wicket, he bowled the undercutter... what you need to remember is certain shots are just harder to play in certain conditions... I can have a plan to negotiate the fields but sometimes you are undone by the venue. In Sydney, the wicket was better, you could trust the bounce and play those leg-side shots... it wasn’t so much a tactical change from Melbourne to Sydney as the conditions... They got better for batting and we were able to bat freely on the on side.

Batting strength: “I don’t try to have a perfect way to bat; I find the best way to bat. Depends on the ground, the bowler and what I feel is the best way to score, of course, while staying within my strengths,” says Labuschagne.   -  AP

 

Are there instances where you have tweaked your stance or backlift in the middle of an innings?

All the time. I don’t try to have a perfect way to bat; I find the best way to bat. Depends on the ground, the bowler and what I feel is the best way to score, of course, while staying within my strengths. I’ve no concerns about changing my grip mid-innings. If there’s a left-armer on, if I feel like closing my bat face a little more will help my defensive game, I’ll do that. Or if the quicks adopt a short-ball strategy, then I need to change my trigger to one that makes it easier to play backfoot shots. I’ve no inhibitions about changing my stance or backlift in the middle of an innings.

What is your first impulse when you arrive at the crease?

1) You need to find ways to play the bowler’s best ball. 2) Limit the number of chances he gets to bowl very good balls — putting pressure back on the bowler. That means different things in different situations. Sometimes it’s about letting the bowler throw the kitchen sink at you, and when it doesn’t work, and he gets frustrated, he switches plans. That’s when you bounce back. On a wicket that’s not very bouncy, it’s about making sure the first 20 balls, a bowler misses his lengths... it’s about hitting that boundary, or getting the ball through leg side or playing that straight drive, or pulling when it’s short.

Playing the situation is the biggest test for any cricketer. At Hobart against England, Australia was three down for 12 when you walked in to bat. How did you assess the situation?

I got out there, and the ball was nipping a lot, probably the most I’ve seen a ball nip in a Test. Actually, when it’s like that, sometimes it is difficult to get a batter out. Early in the innings, I was conscious about protecting my stumps. I did not want to follow the ball. Just play the line, so if it is not nipping, I am getting it, and if it is nipping, then I am almost missing it. When Mark Wood came on, I felt there was an opportunity. He bowled so fast and the ball was skidding on a bit more. The outfield was moist because of drizzle, so it made the seam a little flatter, and I just felt there aren’t many other options apart from being positive. They didn’t have a square leg back, so they were going to try and pitch it up. Wood gets most of his wickets bowling short, so bowling full wasn’t his strength, there was an opportunity to take the game on, and that’s what I did. We were able to wrestle the game back from a position where things looked ugly for us.

READ: Labuschagne banks on familiarity with Pakistan attack

Cricket Australia has given the final all-clear for the Pakistan tour. You made your Test debut against Pakistan. How excited are you about the visit?

I can’t wait to get over there, see the conditions and try to find ways to score runs. I played most of them in the UAE and also in Australia, so I’ve got a bit of an idea of how they bowl. Playing away from home is something we haven’t done since the 2019 Ashes in England. I don’t have much sub-continent experience. So, I can do all the training in the world and simulate different training and match scenarios and practise against specialist spin on subcontinent-style pitches, but what you practise at home and what you get out there are bound to be different. I must remain flexible as a batter.

Outside cricket, what is the one thing you are doing to prepare for the weather conditions in Pakistan?

I use the infrared sauna at least five days a week. Not only do I enjoy doing it, but it will also help my body acclimatise to the humidity and heat. I have no issues with my physical fitness. For me, it’s about staying mentally fresh and ready to go. Bat for long periods. It will be the first Test series there since South Africa’s visit in early 2021. The first time for Australia in 24 years. Hopefully, everything goes smoothly, and we get out there and play some awesome cricket and bring [international] cricket back to Pakistan, which I am sure the people over there will enjoy.

What’s your idea of a perfect Test batter?

The perfect Test batsman for me will have: Sachin Tendulkar’s straight drive, Virat Kohli's cover drive, Ricky Ponting’s pull shot, Kevin Pietersen’s one-legged flick, Steve Smith’s tactical nous and Jacques Kallis’s temperament.