‘There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.’ - Ernest Hemingway.
Marnus Labuschagne grew up speaking Afrikaans and could hardly string together two words in English when he moved to Australia in 2004, at the tender age of 10. Yet listening to one of his more recent interviews or podcasts for a fleeting moment would hoodwink a person into believing that he is, and has always been, a Queenslander. Such is the seamless ease with which he has made the transition.
Throughout his life, Labuschagne has been driven by the need for self-improvement - his transition from a South African to an Australian, his growth in stature, and his never-ending rise as a cricketer have all been a direct byproduct of this value he’s clung on to, tightly, since day one. It is the same trait that enabled him to take his Test average from the low 30s to the high 60s in just over a year, and also break into and become an integral part of the ODI setup.
Thus for someone who has shunned the word ‘stagnant’ from his dictionary, Labuschagne will know and realize that in just over a day's time, lying in front of him will be an opportunity to manifest his improved 50-over self; a chance to stamp his authority in the ODI format which he has quite not yet cracked.
A ton, two half-centuries and an average of 43.77 after 9 knocks can be considered a fairly successful, if not glorious, start for 99.99% percentage of cricketers across the world, but such is the high standard Labuschagne has set for himself that it is simply not possible to view him through the prism of an average cricketer. Right from his first knock, versus the Indians in Rajkot, Labuschagne’s ODI career has threatened to come to a crescendo only to get disrupted abruptly.
No less than 6 of his 9 knocks have had the makings of very, very special digs yet his inability to push on and convert them into meaningful big scores have hindered his desire to make the giant leap forward. The ton he scored in Potchefstroom in front of his family, which he followed up with a fine match-defining 56 against the Kiwis, was universally acknowledged as his watershed moment in coloured clothing yet his frustrating, start-stop run in the England series - scores of 21, 48 and 20 - served as a timely reminder that the Queenslander was yet to crack the ODI code.
At this stage in his ODI career, Labuschagne is like a playmaker full of energy who dribbles through and outmaneuvers opponents, makes things happen, and creates opportunities aplenty but lacks the end-product in the final third. His hunger for runs has been inexorable, his consistency has been immaculate and he, almost always, has tended to get through the tough passages and do the dirty work up-front. Yet he has inexplicably ended up throwing away starts. In his 9 knocks, Labuschagne has passed 20 a staggering 8 times and scored at least 40 six times, but has gone past sixty just once. For a player of his pedigree, that is nothing short of criminal.
A lot of Labuschagne’s issues, and in turn his inability to convert starts, have stemmed from his ineptitude to switch gears smoothly. Four times - including in each of his first three ODI knocks - in his ODI career, the right-hander, after passing the score of 40, has been dismissed between overs 25 and 32 - during the transition between settling for 1s and 2s and aiming for boundaries - in which thrice he was caught, either in the deep or inside the circle, whilst trying to go aerial. Labuschagne’s lack of trust in his own ability to catch-up - i.e. clear the fence towards the fag end - has meant him taking more untimely risks in the middle and this, more or less, has led to his downfall.
The absence of a power-game in his armoury is underpinned by him having not hit a single six in his young ODI career, but it is imperative that the right-hander understands his game and plays to his strengths. For it was only just over a year ago that he showed that he can be a world-class limited-overs batsman without striking one ball with anger. Labuschagne ended the 2019/20 Marsh Cup with 364 runs in 6 games - an average of 60.66 and SR of 100.55 - and in his entire campaign, one maximum was all he struck. It proved to be enough to power the Queensland side - whose build was not too different from that of the Aussies - into the final.
But given that there’s been more promise than frustration, both Australia and Labuschagne can take heart from the fact that he has been there and thereabouts; not far from solving a puzzle which he looks increasingly likely to solve. For he has, at different points in his nascent career, displayed the consistency, maturity, and skillset to be able to succeed; all that remains is for him is to be able to put together the pieces, and do the same over a sustained period.
The ton he struck at Potchefstroom can serve as the ideal template he can, and should, follow as he grows into the 50-over format. There, whilst taking no risks, he strolled his way to 50 off his first 60 balls, and continued at the same pace for 15 more balls, before putting the foot on the pedal in the final eight. He eventually finished with a run-a-ball 108. Whilst it’s not a figure that is exemplary, one presumes it will be more than ideal considering the firepower that the Aussies possess, particularly now with the presence of a rejuvenated Marcus Stoinis.
Labuschagne is someone who has been here before. In the whites, it took him five unsuccessful conversion attempts - and a bunch of thirties and forties - before he got to the magical three-figure mark. And once it rained, it started to pour. In contrast, he’s had a far less tantalizing start to his ODI career - he converted his second fifty into a century - but it’s the ‘could and should have done more’ cloud that’s continued to hover over his head; one that is bound to follow him until and unless he asserts his dominance with a string of big scores.
Up against arguably the most potent bowling attack in the world in the form of India, it will by no means be a simple task, but if there’s one thing Marnus Labuschagne has shown us over the course of the last 16 months, it’s that there’s nothing he cannot do - including randomly showing up at Grade cricket matches and scalping wickets by bowling outswingers. It took 10 years for the Afrikaan-speaking youngster to master the English language, but you’d think it won’t take him more than 10 matches to master the art of ODI batting.