When Steve Smith was struck on the back of the neck by a sharp bouncer from Jofra Archer in July, Marnus Labuschagne was drafted in as a concussion substitute for the former skipper. The rules are a little inflexible about the likeliness of players coming in as substitutes for head injuries but even the Aussies wouldn’t have imagined the rookie to emulate Steve Smith the way he did with the bat.
The 25-year-old too was struck on the helmet and subjected to concussion tests but he carried on batting to cement his place in the Australian top-order. He struck four consecutive half-centuries in the Ashes and followed it with three back-to-back hundreds at home. His ascension from being ranked No.110 in the ICC Test rankings at the beginning of the year to breaking into the top 10 in the world is astounding.
This was Marnus Labuschagne's 2nd ball back in the team (b Jofra Archer), as a concussion sub for Steve Smith.— CricBlog (@cric_blog) December 24, 2019
A blow like this could have put him off. But, he has been unbelievable since:
59, 74, 80, 67, 11, 48, 14, 185, 162, 143, 50.
893 runs at an average of 81.19#AUSvNZ pic.twitter.com/PPi7mW7Q1R
Watching Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne at the crease together when they shared an 83-run partnership against New Zealand on the opening day of the Boxing Day Test at Melboure, was reminiscent of Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar opening the batting for India.
The pair looked eerily similar to each other under the helmet and at times that physical likeliness seeped through to some of their stroke-play as well despite their distinct styles in batting.
On the surface, Labuschagne seems to have picked up two things quickly from Smith – how and when to leave deliveries outside the off-stump in a Test match. While the when is necessary discretion, the how is delightful theater.
They both shuffle over to the off-side and have impeccable judgement against the swinging ball to let them go outside the off-stump. As they settle into an innings and start picking the length early, they start playing false shorts over or around the line of the ball they intend to leave, instead of the conventional shouldering of arms.
Their shuffle and theatrics might prompt the bowler to bowl a little straighter, which plays right into the hands of the pair as they love picking bowlers through midwicket off their pads.
Against the Kiwi pace attack that included Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner, the duo were largely pinned back on a lively pitch. However, Smith and Labuschagne were diligent and waited for the bowlers to tire and bowl over-pitched deliveries. They also cut loose against the left-arm spin of Mitch Santner.
Other similarities between the two batsmen obviously include an insatiable appetite for runs, brilliant fielding and leg-spin abilities that they aren’t exactly proud off.
Marnus Labuschane’s purple patch may come to an end sooner or later but he can easily avoid a slump if he continues to mimic the master at the other end.