Marnus Labuschagne has turned his career around by displaying stunning concentration. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
When it comes to the history and appreciation of Test cricket, there aren’t many moments from Abu Dhabi that lodge deep in the public consciousness.
In 2018 though there was a moment that looked like a defining one for Marnus Labuschagne. At the non-striker’s end he watched Mitchell Starc drive a ball into the pitch and back towards the bowler.
Mohammad Abbas had towelled up the top order with seam movement. The spinners were rolling through the rest. Labuschagne though had made 25 runs, batting for a while, looking fairly solid.
The ball that was hit back at him wasn’t coming all that quickly. It became slower after Yasir Shah leaned down in his follow-through and flicked his middle finger over the leather.
Standing right next to its path, Labuschagne even turned his head to watch the ball roll by. His body was outside the batting crease, but his bat was back. Over his ground, not in it. Held in stasis up in the air while the ball approached him, passed him, and clunked into his stumps.
It was Labuschagne’s second Test, and his extreme vagueness and loss of concentration seemed to indicate there might not be many more.
He hit out for 43 in a thoroughly lost cause in the second innings, then was dropped. Returning late in a losing home summer he made 38 against India, 81 against a struggling Sri Lanka, then failed with 6 and 4 against the same team with a further-weakened attack.
Dropped twice in five Tests could have been the whole story.
We’ve all heard in recent weeks what happened next: The remodelled batting stance, the prolific run for Glamorgan opening a door to the Ashes squad, becoming Test cricket’s first concussion substitute at Lord’s, then 1,190 Test runs at an average of 85 in just over five months.
His seven Ashes innings produced four half-centuries and one score of 48, the kind of numbers that shaped matches in a series where swing assisted the bowlers throughout and team scores were low.
Out of seven scores in the home season, one has been under 50. On Australia’s batting pitches where far bigger scores are needed, the hundreds have come in swollen puffed-rice form: 143, 162, 185, and now his first double ton has arrived in Sydney.
Labuschagne’s final score of 215 was also what his coach Langer made against New Zealand back in 2004. It’s the score that his batting inspiration Steve Smith made at Lord’s in 2015.
Those are within the batsman’s frame of reference, after he admitted in his press conference that his version of cricket history didn’t go much past the late 1990s. He can look forward to some further reading after learning that he had beaten Neil Harvey’s Australian record for runs scored in a five-Test season.
What has really defined Labuschagne’s summer has been a faultless competence. He has been a boring batsman in the best possible way: by scoring so consistently rather than not scoring at all. There is no Labuschagne shot that lingers in the memory, but there is always the next to come.
@7Cricket video tweet: “Just when you thought Marnus Labuschagne’s summer couldn’t get any better…”
He has rarely raced but has rarely been mired. Former New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney on ABC Grandstand pointed out the evenness of the batsman’s strength around the ground.
“It makes it difficult to stop him scoring, even though he’s never put the foot down at any stage,” Coney said.
Kiwi legspinner Todd Astle echoed the analysis.
“He scores all around the wicket so there are no real lulls in his scoring,” Astle said after the second day.
“He’s got an insatiable appetite just to keep batting and then not throw it away. A few half chances here and there, but once you get on that roll you can be hard to stop. We’ve tried to create pressure but he’s been able to withstand that.”
The second day in Sydney was hotter than the first, with the close humidity and smoke haze verging on the claustrophobic. Trees near the ground were washed out with a white tinge, buildings further afield faded to ghosts.
“It was quite draining out there yesterday and today,” said Labuschagne, who was noticeably drenched with sweat at drinks breaks.
“The wicket deteriorated during that middle session. I felt like it was almost changing over by over. Some were shooting, some were spinning, it was bouncing more. Some were kicking, some were going under — which is good for us.”
It was a typically Labuschagne finish: When conditions are difficult, you deal with them. Then you think about the significance for your team. This is what Australia’s new first drop has done with his months of concentration, proving that the Abu Dhabi moment when his brain switched off was the anomaly rather than the rule.