Marnus Labuschagne started 2020 with a double-century against New Zealand at the SCG. What Australia would give for even half that when they take on India in Sydney next week with the Test series locked at 1-1.
In many ways, Labuschagne is lower down Australia’s list of concerns when it comes to their batting line-up: he has faced the most deliveries and scored the most runs in the two Tests so far. That does, though, come from a pretty low base with the home side having limped to totals of 191, 195 and 200 in their three completed innings.
Dismantling India for 36 meant it did not prove costly in Adelaide, but at the MCG their under-par first-innings total was significantly overhauled by India and then they could only muster a lead of 69.
However, Labuschagne’s series is also part of the problem. Three times he has got himself well set at the crease but has been unable to pass fifty. Compare that to last season against New Zealand and Pakistan, where he only failed to reach fifty once in eight innings, and converted four of those to hundreds, of which the smallest was 143.
For that, the credit has to go to India’s attack, which has pulled off some superbly worked-out plans to Labuschagne, as well as all the other Australia batsmen. The three substantial innings Labuschagne has played have ended lbw to Umesh Yadav, caught at leg slip against Mohammed Siraj and caught at slip off R Ashwin.
Each has been the reward of excellent thinking with the dismissals against Yadav and Siraj highlighting the straightness with which India have bowled to Labuschagne, with a well-set leg-side field that has strangled his scoring rate.
Of the six Test series Labuschagne has played more than a single match in, this current one is comfortably his slowest in terms of his strike rate – 41.61. As a new year dawns, for the first time since returning to the Test team in the 2019 Ashes, he has a problem to solve.
“They’ve certainly come in with a plan with those straight fields and making sure they really aren’t leaving the stumps,” Labuschagne said. “Having a really heavy leg-side field obviously slows your scoring rate down because those shots you do get on your legs go for one not four, and they are always keeping those catchers in the game.
“You have to be really disciplined as they showed when I did glance once around the corner and got caught with that leg slip. For us, it’s probably a two-phase answer: we need to be very disciplined and we also need to come up with ways to put them under pressure.”
None of Australia’s batsmen has been able to break free – this is currently their slowest-scoring home Test series since 1986-87. While India have also had to work hard for their runs, the crucial difference in the last Test was that they had a match-defining century from captain Ajinkya Rahane.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty, we got to keep grinding and finding a way,” Labuschagne said. “If we do get in we’ve got to make sure we get those big scores.”
In terms of output, it has been the lean returns of Steven Smith that have caught the eye over the first two Tests as his three completed innings have brought 1, 0 and 8, twice dismissed by Ashwin and then bowled behind his legs by Jasprit Bumrah in the second innings at the MCG. Only once in his Test career has he been dismissed for four consecutive single-figure scores – against England during the 2015 Ashes – and he has averaged 26.40 since the 2019 Ashes.
Unsurprisingly, with the record that Smith has under his belt and the success Labuschagne has enjoyed before this summer, the Australia camp is confident that an upturn is around the corner.
“I wouldn’t be too quick to be judging these Steve Smith not looking good the middle,” assistant coach Andrew McDonald said. “He hasn’t got going in this series. Marnus, probably the question for me at the moment is tactically the way that India have prepared, and have been able to probably control those two players particularly with that leg-side theory.
“That’s something those two players have got to come up with a better method. I don’t think it’s anything to do with technique. Technically, they’re ready to go. It’s about how that are going to score their rounds and how they’re going to combat these tactics from Indian bowlers and captains.”
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo
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