Two balls into the 58th over of Australia’s third innings, Marnus Labuschagne made an unusual request. He was standing at the non-striker’s end and Stuart Broad had finally convinced umpire Nitin Menon that the old ball had gone out of shape. It no longer fit through the metal gauge, so Menon and Joel Wilson called for a box of alternatives and picked out a replacement.
Before Menon threw the ball to Anderson, he granted Labuschagne’s request to study the ball himself in order to pick up clues as to how it would behave. “You could feel it straightaway… it was a harder ball, and the seam was a little bit bigger,” he later said. England’s fielders were bemused by what they saw as a characteristically eccentric demand, and Ben Stokes let him know as much.
“They weren’t happy! They weren’t happy that I wanted to have a look at the ball,” Labuschagne said. “In this country, it’s pretty clear: if you look at the ball once you can tell straightaway what it’s going to do. I looked at the ball and was like, ‘Well, this is going to swing’ and I threw it back. They were obviously not very happy with that.
“I said it to Ben out there. ‘Why do you want to look at the ball?’ he asked me. I said, ‘To see if it’s going to swing.’ Jimmy Anderson, first ball he bowled to me, big inswinger. It just helps you prepare. The ball before was reversing slightly. It’s just being meticulous. For me, it was pretty common sense: why would I not want to have a look at the ball?”
It was a moment that highlighted Labuschagne’s painstaking attention to detail. He is notorious for his work ethic, and is the hardest trainer in an Australia side that also features Steven Smith; he has spent hours upon hours in the nets on this tour, using Andy Flower – who is working with the squad as a consultant – as a personal batting coach.
This has not been a straightforward tour for Labuschagne. He made starts in both innings of the World Test Championship final, with 26 and 41, but then managed only 144 in his first eight hits of this series. He reflected that his batting was “a bit of a rabble” at Edgbaston, but he has finally found his rhythm and form to deliver a fifty and a hundred when Australia needed him to step up.
“In the first innings, I felt really confident in my decision-making, leaving the ball outside off, being able to make really good decisions when it comes straight,” he said. “I felt confident when they did go short that I could make really good decisions there. I felt it was all coming together and it was nice to get a bigger score today.”
Labuschagne has been the only Australia batter to successfully negate Mark Wood across the last two Tests, a stark contrast to 18 months ago when he was dismissed by him three times in 61 balls. He was wrapped on the gloves on this abbreviated fourth day but has largely stayed in control despite Wood’s extra pace.
“A lot of my stuff I [put down] to technique,” he said. “I feel like my game is in a really good space to be facing him, the technical changes I’ve made. It allows me to make really good decisions and get into positions to be able to either pull, duck, leave, sway. I think the key to batting is having as many options as you can for a delivery.”
Shortly after the ball change, the umpires decided that it was too dark for England’s seamers to bowl, instead forcing them to bowl spin. Labuschagne seized on the opportunity, running down the pitch to launch Joe Root for back-to-back sixes over long-on.
It was a calculated gamble, recognising the opportunity that Australia had to make a dent in the deficit and thereby force England to bat again if the rain holds off on Sunday. “Having two spinners coming on, it was an opportunity for us to put a little bit of pressure back on them,” he said.
Labuschagne eventually fell to Root, mistiming a cut shot having earlier outside-edged an arm ball past slip, but not before bringing up his second overseas century and his first in England. He was convinced he had not hit the ball and had to drag himself off after UltraEdge said otherwise, but his two innings have kept Australia in this game.
“If we end up saving the match then it’ll be a pretty good moment but until then it’s sort of sitting on the edge,” he said. “It’s always a privilege to score a Test hundred and you have to recognise that, it is special. But currently, sitting here, it’s still a bit bittersweet with the circumstances of the game.”
Labuschagne has not had the tour he wanted in England: he has been getting himself out to balls he should have put away, and shown little of his usual ruthlessness. But this week, he has made Australia’s highest and joint-second-highest scores of the match; if they escape with a draw, they will have him to thank for it.
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