In the new year, Marnus Labuschagne will be back at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SGC). It is where he played his first Test at home and also scored his only double century in a career 16 matches old. His maiden Test in Australia was against India in 2019 and it marked the beginning of a year that would see the 26-year-old top the Test run charts. The double-century was against New Zealand in 2020 and ensured a 3-0 win for Australia.
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But like most things in 2020, it has been a rough ride since. Labuschagne’s team goes into the third Test of a pandemic-affected home season reeling from a spectacular comeback by India that has left the four-Test series all square. Australia’s batting has been so frail (Labuschagne himself is yet to score a half-century) that even with a make-shift bowling line-up India got to them.
So if Labuschagne didn’t think it fit to dwell much on fond recollections of SCG, it was because increasing Australia’s run-rate and tackling Ravichandran Ashwin needed greater attention going into the third Test starting on January 7.
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“I don’t know if it (SCG) is my favourite venue in the world but I definitely think it is a beautiful venue to play in. At times, it has been quite batting friendly. But with two world-class bowling attacks it will always be hard work for the batsmen,” said Labuschagne, in a virtual media interaction on Thursday.
“I haven’t really revisited it (the 215 against New Zealand) too much for the last couple of months. But yes, definitely I have sort of looked back and, yeah, it was very special. You know getting nervous, getting that double hundred at the SCG. Doing it in front of a full house in the pink Test, very exciting.”
Labuschagne’s double-century came off 363 balls and seemed a natural progression for a man who had aggregated 1104 in 2019, most by anyone that year, with three 140-plus scores. From becoming Steve Smith’s concussion substitute at the Ashes to being anointed his successor in terms of batting impact, Labuschagne had come a long way.
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And yet, master and apprentice, who were expected to be the hosts’ batting fulcrum, haven’t made significant contributions in this series. “I think they (India) have been very disciplined with their plans with both spin and pace. They have really held that straight line. They made us face a lot of balls. They have come in with a plan with those straight fields, making sure they are not really leaving the stumps and having a really heavy leg-side field. It obviously slows the scoring rate. They are taking those catches. It is for us to make sure in finding ways to score runs. It doesn’t have to be pretty, just keep grinding out and keep finding a way out,” he said.
On Smith, he said: “Call it what you may, but Steve is not short on runs. The guy has got above-60 average in 70-odd games. He has been consistent. I mean, he got two hundreds in 60-odd balls in the one-dayers. Probably he has played a lot of white ball cricket and has not got as much time with red ball. That’s the reality in these times. So, we have to find ways.”
A large part of Smith and Labuschagne’s struggles has to do with Ashwin; the off-spinner having dismissed the duo twice each in two Tests. “I had never faced Ashwin before until this series, so I don’t have a comparison to compare him with. But, you don’t have the figures and the stats that Ravi has without being a great bowler and also a great thinker. He has come really prepared. They are being really crafty with their field and what they are trying to do.
“Look, we have fallen into their trap a few times. At the end of the day, someone’s going to get you out in a game of cricket. So for us it’s about reviewing those dismissals and come back stronger, making sure we learn from each innings,” said Labuschagne.
Fresh opening pair?
In none of the two Tests has Australia crossed 200. And the way the Ajinkya Rahane-led India dominated the hosts in Melbourne, despite being left with only four bowlers after Umesh Yadav’s calf injury, Australia have some serious calls to take in the next week. With Joe Burns dropped they will have a new opening pair for sure. The question is whether they would try two fresh openers in David Warner, who is yet to fully recover from a groin injury, and Will Pucovski, returning three weeks after suffering a concussion in a warm-up match, and send stand-in opener Matthew Wade to his usual middle-order slot. In that case the misfiring Travis Head may lose his place.
“He (Warner) is a big inclusion for us if he does come back in. Someone with over 7000 Test runs and averaging near about 50. He is superb player. I think he is in that top group and his energy in the field will be terrific big great to have him,” said Labuschagne.
“I know Joe Burns has missed out but he has been a consistent performer in first-class cricket for a long time now. Whatever the selectors have done is for the best of the team but it doesn’t change my view about Joe as a player or as a person. That’s not our job. Our job is to score runs for Australia.”
If Warner plays in the third Test, to be broadcast on Sony network, he could add some vigour to Australia’s batting. Currently Australia’s series run-rate is 2.64 – joint lowest at home (along with India tour of 2018) in the last 20 years.
“There is definitely talk about rotating the strike, finding your boundary option. The normal things you talk about facing any bowling attack. The ways you can get a little upper hand over certain bowlers at (a) certain time of the game. Making sure when we come in we are brave enough to take those options,” said Labuschagne.