‘Great theatre’: How Labuschagne got under Ashwin’s skin

Ahmedabad: Late in January, Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith sat together in a hotel room in Double Bay and spoke with great assurance about how they would bat in India.

Five or so weeks later in a function room in their Ahmedabad lodging, Labuschagne chuckles at the memory. Smith, meanwhile, leans over a chair and listens in.

India has been an altogether more searching challenge than either could have reckoned with from the comfort of Australia. But it has not been a wasted experience either. While Smith is unlikely to be back here in 2027, Labuschagne will be the batting bulwark of that team.

Marnus Labuschagne defends in Indore.Credit:AP

His precision of thought about most things, not least the coffee room in the team hotel where he takes prime responsibility for preparing the machine, implements, coffee beans and grinder, offers plenty of insights. That’s if his delivery of them isn’t so caffeinated as to rush past the listener.

Take, for example, the back and forth between Labuschagne and Ravichandran Ashwin on the final morning of the Indore Test. Alongside Travis Head, Labuschagne was making very hard work of the chase for 76 when Ashwin made the snap decision to bowl off a short run.

In terms of Labuschagne’s pre-delivery routine, that meant he would be looking up from a final bat tap virtually as the ball left the hand.

The following stand-off was a source of some mystery to those watching, and some amusement to Head, the non-striker. Eventually it raised the ire of India’s captain Rohit Sharma and umpire Joel Wilson, who told Labuschagne to face up.

“He turned to a short run and I wasn’t watching because I had the rhythm of his run-up, so my routine stays to that rhythm,” Labuschagne told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald while wearing the cap of his coffee label, The Run Club.

“So I was like ‘I’m not facing up because I’m going to look down and then he’s going to bowl the ball’. I did it a few times, just pulled away. Then Joel came down and said ‘you have to face up when he’s ready’ and I said ‘happy to face up Joel, but he’s trying to bowl the ball before I’m ready’.”

The passage was an example of Labuschagne, Australia’s leading run-maker in the series so far without once passing 50, showing how it is possible to play smart, determined cricket without lapsing into the ugliness of preceding generations.

“It’s just the chess, the caginess, just trying to get you out of the rhythm of what he’s bowling,” Labuschagne said. “I credit him because I could sense the momentum of the game was shifted or potentially gone, but he’s so cagey and so good at the small things.

“That’s why I’ve always got a smile on my face out there. I appreciate where he’s coming from. I understand, hence I’m not facing up, because I know what you’re trying to do. It’s great cricket and great theatre.”

What’s clear from the scoreboard is that the exchange affected Ashwin more than Labuschagne. The next over, after requesting a change of ball, Ashwin started to miss his length full, allowing Head to start hammering the boundaries that brought the match to a swift conclusion.

For Labuschagne, it was another instance that reinforced to him how much he had learnt in the space of three Test matches that he will keep in his back pocket for Ahmedabad and the future.

“It’s the difference between knowing what you’re going to face and actually the reality of playing on it and what it does to you as a player,” he said. “As I’ve played more I’ve realised I can trust my defence more, where usually when the wickets are like that you want to play more shots.

“It’s hard to gain that without knowledge and without failure. I look back now and I think ‘geez I threw away a hundred in Nagpur first day’. You look back on the series and you’re like geez that was one of the best wickets we’ve played on so far and I felt good but I just got away from my plan.”

Marnus Labuschagne is dismissed on day one in Nagpur.Credit:AP

Those early series failures were made good in Indore. A 2-2 after Ahmedabad would allow Labuschagne and other members of the team to look to the 2027 India Test tour with far greater assurance.

Something numerous players will work on is greater commitment to defence, rather than propping forward in an active neutral posture that may be better for boundary hitting but vulnerable to quality spin.

That half-commitment to defence hurt Labuschagne when lbw to Ashwin in Delhi in the first innings, or bowled three times (including a no-ball) by Ravindra Jadeja when caught on the back foot by deliveries that slid through low.

“We talk a lot about putting ego away and ensuring you don’t get beaten on the inside of the bat,” Labuschagne says. “But I feel like so far this series I haven’t got beaten on the inside of the bat, I’ve got beaten under the bat.

“The one in Delhi I tried to play a bit square.

“Naturally you’re trying to score. So I corrected the way I played it, but then the one in the third Test I wasn’t looking to score square and it still got under. But it definitely makes me think. I looked at how ‘Uzzy’ [Usman Khawaja] played similar balls like that.

“Uzzy doesn’t get as big a stride forward, he plays a lot of balls off the back foot and gets the bat quite low, whereas I get a long way forward and sometimes get too far back, instead of getting low and staying in the middle. Steve does that well with the one that shoots, he doesn’t necessarily shift all the way back.”

And amid the mess and noise of India, Labuschagne and his teammates have also gathered that there is one powerful incentive to perform well – it is the surest way to quieten the crowds.

“It’s a nice feeling when you almost wind the crowd down,” he said. “The crowd dictates to you when the game is shifting towards you. It’s nice to hear when the crowd goes dead silent and you can sense that you’re on top.”

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