He was always destined to be a prolific Test batsman. What stood in his way was himself
Junction Oval, February 23, 2019. Queensland are batting against Victoria and Marnus Labuschagne is about to throw another innings away.
There's plenty of chatter on the field. A number of Victoria's players reckon at least a couple of others, Matthew Wade and Pete Handscomb, should have played for Australia ahead of Labuschagne, who for his part enjoys responding with his own opinions, though no one has ever heard him swear.
Batting alongside Joe Burns and then Charlie Hemphrey, Labuschagne works into his innings and gradually scores with greater freedom using the neat, technically correct, albeit off-side-dominant, method seen in his first stints for Australia.
As has often happened for Queensland and latterly the national team, Labuschagne looks to have the measure of most of the bowlers. He has forced them to switch from their plan A of targeting his front pad in between a liberal supply of bouncers to a more restricting plan B of the fourth- or fifth-stump channel outside off.
Hemphrey, who drifted into a career for Queensland after moving to Australia from the UK and initially working as a baggage handler at the Brisbane airport, is wondering - not for the first time - why a batsman as talented as Labuschagne has only four first-class hundreds in five years and a batting average only marginally better than his own. In the stands, Labuschagne's manager, Dean Kino, is quietly pondering the same thing of his devoutly Christian, exceedingly dedicated and unfailingly diligent client.
Then, just before tea, the Victoria captain Travis Dean calls upon Matt Short for some part-time offspin with the ageing Dukes ball. Labuschagne and Hemphrey trade singles in the first over before Hemphrey launches a six. On strike for the start of the next, Labuschagne spoils to get after Short even though the break is approaching, hitting a couple of fours.
"He came off the plane. He had red and green horizontal-striped shorts, like the Grinch, he had odd socks on, his phone was all cracked, his iPad was all cracked, he looked like he'd literally got out of bed" Neil D'Costa, Labuschagne's coach, on their first meeting
"I remember walking up to him and going, 'He doesn't know where to bowl to you, but take your medicine. If you don't score any more runs this over, fine,'" Hemphrey recalls. "Then he ran down and hit it straight to mid-on."
Crestfallen, Labuschagne puts his hands to his head. Hemphrey, who goes on to make 93, notes this is far from the first time Labuschagne has seemed to be in an inordinate hurry when he has the opposition at his mercy.
"The way the Shield season is scheduled, you potentially play ten games in about 12 weeks of cricket. It can lead to you thinking, 'If I miss out this game, I've got to score the runs next game' or 'If this is a green top then I've got to score the runs.'"
Labuschagne can certainly recall that sense of anxiety as the summer of 2018-19 was ending and with it his chances to secure a spot on the 2019 Ashes tour.
"At that stage I probably wanted runs too much, and sometimes when you want it too much, almost instead of trusting the process and trusting that you're going to get the runs, you go out in search of it a bit. You're not playing with as much freedom as you would like to or you're trying to almost rush the process of batting instead of trusting that if you bat well for four, five or six hours, it's going to come out at the other end."
Anxiety breeds anxiety, as Labuschagne's subsequent Shield scores underline: 36, 0, 0, 36, 3, 2 and 26. At 24, he looks to be a lot further away from the Australian team than any batsman who played in the side's most recent Test match should be. With Steven Smith and David Warner due back from their bans in April, competition for places is about to heat up. Labuschagne's mentor, Neil D'Costa, knows that his pupil may only get one shot at it.
In the 2019-20 home summer, Labuschagne made scores of 185, 162, 143, 50, 63, 19, 215 and 59 against Pakistan and New Zealand
© Getty Images
In the 2019-20 home summer, Labuschagne made scores of 185, 162, 143, 50, 63, 19, 215 and 59 against Pakistan and New Zealand © Getty Images
"I said, 'Can you see this all slipping away? You're not going to get many more chances,'" D'Costa recalls. "'You and the guy in the mirror are going to be responsible for messing this all up.'"
Labuschagne was 17 when his Brisbane-based junior batting coach, Blair Copeland, concluded that as his academy grew, he could not devote enough time to the chirpy teenager who had moved with his family from Klerksdorp, South Africa, seven years before. So he linked Labuschagne up with D'Costa, well known for aiding the likes of Michael Clarke, Phillip Hughes and Mitchell Starc.
A flight to Sydney was arranged. D'Costa can vividly remember the first meeting.
"He came off the plane. He had red and green horizontal-striped shorts, like the Grinch, he had odd socks on, his phone was all cracked, his iPad was all cracked, he looked like he'd literally got out of bed," D'Costa says. "I said, 'Mate, is that the way you travel?' He says, 'Well, I'm just coming to see you', I said, 'What if I had the CEO of Cricket NSW with me?' and he goes, 'Yeah, but you haven't.'
"Then I went into a meeting. I told Marnus, 'I've got this meeting with a tennis coach, so can you just sit there and shut up?' And this bloke took the meeting over! I got back in the car and said, 'What the f**k was that?' He goes, 'Well, I thought he wanted my opinion', and I go, 'No one wanted your opinion, mate. You weren't supposed to be there. And he just started laughing. When he does something like that, he'll cuddle you and go, 'Love you.'"
So began a coaching relationship that helped push Labuschagne through Queensland's junior ranks into the state team by the age of 20, where his abilities won him the attention of the national talent manager, Greg Chappell, among others.
Justin Langer, too, was forced to take notice of the young batsman. In the northern summer of 2014, Labuschagne played for Sandwich Town in the Kent Cricket League Premier Division, the league in which Langer had some 22 years before become the only player to tally more than 1000 runs for the season, an aggregate few thought would ever be broken.
"I remember saying to the boys, 'Marnus has always had more talent than I have but our records at the time of joining were very similar. I've never seen someone improve at this speed except Steve Smith'" Charlie Hemphrey on his time at Glamorgan with Labuschagne
In early August 2014, D'Costa texted Langer. "Marnus was playing in that competition for Sandwich and I said to Justin, 'I've got a young bloke about to break your record.' He said, 'No one will break that record.'
"I said, Well, his name's Marnus Labuschagne, you better stay tuned, because he's about to break your record.' And with 300 runs to go, I wrote, '300 to go', and he says, 'Really?' So '200 runs to go', '100 runs to go', 'Gone'. He made five hundreds and a 200 and I said to Langer, 'You watch this journey now, mate, you watch him go'. Every time we catch up, he goes, 'Geez I've got a lot more faith in you now.'"
Labuschagne passed Langer's 1012-run record with a match to spare and flew home to win his first state cap. He made 83 against South Australia in his first Sheffield Shield innings in late 2014 and his first hundred the following summer.
In 2016-17, he was named the Player of the Tournament in the domestic limited-overs competition and handed a Big Bash League contract with Brisbane Heat.
But there was something missing - big scores of the kind to vault Labuschagne above the broad but not especially deep field of batsmen vying to play for Australia. And as a fringe member of the Heat squad, Labuschagne found himself spending about eight weeks of the prime of the season not playing much cricket at all. Hemphrey, for one, could relate, even as the pair swapped places in and out of the Queensland Shield side for a couple of years.
Rather than ruminating too much on these frustrations, however, Labuschagne was finding other ways in which to grow from a boy who loved cricket, and who would frequently be distraught when dismissed, into a man who played it as part of a life not defined by worldly success. He met the woman who is now his wife, Rebekah, at the Gateway Baptist Church in Redlands, Brisbane, when both were teenagers, and they married in 2017. His faith, passed on from his parents, Andre and Alta, but made his own through baptism at the age of 17, is a constant companion. It is embodied by the Bible chapter and verse, from Isaiah, emblazoned on the back of his bat.
"My wife and I and my mate came up with that Isaiah 40:31. It was just something to give me that confidence when you're out there to know that God is with you," Labuschagne says. "I really do enjoy talking about [my faith] because it has a lot of meaning for me.
"Usman [Khawaja] and I have had many discussions about it. I like growing my knowledge about different faiths. People have known about my faith since a very young age. It's always been part of my life."
With marriage, Labuschagne moved out of the family home and found himself confronting the sort of day-to-day tasks that help create a greater sense of self-reliance in any person, let alone a cricketer.
"I couldn't wait for Marnus to get married," D'Costa says. "When he left home, got married, took on responsibilities for payments and looking after his car, his wife, his dog, I saw the boy become a man.
"His faith plays a big role. I cannot imagine having a relationship with God and with Jesus that is so strong, having a marriage that is very spiritual in their connection, having that relationship with his mum and dad, having the church as his social group. He is so free of any skeletons. All we needed to do was get him the right combination on the field."
By February 2019, though, that right combination remained beyond reach.
After Labuschagne replaced Steve Smith as a concussion sub and made 59 in the Lord's Test, Steve Waugh told him, "If you can get through that, there's nothing harder in Test cricket"
© Getty Images
After Labuschagne replaced Steve Smith as a concussion sub and made 59 in the Lord's Test, Steve Waugh told him, "If you can get through that, there's nothing harder in Test cricket" © Getty Images
Labuschagne's first taste of international cricket, against Pakistan, afforded by the absences of Smith and Warner, had been inconclusive, and there was little immediate growth in its wake. Instead, there was impatience from him, mounting anxiousness from those around him, and a sense in the wider cricket fraternity that his chance had likely already come and gone.
One opposition coach says that even after Labuschagne had played international cricket, he was far from the most scrutinised player in the Queensland line-up. "We put a lot more time into Khawaja, Renshaw and Burns. He didn't take up much planning time."
With shots like the one Labuschagne played to get out to Matt Short, it was little wonder.
Hemphrey signed with Glamorgan in January 2019, and late in the Australian summer heard that Labuschagne would accompany him to Cardiff. Glamorgan had been forced to cope without Shaun Marsh, who was unavailable due to Australian selection, and other prospective choices were to be snapped up by Australia A for the tour immediately prior to the Ashes.
Labuschagne's name had, in fact, come up as a potential Glamorgan player in 2018 when Marsh was chosen for Australia's ODI squad in England, but he did not qualify because he had not yet played for Australia nor Australia A. Now, he effectively became the last overseas batsman signed for the 2019 English season.
Glamorgan agreed to take him on the basis of his character, his eagerness and his all-round value to the team - not a million miles from the scenario in which he had first been picked for the Test team in the UAE against Pakistan the year before. Excited and grateful as he was, Labuschagne ventured to England with plenty of clarity about what was needed - bucketloads of runs.
"I'd grab him and say, 'Would you like to meet the person standing between you and greatness?' and I'd stand him in front of my mirror, 'There he is, right there - defeat him and you can defeat anyone" D'Costa
"Neil said, 'Mate, nothing else matters. You can try to chop and change, you can do whatever you want, but at the end of the day, the only currency is runs'. That was something that really hit me, because at times I'd tried to become the perfect batter instead of just going out there and trusting what I had was good enough.
"I was just excited I was going to be able to continue to play cricket. There's obviously a little bit more pressure that comes with playing as an overseas player. It was nice to get away to a bit of a change in scenery, a change in coaching staff, just to give you that fresh perspective."
"Perspective" is one way to describe the blunt instruction Labuschagne received from Glamorgan's coach Matthew Maynard soon after arriving to the cold weather, damp pitches and darting seams of the early English season.
"He was cutting across the ball, his bat was coming down from gully," Hemphrey says. "They'd said that a lot in Queensland, but it took working with Matthew Maynard. His words were pretty much: 'What the f**k are you doing with your feet? That's why your bat's coming from gully.'"
This adjustment would serve to open up the leg side far more and reduce the possibility of lbw dismissals, but for Labuschagne the more significant breakthrough was the chance to play a high volume of red-ball cricket and develop the sort of confidence in himself and his batting that he had been unable to generate from the far more clipped schedule of the Sheffield Shield.
"It definitely was a turning point," he says. "There's a lot of other people that deserve the credit. My coach, Neil D'Costa - we've been working together for eight years - so to think that making one change made the big difference is probably not right. But definitely that experience in Glamorgan changed a lot of things."
Baggy geeks: Smith and Labuschagne are similar in their obsession with the game and appetite for runs
© Getty Images
Baggy geeks: Smith and Labuschagne are similar in their obsession with the game and appetite for runs © Getty Images
Hemphrey says: "I think the biggest change he made was not seeing the ball as an issue but as an opportunity to score. Knowing that he could face ten to 12 dot balls but when the opportunity came to score he would score, because he was in that sort of mindset - that's the biggest thing.
"Yeah, there has been a technical change, but, to me, it's more the mental aspect. He had talent. He'd just give the bowlers too many ways to get him out. If you look now, it has to be a pretty good ball to get him out. That's what the good players do. The best players don't defend too many balls, because their decision-making is so good. They are either not interested in hitting the ball or they are looking to score off it.
Labuschagne scored five hundreds in ten games for Glamorgan and looked at ease. "He had the confidence that he was better than the bowler," Hemphrey says. "He didn't have to panic, he didn't have to create the opportunities to score. Towards the end of his stint at Glamorgan, I remember saying to the boys, 'I've played with Marnus for a long time, he's always had more talent than I have but our records at the time of joining were very similar. I've never seen someone improve at this speed except Steve Smith'."
At Glamorgan, Labuschagne was also able to indulge far more often in the sorts of deep cricket conversations that he is now, through his blossoming friendship with Smith, well-known for enjoying. Once again, the "finishing school" element of the county programme came to the fore.
"You play the same counties two or three times," Hemphrey says. "Middlesex would have Stuart Law, Gloucestershire would have Ian Harvey, Surrey would have Michael Di Venuto, Sussex have Jason Gillespie. All these legends really, very knowledgeable cricket people you can talk to and learn from two or three times a year. You just don't get to do that here [in Australia].
"It has to be a pretty good ball to get him out. That's what the good players do. The best players don't defend too many balls, because their decision-making is so good. They are either not interested in hitting the ball or they are looking to score off it" Hemphrey
"Marnus being Marnus was straight in, speaking to people, picking their brains. One thing he loved straight away about Glamorgan was that we were on the road a lot. You're in hotels and then you play, it tends to rain a bit around April and May, so you're stuck in rooms and cars with the same people, and it's another thing I don't think happens here enough but happens a lot in county cricket. People actually talking cricket.
"We're very different people but we actually talk about the game a lot - in-depth batting, bowling, how you play on different wickets, bowlers that are dangerous, and all this really in-depth stuff that he and Steve Smith [also] obviously do, two guys who are proper cricket nuffies.
Labuschagne was also able to help Hemphrey at a time when the older man was going through his own seminal moment: fatherhood. "We became pretty close over in Cardiff, spent a lot of time together," Hemphrey says. "My wife and I had our first child over there and he was the one who was delivering me food at 6am during a 24-hour labour."
So it was that Labuschagne was able to roll into a batting rhythm that took him from Cardiff to Newport to Derby to Hove to Northampton to Swansea to Radlett to Bristol and then to Southampton, where his greatly enhanced ability to find a way to score runs was proven in a key innings on a treacherous pitch in Australia's pre-Ashes trial match. A score of 41 out of a team total of 105 on the opening day was truly golden in the eyes of the selectors, and probably earned Labuschagne the last spot in the Ashes squad.
"It was probably one of my most important innings of the summer, because really, if I didn't find a way to get runs then, who knows where I would've ended up," Labuschagne says. "You come off the back of scoring some county runs, so you're confident in the way you're playing, you're trusting your game and it's just a matter of trying to stay focused on that and not get caught up in 'If you don't score runs now, it's all over.'"
Labuschagne with his wife Rebekah in the SCG dressing room
© Getty Images
Labuschagne with his wife Rebekah in the SCG dressing room © Getty Images
Granted a Test match chance in unprecedented circumstances a couple of weeks later at Lord's, Labuschagne demonstrated similar calm in the wake of Smith's traumatic exit due to a blow to the neck. Looking on, Labuschagne admitted to "a bit of a sick feeling" as Smith lay prone on the ground. The next morning he was taken to one side by the captain, Tim Paine, to hear that Smith was out of the game and he was in. When, second ball, he received a clanging blow to the helmet grill from Jofra Archer, Labuschagne bounced back up as if spring-loaded, before rushing through a mandatory concussion test.
His evident desire to be out there made an impression far and wide, and also within the Lord's dressing room. It was after this innings that Langer sensed a shift in the squad's attitude to Labuschagne. He was no longer seen as the last guy picked but as a batsman of real skill and poise, of a level that could stand up to England's bowlers better than anyone save Smith himself.
"After that innings, Steve Waugh said, 'Mate, if you can get through that, there's nothing harder in Test cricket',"Labsuchagne recalls.
Hemphrey believes it was in the fashioning of a method to counter the moving ball in county matches that Labuschagne was able to advance to the grade he needed to.
"If you look at the way that most bowlers try to get wickets in international cricket now, it's lbw or bowled to the ball coming back in," he says. "Your opportunities to score are going to be to the leg side, through midwicket, so you have to be ready to score and try to keep putting the pressure back on the bowlers, and as a result you're not giving the bowlers a big target.
"Gone are the days of getting a big stride forward and that style of footwork, because that doesn't work anymore. Bowlers bowl differently and as a batsman you have to problem-solve that.
"If the bowler is swinging it in or trying to bring it back in off the pitch, at the stumps, how am I going to make the margin for error for the perfect ball as small as possible? Marnus would get across to off stump and go, 'If I'm defending, I'll probably be outside the line. And if you want to go at my pads and I miss it, then I'm out', but he backed himself to do that. He got out lbw but he averaged 65, and you take that."
What makes this all doubly intriguing is the fact that the ECB itself is not exactly sold on county cricket as a finishing school for international players. Its performance director, Mo Bobat, recently spoke frankly about the board's belief that the traditional English domestic competition could never provide a complete picture in terms of a player's possible value at the next level. This offers something of a contrast to Cricket Australia's evident eagerness to get as many players as possible into the county system for a year or two.
"Neil said, 'Mate, nothing else matters. The only currency is runs.' That really hit me, because at times I'd tried to become the perfect batter instead of just trusting that what I had was good enough" Marnus Labuschagne
Watching at home, D'Costa remained cautious about how much to read into Labuschagne's Ashes innings, but he was equally convinced that a greater volume of first-class matches had been delivered to his pupil at precisely the right moment for him to grow. At the same time, he wondered how many more young Australian batsmen would be afforded that opportunity, given the continual growth of the BBL and talk that English cricket may tighten the regulations for counties accepting prospective opponents as overseas signings.
"I think we need to look at the way county cricket's been structured now, against what we're doing in our first-class competition," D'Costa says. "We're not playing enough cricket in red ball. It's very spasmodic and has a BBL break and we come back, and hardly anyone knows anything about it.
"If we keep coaching people to come in through Big Bash, they are not going to have good fundamentals, long-stay mindsets and long-stay patience. We've got to develop an equal amount of both players. You'll be a better T20 player after you've established yourself in the longer form of the game anyway.
"No one since Warner has been a great T20 player and then exploded their long-form career off the back of it. They've just gone up and down. They go away and play in these T20 tournaments and they get lost. You've got to get up, survive the whole day and go play cricket at night, not go to bed at night, get up in the morning and play all day. We've got guys where their brains actually have to turn around [when switching formats]."
After the many lessons of Glamorgan and the rollercoaster of the Ashes, the home summer brought a rich bounty that felt in its way like a reward for the hard slog of earlier days, weeks and years. Labuschagne surpassed Neil Harvey as the most prolific Australian batsman in a five-match home Test summer. Next to some of the spells he faced at Lord's, Headingley, Old Trafford and The Oval, these were the days to cash in.
"The conditions were tough in England and you probably never felt like you were in. It was quite tough and you tried to make sure you were staying focused for as long as possible, but sometimes you get beaten by the bowler and that's part of the game," Labuschagne says. "But the confidence that gave me in my game and my ability to then go, 'Righto, if I can do this in England and I make sure I stick to the same plans and same pattern in Australia, I can continue to keep putting performances on the board.'
"The best thing I did was not get too far ahead of myself when I came back. It was really just making sure that I concentrate on each game and each ball. That's got a lot to do with my coach and everyone who's had a part in building my technique. I think there'll be challenges along the way. It is about making sure I keep trusting myself and the game I've built over the last eight years."
In ten games for Glamorgan in the 2019 County Championship, Labuschagne made 1114 runs at 65.52 with ten scores of 50-plus
© Getty Images
In ten games for Glamorgan in the 2019 County Championship, Labuschagne made 1114 runs at 65.52 with ten scores of 50-plus © Getty Images
The Gabba, January 23, 2020. Marnus Labuschagne gets home from his first ODI tour for Australia and straight into the Brisbane Heat team to play the Sydney Sixers at home. Thanks to his enormous success in Test cricket over the past six months, Labuschagne finds himself being used to promote a game being played by a club that deigned to choose him just seven times over the preceding three BBL tournaments.
"It's been amazing, everything is sort of turned upside down," Labuschagne says. "That's why you have so many important people, friends, family around you to keep you grounded when things are going really well for you, because everyone knows the game does turn.
"I wouldn't have liked it any other way. It really makes you work hard and appreciate things and it really grows that resilience to keep coming back when you get dropped or you're not playing well. It really builds that sense that I've been here before, it has been tough before, but I've got to find a way through it.
"Of course I wanted to play more for the Brisbane Heat, but I didn't get as many opportunities. But in the end my job was to go back and put runs on the board and if I can continue to take that through the rest of my career, I think that's what's going to help you grow and get better."
In an exercise that D'Costa has undertaken with plenty of bright young prospects, he shows them a map devoid of any description before following up with an image, stating, "Now we've got to fill this in with you." Nearly a decade ago, on such a map, Labuschagne wrote down his name, his strengths, his weaknesses, likes and dislikes, idiosyncrasies, what made him a good person, what made him a good athlete, what made him a bad person, and what made him a weak person.
Years later, D'Costa and Labuschagne still have the map, with its many observations changed and, in some cases, flipped by time and events.
"All of a sudden, all these things come together, and we're all left looking backwards for that one thing that made it all come together, but it wasn't that, it was many things," D'Costa says. "If someone's looking for that Holy Grail, there isn't one, there's 1001 things.
"At the training centre, I'd physically grab him by the shoulder and say, 'Would you like to meet the person standing between you and greatness?' and I'd stand him in front of my mirror, 'There he is, right there - defeat him and you can defeat anyone.'"
Labuschagne was not the first of D'Costa's pupils to conquer the man in the mirror, and as late as February last year he was still struggling with the problem. Fittingly for a man of faith, the story of how he did so is a timely parable for cricket in 2020.
"All those mistakes are why you're seeing such a better player now," D'Costa says. "Because some of those guys click those things all in early, but for Marnus I think they've clicked at exactly the right time and you're going to see maximum performance for a really long time. One of my friends calls Marnus a 'ten years in the making overnight success', and I think that's pretty right."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
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