At what point does ‘too good’ turn into ‘too good to be true’? A concussion substitute turning into a world beater? An average of 63.43 after 14 Test matches? An absolute nobody breaking into the world’s top 3 in the span of six months?
Marnus Labuschagne’s Test career up until the India series could so easily be passed off as fiction. His rise really did not make sense then, and it still doesn’t now. Thus despite him enduring the most dominant Australian summer in the entire century of any batsman not named Ricky Ponting or Steve Smith, there existed an intrinsic fear that his surge could turn out to be an extended freak purple patch.
The fifties, hundreds, daddy hundreds and doubles he scored, regardless of how good they were, came with the minutest of asterisk because they were at home and against depleted attacks, and the general consensus was that against a quality Indian unit, a downfall, even if it was a mini-slide, was inevitable.
It took one knock for the prophecy to come true. On a spicy Adelaide wicket with the pink ball, Shami and Bumrah made Labuschagne look like a rookie. For the first time in a year he had failed to pass fifty in the first innings, and he effectively was dismissed thrice en route a fidgety 47. Another fortuitous, unconvincing 48 followed in the first innings in Melbourne, and by the end of the second Test his average had dropped below 60.
By now those who had put Labuschagne in the same bracket as Smith had reverted to calling Australia a one-man team, and he was essentially a failure away from having his immortality stripped.
Perhaps some day he will turn into a mere mortal, but that day is still far away. For with his performance at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the eccentric enigma has ensured that his legend, and subsequently the hype around him, will live on for months to come.
On the morning of day 1, Marnus Labuschagne found himself in a familiar, undesirable situation: for the third time in the series, he walked in to bat inside the fifth over and was exposed against the brand new ball. He had, of course, been used to such situations ever since he started permanently batting at No.3 since Old Trafford, yet this time around the predicament he found himself in was a bit complex - he had to rescue his country whilst simultaneously aiming to rediscover the golden touch that he seemed to have left behind in the New Year’s Test in 2020.
With every inning in the series Labuschagne seemed to proportionally improve and make better choices, yet right on the verge of making it big, he encountered an unanticipated obstacle that left him stumped. In Adelaide he fell prey to an Umesh Yadav straighter one that kept low; in the first innings in Melbourne he uncharacteristically clipped a rank wide one to leg gully; and in the second dig in the same Test he was outsmarted and outplayed by the cricketing scientist. Labuschagne got away with his callousness once, in Adelaide, but on a flat wicket, with the series level at 1-1, he knew that he could ill-afford to not make it count.
By the time his stay in the middle came to an end on the stroke of the first hour of Day 2 Labuschagne had ensured that he’d made it count, but more than the destination - the quantity of runs he amassed - it was the Queenslander’s journey to the 91 which personified his talent and maturity and demonstrated precisely why he is rightly considered as one of the immortals.
Across each of the first four innings in the series - which were failures by his high standards - Labuschagne was a victim of his own decision making, which was reckless, to be blunt. Multiple reprieves enabled him to convert what should have been 10s and 20s into 40s and though he was statistically, after two Tests, Australia’s best batsman, he knew deep down that he did not merit that tag. There was no paucity of the eccentric leaves followed by “NO RUN”, but his knocks reeked of indiscipline, something we have not come to associate with Labuschagne.
In the first innings at the SCG though, the closest Labuschagne came to indiscipline was irritating the Indian batsmen from forward short leg; his batting was pristine. Soon as he made his way to the wicket, Labuschagne was crystal clear on what he wanted to do: curb the over-enthusiasm powered by the adrenaline and play with utmost control, regardless of what the situation around him was. He started his innings off positively, clipping a straighter one from Siraj towards mid-wicket for a couple, yet while he showed intent with his blocks and leaves, he only ever attempted to dispatch deliveries that were absolutely in his zone.
Right from the moment he walked in, India relentlessly employed the tried-and-tested ploys, and a lot more, in the hope of drawing an error. Initially, with a tinge of movement on offer, they targeted the outside-off-stump channel with Bumrah and Siraj. While Labuschagne idiosyncratically unleashed his exaggerated leave on a fair few occasions, mostly he preferred to block the ball with authority, and rarely ever attempted a drive. Then they went short, in the hope of getting him to miscue a half-hearted pull like he did on multiple occasions in each of the first two Tests, but that plan too failed as only once he unleashed the pull, which he skilfully kept along the ground and dispatched to the boundary.
What stood out though was how Labuschagne handled India’s trump card Ravi Ashwin, who’d bamboozled him only a week ago. Compared to the pacers he showed more intent against the off-spinner, yet never was there a false or an anxious stroke. Not premidating, he read the turn, bounce, line and length to perfection and used the crease and some nimble footwork to quickly rock-back and crash the ball through cover or point in every instance of the ball being dropped short. Only once he came down the track - late on day 1 - to lift the ball over the in-field, yet that too was a calculated risk, due to the mid-off fielder being inside the circle.
Throughout his 196-ball stay in the middle, discipline overflowed from the bat of Labuschagne, and it was exemplified by how he operated in the few overs of madness that preceded the tea break. By the 28th over, Will Pucovski had decided to cut loose after getting two reprieves and surviving a spell of torment from Ashwin. He went from 35 to 54 in just 13 balls, was in the zone, keen to drive, cut and pull everything wide, and had also struck back-to-back boundaries off Saini.
Under such circumstances, it would be natural for the non-striker to get carried away and aim for a few swipes but Labuschagne had none of it. He blocked the balls that Pucovski drove dangerously away from his body and punched those that came straight, albeit with no intention to find the fence. He played the waiting game and weathered the storm on Day 1, before doing the same on the morning of Day 2.
No innings in which Labuschagne has faced over 150 balls has he had a false-short percentage (7%) lower than what he did in the SCG in the first innings. He portrayed discipline not too dissimilar to a flawless knock played by another champion cricketer at the same venue 17 years ago.
Eventually irony died a thousand deaths in the end as he eventually perished through a false stroke nine shy of his hundred - for once ditching his principles and cutting a ball that was too close - but it was a knock that transcended numbers through its sheer purity.
Labuschagne might have scored 40 fewer than his idol, but it was a knock which, in terms of sheer excellence, was worth no less. The three figures might have evaded him on Friday, but married to him is skill and discipline that will ensure that he continues to blur the line between ‘too good’ and ‘too good to be true.’ for months, if not years to follow.