Picture this: Steve Smith is batting like a man possessed. Eyes transfixed, feet moving in a trance with the weight of twin hundreds on his Test comeback behind him. The Bradman comparison’s a background accompaniment, of course.
And then it happens. On day four of the second Ashes Test at Lord’s, with Australia in the driver’s seat, its talisman is felled by a bouncer from England’s newest pace sensation, Jofra Archer. Smith has to return to the dressing room. He resumed and scored 12 more runs before getting out for 92. Later it emerged that he would take no further part in the Test.
What followed was unprecedented in the 142-year history of Test match cricket. Marnus Labuschagne took the field as the first concussion replacement in Test history with Joe Root and his battery of fast bowlers baying for blood.
“I found out on the morning of the final day while having a net session against Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and Michael Neser. Tim Paine walked over to the nets and said, ‘It looks like you’ll be playing today,’” Labuschagne told Sportstar .
“You never want someone to get hurt and it was unfortunate for Australia to lose a player of such a high calibre as Steve for the match. It had gone through my mind that I was a ‘similar’ player to Steve in terms of being a batter and leg-spinner, but, obviously, no one can match him currently in terms of form.”
Labuschagne made a compelling case for his selection in the Ashes squad with 1,057 runs at 70.46 for Glamorgan in county cricket, but he is perhaps right when he says catching up with Smith, “in his current form,” was indeed a monumental task. Smith ended the series with 774 runs, 200 shy of what Bradman had amassed in the 1930 series, and he is fifth in the list of highest-ever aggregate in an Ashes series.
“There were a few nerves, mixed with enormous excitement, as it is nearly every cricket player’s dream to play in an Ashes series, especially at Lord’s,” said Labuschagne. “But once I reached the middle and started batting, the nerves disappeared.”
Labuschagne’s gritty 59 — Australia's top-score in the second innings — came after he had been hit flush on the helmet grille by Archer on the first legal delivery he faced. But he had done his job, which was to stave off an England surge for victory and ensure Australia retained the 1-0 lead going into Headingley.
About his batting, Labuschagne said, “I’d like to think that I’m quite calculated in the way that I bat and think about my batting. So in terms of my game, I think it’s more about making small adjustments to fit with those plans I have for each bowler.
“My approach is about trying to make minor adjustments for the different types of balls bowled by different bowlers to make them bowl to me on my terms.”
Archer, playing his maiden Test, proved quite a handful for the Aussie batsmen, who were often hurried for pace and bounce. Labuschagne explained the strategy he used to counter the lanky seamer: “I have plans for every bowler and Jofra was no different. He was bowling very quickly, so for me, when someone is bowling fast, you need to make sure that you are looking for the full ball. It was about reacting to the short ball but being ready for the full ball, as that was still his most dangerous ball.”
In Manchester, with the series hanging in the balance, Labuschagne finally got the opportunity to unite with the man he was a like-for-like replacement for — Smith. Together, they added 116 runs for the third wicket in the first innings, blunting hopes of an English comeback. Labuschagne says Smith’s a tremendous thinker of the game and a unique talent, “which is evident when you are batting with him or even watching him play the game.”
“It was a brilliant experience to bat with him and I did learn a great deal from him, and other teammates, throughout the Ashes series, as well as plenty of ex-players around the team.
“The team support setup we have at Cricket Australia is wonderful, and to have a group of sensational ex-cricketers around us and to help us learn was an amazing experience.” Australia’s bid to retain the urn had come to a stall in the final session of day five in Manchester, with Jack Leach and Craig Overton smothering every challenge the Australian bowlers threw at them. With time running out, Tim Paine threw the ball to the part-time leg-spinner in just his eighth Test.
“I knew that my role was to hit the rough as much as possible,” Labuschagne recollected. “Out of the first four balls, I only hit the rough once, and I knew that if I hit the rough, it would be very challenging to play. Fortunately, I was able to bowl the fifth ball straight into the rough and got the breakthrough that we needed.”
Australia won the Test by 185 runs, thus ending an 18-year-history of losing the Ashes in England. And Labuschagne, if not the architect, was surely a catalyst for a historic win.
The 25-year-old thinks after these five Tests, his batting has improved, and that he has learned about playing in English conditions, and Test conditions, and how to play the swinging and seaming ball.
“Playing against such a quality side has also made me a far better player,” he said. “But it’s all irrelevant now as the focus has to be on continuing to perform to the best of my abilities and ultimately to help Australia in any way I can.”
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