For his further act, Labuschagne subbed in for Smith in a Lord’s Test match, replaced him at Headingley and complemented him in the final two Tests as Australia kept hold of the Ashes.
Cricket is full of odd couples, but the oddest thing about this couple is that they were to all intents, purposes and tics identical.
It was one thing Labuschagne idolised Smith and imitated his idiosyncrasies, another that he had the wherewithal to make hard-earned runs alongside him, another still that he bobbed up with a vital wicket here and there as Smith once did. Labuschagne was all things to all men, but as was becoming clear, within him was his own man.
Still a doubt remain, an itch not scratched. Labuschagne had compiled five increasingly authoritative half-centuries, but not yet crested 100. It is such a sacred number that until a batsman achieves it, he can never be sure that he has one within him. It’s like wannabe authors and books.
So an hour into Saturday’s play, the stage was set. Naseem Shah had come back from the repechage to dismiss David Warner, a jolting short ball doing the trick. Run-cruncher Warner, attacked at last from around the wicket a la England, had added only three in an hour. Every day of Test cricket is played in a new key.
Then Smith hit around a Yasir Shah leg-break and was bowled. It would be wrong to say it was an atypical Smith shot, right that it was an atypical outcome. Having spent so long fidgeting in the change rooms, Smith had no more fiddle for the middle. Here was the flaw in Paine’s philosophy! Smith and Warner had contributed seven between them this day. Remember it for future trivia quizzes.
Labuschagne, meantime, had started on 55 and built fluently on it, with a bat broken in just that morning and an outlook recharged every morning. Even in his batsmanship, Labuschagne plays roles. When he set in the lower middle order, it had a willing but rough cast. Since assuming the No.3 position, he has increasingly batted with that post’s requisite authority and polish.
This day he added another stripe. There was no ball that had the measure of him. He left, drove and pulled on his terms, but with Smith’s waggle, for effect. As for a couple of his straight drives, Ricky Ponting would have traded for them.
Of course it helped that this was Australia’s second day of batting, not first, that it was already hundreds of runs to the good, and that Pakistan, although more focused and persevering than on Friday, had upon them the mark of a beaten team. Oddly, Naseem, despite besting Warner, bowled only four overs in the first two sessions. Technically, the Pakistanis still presented problems to solve, but outside Test cricket’s usual psychological press. The tired top-order topple at day’s end was all too easy to forsee.
In the nineties, hope, fear, expectation and longing swirled around Labuschagne, and no amount of gum-chewing could keep them at bay. A false lbw reading cannot have helped, though it was quickly corrected on DRS. At last a thick edge brought deliverance. It was not how Labuschagne envisaged reaching his first hundred, and it meant he forgot entirely how he meant to celebrate. Even in this Labuschagne charmed.
Now it was time to cash in. Matt Wade joined him, bringing his own brand of ultra-cricket in which he wields his bat like a stave, and Labuschagne expanded, unveiling a Stan McCabe late cut and a paddle sweep that would have caused McCabe to turn in his grave. Pakistan’s spirit did not fail – evidenced by wicketkeeper Rizwans’s chase to make a boundary save and two smart catches standing up – but they ran out of resources. For Australia, this was bonus territory. One might tritely offer that Labuschagne will face many greater trials than this in Test cricket, except that he already has.
Still Labuschagne had only one mind. Asked after the fall of Travis Head about tactics, he said: “I’ll just bat.” In the quest for declaration runs, an idea formed: if one hundred, why not two? He was under-studying Smith, remember? But after six hours, he sent a weary slash to gully, then leant over his bat, hoping and praying like a true Australian for a no-ball call. It was to no avail. Nobly, every Pakistani shook his hand, non-striker and incoming bat patted him on the back and the Gabba figuratively chaired him off. Henceforth, Marnus Labuschange is no one’s dummy.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.