Domain Tests v India

Marnus keeps faith in Baggy Green dream

Through a chaotic few months – and in the years building up to his maiden Test tour – Queenslander Marnus Labuschagne has never stopped believing

Adam Burnett

31 December 2018, 02:18 PM AEST

Marnus Labuschagne's bat was frozen in time, as if some invisible hand had hit pause on that single movement while letting the rest of the scene roll on through. By the time he finally made his ground – too late, by plenty – the memes were already trending online. Or so it seemed.

"If there's one moment I could have again," he says, grimacing, "good chance it'd be that run-out."

Labuschagne isn't the first cricketer to feel the full force of social media, and he knows he won't be the last. But there is no denying the ripple effect of that non-striker's end run-out in Abu Dhabi tested him in the hours and days that followed.

Brain fade proves costly from Labuschagne

"It definitely puts a strain on you," he says. "You're playing for your country, the pressure is massive – everyone's got a view.

"In the moment, you're walking off thinking, Man, that's a bit unlucky. Then you watch it, and everyone is starting to comment. And then when you play it over and over in slow-motion, it looks a hundred times worse … like I'm literally watching the ball hit the stumps."

For Labuschagne though, the criticism wasn't what hurt the most. What pained him was the bigger picture. Of the Test match, which Australia went on to lose, and of the 20 years leading up to the craziest month of his life.

***

Marnus Labuschagne was five days short of his fifth birthday when a chaotic flurry of canary yellow sent his world into a spin. It was the most famous ODI finale of them all. A dinky-di Aussie miracle and a dagger to the heart of a proud Proteas nation. As one country celebrated entry into the 1999 World Cup final, another was left to rue what might have been. From the wrong side of the Indian Ocean, Labuschagne sat staring wordlessly at the television, his feet – and heart – planted firmly in the losing camp.

"I remember it as clear as day," he says of the tied 1999 World Cup semi-final. "Where we were watching, what happened, everything."

Five years later, when Labuschagne's parents came to him and his sister with the news that the family was moving to Australia, he broke down in tears. This was a young boy who idolised Jacques Kallis, and whose heart pumped South African blood.

"I grew up a South African," he says. "The roots of the culture were there, definitely. That '99 World Cup still felt fresh in my mind, so the idea of coming to Australia was like my worst nightmare.

One of the most famous images in World Cup history // Getty
One of the most famous images in World Cup history // Getty

"In the end, it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened – the lifestyle here, the culture, the people, the opportunity that I've had with cricket …"

He trails off, and soon enough he is again reflecting on the recent Test series against Pakistan, when he came from nowhere to don the Baggy Green for the first time. Labuschagne was one of three debutants in Australia's top six in Dubai, as part of what was effectively an enforced changing of the guard under new coach Justin Langer. As the cricket world discussed, debated and dissected the selections amid the broader scope of a culture seemingly in crisis, Labuschagne was able to quietly grasp what he was about to achieve.

"It's a bit of a funny one – you always strive to play for Australia; since you were a little kid, it's all you wanted," he says while acknowledging the shifting of his childhood dreams in line with his family's shifting of continents.

"And then, for me, it happened in that whirlwind way."

Labuschagne made a duck in his first Test innings and actually had a run-out, a catch and two wickets before he scored his first run. But, in a sense, that's what Langer liked about him. The 24-year-old is an effervescent ball of energy, desperate to contribute to proceedings in whatever way he can. State teammates routinely say he is a positive force within the group; his love of the game comes through in his training and inspires others towards similar levels of commitment.

As he prepared for his Test debut, there was no shortage of commentary suggesting he had jumped the queue, particularly with Glenn Maxwell and Joe Burns having been omitted from the tour altogether. Langer appeared to pay little heed to the outside noise, instead positing Labuschagne's traits with a glowing warmth.

"He would literally do anything to play cricket for Australia," he enthused. "He loves playing cricket. He's one of those guys who is like the heartbeat of the team ... in terms of work ethic, desire, focus."

But the well-documented suddenness of Labuschagne's rise was matched only by the nothingness that followed that Pakistan series. Even as the Queenslander flew home from the Emirates, media focus had already shifted to the home Tests against India, and the JLT Sheffield Shield that would determine the form lines for batting candidates. In the eyes of most critics, Labuschagne wasn't a top contender for Australia's top six for the opening match in Adelaide.

Labuschagne grasps incredible short-leg catch

The run-out certainly hadn't helped. Nor had a series runs tally of 81. Labuschagne had made more runs each time he had batted, including top scoring with 43 in Australia's doomed second innings in Abu Dhabi, but he knew it wasn't enough. When he left his bat dangling over the crease at the non-striker's end, he was 25 and fighting hard to scrape together a first-innings total that would help Australia stay in the match. He walked off and took a place in the viewing area, sitting – rather gamely – close to Langer to watch the action unfold.

"(Langer) was more disappointed (than angry) for me, really, and for the team," he reflects. "I was at that stage batting really well, I was getting us back into the contest. And then to get out like that, it was a bit of a nothing out.

"I didn't take anything anyone said personally. I know it was a major mistake I made. That can't happen again in the rest of my career."

***

Australia's first-class scene is no place for the faint of heart. As he entered his fifth season of Shield cricket in the weeks after his maiden Test series, Labuschagne was patently aware of what was coming his way. He had achieved what others strive for, and in doing so he had become a target. The fact he had struggled for runs didn't help matters. And so the sledging ensued.

"There were a few things thrown around about the Baggy Green, and my ability," he recalls. "That's part of the game though – we play competitive cricket, and if you see a slight weakness somewhere, or if you see an opportunity where you can get someone thinking about something different, then absolutely you try to find that way in.

"That's the beauty of cricket; it can become a bit of a chess game at times. It's not necessarily just skill – it can be mental, trying to get someone distracted. I love that. I love it when teams come at me like that. That motivates me, that gets me firing."

Labuschagne struggled early in the Shield season // Getty
Labuschagne struggled early in the Shield season // Getty

Labuschagne failed to reach 30 in his first four knocks with Queensland. He was annoyed at himself, specifically at his inability to make a quick transition back into Australian conditions. He viewed that as a habit of a confident, assured batsman, and as such, noted it was something he needed to acquire.

"Those first few Shield games I struggled a bit," he says. "It was a mental thing, a little bit technical as well.

"What I did really well last Shield season was fight. I was able to grind out tough times for Queensland. That's how I ended up scoring the runs that I did.

"So coming back from the UAE, it took probably a game too long for me to get back into the swing of things."

A month after he had been playing Test cricket, he came up against a couple of his former teammates as New South Wales fielded a full-strength attack in Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. Batting at No.3, Labuschagne entered the action in the fourth over and went on to make a composed 52 in the first innings.

"(Facing that attack) almost simplified everything for me," he says. "When you come in against an attack like that, and you're down on runs, you kind of play with confidence because you think, All I need to do here is watch the ball, because they're all bowling above 140(kph).

Labuschagne finds form with key fifty

"So all of a sudden you're not thinking about technique or anything, you're just watching the ball, and you're deciding, righto, that's not there, or, yep, that's in the shot slot.

"That was a cool little transition into the last couple of games, where I was able to put some decent numbers on the board."

Five days after Labuschagne's half-century against the Blues, Australia's Test squad for the Border-Gavaskar series was announced. Against his better judgement, he had been holding out hope, banking on what he believed selectors knew he could contribute to the side. Trevor Hohns, chair of the national selection panel, delivered the bad news. He simply hadn't made enough runs.

"Really, you can never argue with that – you know if you've done enough," he says. "Sometimes you sit there and hope that they're going to stick with you ... but if you're honest with yourself, 90 per cent of the time you know it's coming."

Labuschagne begins the long walk back // Getty
Labuschagne begins the long walk back // Getty

The next day, he got another phone call. This one was from Langer. They had spoken quite a bit in the UAE, about cricket, as well as life beyond its confines. The coach could empathise about missing out on Test squads, and he also spoke with Labuschagne about his Shield fifty against the Test attack.

"He talked to me about what he'd seen in my batting," he recalls. "He asked me how I thought I'd batted, what I'd felt was good or what I might have struggled with. It was good to talk to him about it."

Labuschagne made 47 a week later against Victoria, then 21 and 78 in Tasmania as December rolled around. Finally he was feeling back in his groove, approaching the sort of form that had pushed him to second spot on the previous summer's Shield run-scorers list.

But with the official start of summer came a break in the Shield season, and just like that, his opportunities for time in the middle came to an abrupt halt. Two days out from Brisbane Heat's KFC BBL season opener, he was wheeled out for a media opportunity. When he spoke about chances for game time through an extended tournament, it wasn't difficult to read between the lines: Labuschagne wouldn't be playing against Adelaide at the Gabba that Wednesday night.

The Heat lost to the Strikers and played their next home match on the Gold Coast. James Pattinson was missing and there were some suggestions they might look to strengthen a batting order that had failed in Brisbane, and on a pitch that might have been a little more spin friendly, Labuschagne seemed to be in the selection mix. But again, he was overlooked. In the space of two months, he had gone from Australia's Test middle-order to the uncertainty of being an extra in a BBL squad.

Labuschagne has been cooling his heels since the BBL began // Getty
Labuschagne has been cooling his heels since the BBL began // Getty

If he was perturbed, Labuschagne didn't let it affect his demeanour. As a subtropical hailstorm lashed an empty Metricon Stadium that Saturday afternoon, he stood on the outfield, throwing a cricket ball up and down with all the worry of a kid in a park. As the puddles grew, he continued his capering while the rest of his teammates huddled under cover.

Optimism appears to come naturally for Labuschagne. Truth is, it stems from his faith.

***

Labuschagne doesn't like the connotations the description 'religious' invokes. His belief, he says, doesn't revolve around blindly following a set of rules, or ticking off a daily checklist of things he should – or should not – be doing. He and his wife Rebekah met at Gateway Baptist Church in Redlands when they were in their teens. Their families each attend the church and Labuschagne finds comfort and security in having such a stable foundation in his life.

"I've been a Christian my whole life," he says. "I grew up going to church, and I made my own commitment to follow the Lord when I was 17, when I got baptised at my church, and it's been a journey since then.

"It does give me perspective on things. That cricket isn't everything. Although at times it does feel like it has become that. But in terms of perspective, I'm so privileged, I've got a great wife and awesome family on both sides, which is so rare nowadays. We get along so well.

"So I know when I come back from wherever I (have been), I'm coming into an environment where I'm loved. My faith has played a massive part (in getting through) these past few months."

It was also there for all to see when he made his Test debut, though only if you knew what you were looking for. Labuschagne has a small sticker of an eagle at the bottom of the back of all his bats. It represents one of his favourite passages from the bible – Isaiah 40:31: For those who hope in the Lord, he shall renew their strength. They shall soar on wings like eagles; they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not be faint.

Labuschagne prepares for another stint at short leg // Getty
Labuschagne prepares for another stint at short leg // Getty

For years, his mum, Alte, has been writing bible verses on the bottom of the inner soles in his cricket shoes at the beginning of each season. It is typical of her, Labuschagne says, in both her steadfast faith and her unwavering support of him. They are subtle reminders of his beliefs in his everyday cricket life, where there has been a tacit understanding from the outset that his values won't always mesh with those of everyone else. At Queensland however, he has seldom found it difficult to express his true self, particularly as a new generation of players has filtered through the ranks alongside him.

"It's definitely something where earlier, when I came into an ageing Bulls squad and everyone knew I was Christian, that was a bit more challenging," he says. "There were older players and it was a bit tougher. But people were willing to listen and try to understand me."

One of those was Usman Khawaja, one of the few practising Muslims in Australian first-class cricket, and a man with whom Labuschagne soon developed a friendship.

"I've found it's good to talk to people of different faiths," he says. "Usman and I have had numerous conversations about faith. Even from when I first came into the squad, we've had some amazing conversations, about his faith, my faith, and how they sort of intertwine."

Nowadays in the Bulls camp, Labuschagne's faith is viewed as just another layer to his character. Matt Renshaw poses him questions about it while they run laps together at training, and last summer when he debuted for the Heat, stand-in skipper Joe Burns led a pre-match prayer as a show of solidarity and respect. There remain preconceptions and challenges, but they have become the exception rather than the norm.

"People still think that I don't drink, but I've been having beers with the boys since I first came into the squad," he explains. "There are stereotypes people have in their mind.

Labuschagne and Khawaja have formed a tight bond // Getty
Labuschagne and Khawaja have formed a tight bond // Getty

"And sometimes you do need a strong personality. Sometimes you do have to make tough decisions, whether it's around cricket or somewhere else, and say, 'Well, that's not what I do'. But that happens very rarely at Queensland – we're a very tight bunch.

"You've just got to break down those walls. I'm no different to anyone else."

When he toured the UAE with Australia, he broached the subject with Langer who, it has been reported, carries rosary beads with him that represent his faith in the Catholic Church.

"We talked about faith and where that lies for him," Labuschagne says. "How that helped him through some different times in his life.

"It was good to be able to relate."

***

When he arrived in Australia with little grasp of English, it was Labuschagne's mum who ensured he persisted at school, completed his homework and developed his language skills (today, most of his teammates will tell you they're unable to keep him quiet). Because just as his faith was strong, so too was his blinkered focus on cricket as a career.

"It's not a great example for other kids but (a career in cricket) was always my thinking," he says. "School was always … I was intelligent enough to get through, but I definitely didn't have the literacy skills. But I was a good communicator, and good socially, so I was able to connect with people outside of the classroom.

"But inside the classroom was hard work those first few years … Mum was always making me work hard but the writing was on the wall from when I was very young.

"People always asked me, What do you want to do? I always said, I want to play cricket for Australia. They'd ask what my Plan B was, but I look at it like … why would I go and study something that doesn't motivate me, or I'm not passionate about, when I want to play cricket? It's all I wanted to do. And it's all I want to do now."

Inside Australia's emotional Baggy Green presentations

To achieve that dream, Labuschagne constantly sought improvement. His family provided unconditional support; his father Andre had a cricket pitch installed in their front yard and told his son that if he wanted to be a professional cricketer, he should simply train every day. The advice is instructive to Labuschagne's approach still. In his junior years, he moulded himself on Kallis with the intention of always being in the game. But his batting became his strong suit, and before he could quite comprehend it was happening, he was debuting for Queensland as a 20-year-old. He made 83 opening the batting, but a second-innings duck was the first in a series of reality checks that culminated in an end-of-season axing from the state squad.

"That was probably one of the best things that could've happened," he says. "That was a moment I can pinpoint where I thought, Righto – I want this. And I just put everything I had into it. No stone unturned.

"I was always hard working but that's where I decided I was going to try to be better than everyone; work harder, train harder, run faster. Everything. That really motivated me and helped me get that grittiness and determination I have now."

That well-drilled desire to better himself has ensured he hasn't sat idle in his recent weeks without cricket. After taking seven wickets in his two Tests (three more than specialist spinner Jon Holland managed, and in half as many overs), Labuschagne has committed to improving his leg-spin to the point that he is considered a genuine allrounder. He has been picking the brain of Heat coach and legendary Black Caps spinner Dan Vettori, who has talked to him about what lengths to bowl and when, and the finer points of bowling in both first-class and Twenty20 cricket.

"Dan offers so much – he's an open book," he says. "He gives such good insights. I've learnt a lot from him with my bowling and it's a skill that I'm continuing to learn, because it's only in the last year that I've changed my bowling and placed more of a focus on it.

Labuschagne wants to become a genuine allrounder // Getty
Labuschagne wants to become a genuine allrounder // Getty

"My dream as a player was always to be good enough with both skills to win games for my team. I'm not at that stage yet. I'm bowling more overs in Shield cricket which is good, but we do have plenty of spinners at Queensland and the Heat, so at the moment it's just a matter of continuing to work as hard as I can on it.

"And keeping in the forefront of my mind that batting is my first skill – if I'm not scoring runs, I'm not in the team."

***

Just as the notion of not being in the team was becoming a little too familiar, Labuschagne got another phone call. His recall to the Test squad had been heavily reported over the past 24 hours but again it came as a surprise, given the 13-man party for the Sydney Test had been announced prior to Christmas. The prospect of a turning SCG pitch, together with a struggling batting line-up, evidently favoured his credentials. Labuschagne said he was a little overwhelmed to earn selection for a possible home debut, but is what he has been striving for and dreaming of, more than ever since he got a taste for Test cricket in October.

"Once you've got there, you crave it; you want to get back in there badly," he says. "I've been dropped before; everyone's been dropped. Obviously I was devastated – I want to play for Australia. But for me it's not about being dropped now – it's about how I come back from it."

Until Sunday, Labuschagne's Baggy Green was sitting beside his well-worn Bulls cap on a spare bed in his house. Now it is accompanying him to Sydney, for potentially another shot at a dream he's had faith in achieving since he was a kid.

Domain Test Series v India

Dec 6-10: India won by 31 runs

Dec 14-18: Australia won by 146 runs

Dec 26-30: India won by 137 runs

Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG

Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc

India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar