A little over a year back, Marnus Labuschagne was ranked No. 107 among batsmen by the ICC. After the recent Test series against New Zealand, the 25-year-old Australian had jumped 104 places to finish No. 3, behind top-ranked Virat Kohli and No. 2 Steve Smith!
He has leapfrogged over some of the most established bastmen playing cricket currently: Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane from India, Joe Root of England, fellow countryman David Warner and even New Zealand’s master batsman Kane Williamson whom he dislodged from the No. 3 spot last week.
Till a couple of months ago, debate in cricket circles about who the leading batsman in the world was currently centred around Kohli, Smith, Root and Williamson, with Warner and Pujara as the outliers who had the calibre to break the stranglehold of the Big 4, and Pakistan’s Babar Azam was touted the most promising youngster. That equation now stands scrambled.
There are more astonishing aspects to Labuschagne’s progress that demand attention. On his debut against Pakistan in Dubai (November 2018), he was dismissed for a second ball duck! Why, even less than six months back, he was hardly in contention for a place in the playing XI.
As it happened, Australia’s best batsman Steve Smith got hit on the head in the second Test at Lord’s, and under the newly introduced substitution law, Labsuchagne got a lifeline: as like-for-like substitute for Smith (who is also a part-time leg spinner) he could bat even though he was not part of the original playing XI.
Labuschagne made a doughty 59 to ensure a draw for Australia at Lord’s. More than just praise and plaudits was the fact that this half-century earned him a place in the playing side over the struggling Usman Khawaja.
Till that time, Labuschagne’s cricket future had a cloud of uncertainty over it. In less than six months since the Lord’s Test, his career has taken off in such meteoric fashion that cricket historians, analysts and scribes have been scurrying to find parallels.
I’ll come to that in a bit, after going through some more statistics to highlight the impact that Labuschagne’s made and why he has the cricket world agog currently with his batting exploits.
In his last 10 innings, for instance, he has made 7 scores over 50. In four of these he went on to a three-figure score, including 215 in the third Test against New Zealand which laid the foundation for Australia’s hefty win.
True, the ICC rankings are not foolproof. Moreover, they are also dynamic and undergoing constant change, so the pecking order tomorrow may not be the same it is today. Even so, I can’t think of too many batsmen to have shown such spectacular progress in such a short time in the history of Test cricket.
There are a few names that come to mind (very few actually when you consider the number of players involved in more than a 100 years of Test cricket) of batsmen who started with a bang and were able to sustain that momentum till the time they finished their careers.
Among such batsmen who I can recall ‘top-of-mind’ are Neil Harvey, Javed Miandad, Greg Chappell, Viv Richards, Mike Hussey, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Graeme Smith, Brian Lara, Kane Williamson, Joe Root and not to forget, Sunil Gavaskar, and the peerless Sir Donald Bradman.
The last two mentioned are significant in any discussion on batsmen. Gavaskar scored 774 runs (v West Indies, 1971), which remains the highest by a batsman in his debut series. Bradman, of course, remains the benchmark for batting achievements, in terms of consistency of run scoring and an average of 99.94 which seems unlikely to be ever surpassed.
In cricket parlance, Labuschange’s form in recent months can best be described as ‘Bradmanesque’. But while this is a mighty accolade, it comes with burden of pressure and expectation attached. Bowlers will strive harder for his wicket and fans will expect nothing except big scores.
From here on, Labuschange will be viewed in a different matrix, and whether he is able to fulfill this early promise on a sustained basis will determine whether he will finish as a great batsman that his current form suggests.
Even those who start their careers with a century on debut or a couple of early highly productive series have to come to terms with the vicissitudes of the game (and life), find their moorings, and then chalk out a meaningful career. Some (Vinod Kambli for e.g.) don’t, despite fantastic talent.
Longevity of career and consistency of run scoring － apart, of course, from frequent match-winning efforts － describe a great batsman. Apart from talent, some luck is necessary in this, but even more determination, stamina and deep ambition to keep going for a decade and longer.
Marnus Labuschagne is off to a great start, but it is how he finishes which will decide whether he finds entry into the pantheon of greats.
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.