Joe Root v Marnus Labuschagne: The battle that will decide the Ashes gets underway this week

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Marnus Labuschagne and Joe Root.
Marnus Labuschagne and Joe Root.

England’s best batsman and Australia’s best batsman meet in a first foretaste of the Ashes when Yorkshire visit Glamorgan in the sixth round of the County Championship.

Joe Root has long been England’s best batsman. Steve Smith has been Australia’s but he is being overtaken now by Marnus Labuschagne, who is almost a carbon copy of the obsessive Smith. From a peak of 64 Smith’s Test average has “declined” to 61, whereas Labuschagne’s is 60 and rising. Both feature in the top six of all time.

Labuschagne has made a quiet start to his season with Glamorgan, beginning with innings of 11 and 12. His last game in Australia was more indicative of the threat he poses to England this winter. In a low-scoring Sheffield Shield final nobody reached 50 except Labuschagne, who scored 192 against Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, and enabled Queensland to win by an innings.

Labuschagne is high octane. If he leaves a ball outside offstump when batting, he pirouettes like a ballet-dancer and ends up facing the square-leg umpire. If he is fielding in the slips, and the ball passes the bat, he leaps in the air like a scalded cat. In going about his mission to become the best batsman in the world - of which a second season at Glamorgan, to further his understanding of England’s bowlers, is an integral part - he must be as enthusiastic as any cricketer there has ever been, this nervous energy fuelling his pursuit of excellence.

Having arrived in Cardiff on a Tuesday, he went to Glamorgan’s nets on Wednesday and admitted he felt a little low, naturally enough after the flight from Brisbane - “and he was still the most enthusiastic player there”, said one observer, and Glamorgan are pretty keen on the way out of their doldrums. In the nets Labuschagne not only bowls leg-spin, which has brought him a few Test wickets, but seamers too.

After Glamorgan had beaten Kent in two days, and their players had the Monday off, Labuschagne booked their strength and conditioning coach for 8am to do all sorts of runs and sprints - before everyone else turned up for practice. Smith had the same zeal when he was 26, as Labuschagne is now, but he will be 32 by the Ashes, and fires can burn only so long.

Like Smith, when Labuschagne walks out to bat he seems to move in every direction at the same time while skipping from side to side. On reaching the crease he has the same mannerisms as Smith - touching his pads and gloves - but fewer times, then looks back to check the stumps are still there. He counts the fielders too, before settling into a crab-like crouch which minimises the gaps that the ball can get through.

Australia's Steve Smith, left, and Marnus Labuschagne are interviewed on camera following play on day one of the third cricket test between India and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. - AP
Australia's Steve Smith, left, and Marnus Labuschagne are interviewed on camera following play on day one of the third cricket test between India and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. - AP

What distinguishes him, and might most impress Root, is the complete distinction between attack and defence. None of your checked drives or defensive shots with a bit of followthrough, not at the outset anyway, but black and white, either a total block - killing the ball dead - or a boundary shot. He might nick a good ball, being human, but he will not go feeling for it, and thereby minimises human error.

Against Lancashire at Old Trafford last week Labuschagne showed not the slightest impatience to get off the mark. He waited 23 balls before the bad ball came and was dispatched. He had scored four off 31 balls then put away the next two to the boundary to be 12 off 33. Clarity of mind, control of temperament, none of the self-indulgence of so many modern batsmen in wanting to feel bat on ball early on.

The history of the Labuschagne family on Google relates that everyone of that surname is a descendant of Pierre Labuscaigne who emigrated, as a Huguenot, from the Dordogne area of France in 1710 and ended up in South Africa. Marnus’s family emigrated from Klerksdorp in northern South Africa to Brisbane in 2004 and he rose rapidly through the state’s junior teams.

Smith’s mother is English, and it might be a similar zeal which drives them: to be more Aussie than Aussie by being the best at cricket.

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