Pakistan v Australia Test - Men's
JL's kindred spirit epitomises new era
Get to know Marnus Labuschagne, the hard-working fresh face for Justin Langer’s new era
Justin Langer is sitting cross-legged on the edge of a turf practice wicket, one small step from the feet of the batsman looming large above him.
He is facing back towards the bowler, his left hand within reach of half a dozen cricket balls dotted evenly in a diagonal line across the pitch.
The man whose bat is shadow-driving these balls is Marnus Labuschagne, the least-known member of Australia’s new-look batting group for their forthcoming Test assignment in the heat of the Arabian Desert.
Langer watches with a razor focus as Labuschagne plays an arcing drive over the top of each ball. He mutters the occasional word of advice, at one stage planting a palm down into the dirt to illustrate a point to his charge.
If the Western Australian veteran of 105 Tests had hoped to re-shape the Australian cricket team in his own image, he's done so in the form of the uncapped Queenslander.
"He would literally do anything to play cricket for Australia," Langer enthused last month of Labuschagne, the man who this week could join Langer in the elite club of Australian Test cricketers.
"He loves playing cricket. His work ethic is as good as anyone’s.
"He’s one of those guys who is like the heartbeat of the team ... in terms of work ethic, desire, focus."
Langer could well be describing himself when he talks about those qualities, which he seems determined to entrench in a new-look Australian playing group desperate to rediscover their way.
And Labuschagne's own self-assessment could equally apply to Langer as well, both in his playing days and now as a coach.
"I'm a cricket snuff," the 24-year-old tells cricket.com.au with a smile.
"I watch a lot of cricket, at home I watch cricket. I'm a cricket fanatic.
"I just love cricket."
Even rusted-on cricket fans would do well to tell you much about Labuschagne, the middle-order batsman who took an injured Matthew Renshaw's spot in Australia A's four-day squad in India last month, and duly capitalised with scores of 60 and 37 to earn a seat on the plane to Dubai.
Having played just six BBL games for the Brisbane Heat, the right-hander's modest feats at domestic level have come largely off Broadway in Shield and one-day cricket, save for his cameo as an Australian sub fielder in 2014 when he was still just five games into his career with the Bulls.
His record across 35 first-class matches is reasonable but certainly doesn't stand out from the pack; four centuries and an average of just 34 – a mark that jumps to 38 in the past two years – puts him squarely in the middle of a large group of Australian batsmen chasing Test spots.
But the fact he possesses those qualities Langer raves about – hard work, desire and a love of the game – helped to get him the nod for Australia's first Test squad in the post ball-tampering era.
"It was pretty amazing really, to hear someone say that about yourself," Labuschagne says of Langer's very public praise.
"It was really exciting for him to say that and hopefully I can just continue to be that person and continue to be that player."
While player and coach had met on only a handful of occasions before heading to the UAE, it appears Langer has found somewhat of a kindred spirit in his young charge.
The image of the pair working intensely together on a sweltering Dubai afternoon last week – Langer sitting on his backside and talking the finer points of batting, Labuschagne standing tall and eagerly soaking up every word – showed two men on the same wavelength.
"It was really good to work with JL and work on something specific," Labuschagne said.
"I love growing, I love learning about the game and improving. It was great.
"It's a dream really. It was a dream to play for Australia, a dream to play for my country. Now that I'm here it's really about relishing the top and making sure I make the most of everything here and make the most of the coaches."
While Labuschagne's cricketing ethos, like Langer's, is based on hard work and squeezing every inch of talent out of himself, his cricketing hero is a man renowned more for eye-catching athleticism than stoic defiance.
Having spent the first 10 years of his life in Klerksdorp, around two hours south-west of Johannesburg, Labuschagne idolises South African fielding ace Jonty Rhodes and to this day mimics the Proteas legend with child-like enthusiasm by taking spectacular diving catches on trips to the beach.
It is a second string to his bow (he has a third in the form of some handy leg-spin) that was looked upon favourably by selectors when they were considering their 'spare' batsman for the Pakistan Tests; in the desert heat, even if Labuschagne doesn’t earn a debut, he will likely spend plenty of time in the field.
And true to form, his reputation as one of the better fielders in the country, which materialised in the form of two crucial direct-hit run outs on the recent A tour, stems from meticulous planning and an unshakable work ethic as much as natural ability.
"It's always good when you train very hard on fielding and you continue to try and improve," he says.
"It was something that at the start of the year I sat down with Queensland high performance staff and talked about, (getting) better at hitting the stumps and being more consistent with that.
"I found in previous years I made a lot of really good saves but I wasn’t able to capitalise on the run outs that I created. So it was really good to go over there and get two opportunities and have two hits, which is something that we're working hard on."
Hard work, conscientious planning and an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement.
All qualities that are straight from the Langer playbook.
Qantas Tour of the UAE
Australia Test squad: Tim Paine (c), Ashton Agar, Brendan Doggett, Aaron Finch, Travis Head, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Michael Neser, Matthew Renshaw, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc
Pakistan Test squad: Sarfraz Ahmed (c), Azhar Ali, Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Haris Sohail, Usman Salahuddin, Yasir Shah, Shadab Khan, Bilal Asif, Mohammad Abbas, Hasan Ali, Wahab Riaz, Faheem Ashraf, Mir Hamza, Mohammad Rizwan, Mohammad Hafeez
Oct 7-11: First Test, Dubai
Oct 16-20: Second Test, Abu Dhabi