Whatever happens at Headingley and beyond, Marnus Labuschagne will struggle to ever forget his first innings in Ashes cricket.
The Australia batsman made history when becoming the first concussion sub as a replacement for Steve Smith on the final day of the second Test against England at Lord’s. After ducking his first delivery from Jofra Archer, the next one struck him flush in the grille – Labuschagne was down (albeit not for long) but, crucially, not out.
Rising to his feet so quickly a boxing referee would barely have started counting to 10, the 25-year-old recovered his senses, survived the oncoming barrage of short stuff and came out the other side with a half-century, a valiant knock in trying circumstances that helped preserve his side’s slender 1-0 series lead.
It was not the first time Labuschagne had capitalised on an unexpected chance that came his way, though.
When Shaun Marsh was selected in Australia’s squad for the Cricket World Cup earlier this year, Glamorgan had to find a new overseas player in a hurry.
Mark Wallace, relatively new into his role as director of cricket at the Welsh county, followed up on a tip-off from an old club colleague Down Under to fill the void, taking a “bit of a punt” on Labuschagne, a player with an unspectacular first-class record but a hunger to improve.
“The link between myself and Marnus is that we have played for the same grade club in Brisbane, which is Redlands Tigers, albeit I played 15 years before he did,” Wallace explained to Omnisport.
“Our paths never crossed, but when I took on the job [in February] I received a text message from a lad I had played with out there called Blair Copeland who is now a coach. He said, ‘if you’re looking for an overseas player, there is a lad who plays at the club called Marnus Labuschagne’.
“I’d heard of Marnus because he had played for Australia by then, but I probably thought this was more like the sort of thing where he [Blair] was one of his mates, so I said thank you and got on with things.
“But when Shaun Marsh was picked for the World Cup, we suddenly needed an overseas player. I went back and had a look at this guy, did a bit of digging around, and the message we kept getting about him was that he was a good player but he was going to be an influence around the dressing room and just wanted to play cricket, wanted to get better at the game, and that was what we were after.
“We wanted a different style of overseas player, someone who was young and hungry. We went for him and it worked out pretty well.”
— OptaJim (@OptaJim) August 18, 2019
Pretty well is an understatement.
Labuschagne amassed 1,114 runs in 10 first-class games for Glamorgan, hitting five centuries. The first of them arrived on his County Championship debut, Northamptonshire the opponents, while there was a match-saving 182 to deny Sussex down by the seaside at Hove and then hundreds in both innings against Worcestershire towards the end of his stint.
“We weren’t surprised because he’s a good player – we just didn’t know he was that good,” Wallace admitted. “We haven’t genuinely got a bad word to say about him. He just wanted to talk cricket, be involved in cricket and get better.
“It was a little bit of a punt, but we wanted someone different and all the feedback had been how this was a young, influential guy. He was just desperate to improve and county cricket really suited him.
“He just loved playing – with most overseas [players] the thing that strikes them when they come over is the amount we play, whereas with Marnus he just thought that was brilliant. It gave him the opportunity to play all the time, to practice all the time.
“He got a hundred in his first game and never took his foot off the gas after that.”
Labuschagne’s county performances boosted his Test prospects, yet he still appeared set for a watching brief during the Ashes. That was until Smith was struck by an Archer bouncer, a blow on the neck that created a ripple effect that seems set to be felt by both sides for the remainder of the series.
It also created a sudden opening in the middle order. Smith’s stand-in received an early and emphatic wake-up call yet refused to be counted out of the contest, aided by a slight technical tweak to his game that was honed while playing with Glamorgan.
“He did a few things that I think he had developed from being over here,” revealed Wallace.
“Marnus clicked with our coach, Matt Maynard, early on and they worked on something where he would take a step down the wicket, as well as over to the off stump. The aim is to take lbw out [of the equation] and you saw him do it a few times to Chris Woakes.
“It was good to see, because you spot something guys have done with you working then on the bigger stage, which for our young guys means they are thinking, ‘crikey, Marnus has been working on something here that has transferred into a higher level’. That’s great.
“He’s very good at solving problems, too. He’s so into the game that he’s always trying to learn. He’s desperate to do well, although all international cricketers are like that. But he’s up for the scrap, up for the fight.”
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) August 21, 2019
After doing an admirable job as a stand-in last time out, the super sub gets the chance to start in the third Test.
Australia head coach Justin Langer said in the build-up to the game in Leeds that Smith has “unfillable shoes” – he has contributed 32 per cent of his team’s runs in the first two Tests (and that is without even making it out to the middle on day five at Lord’s) and boasts a mind-bending career average of 63.24 in the longest format.
Wallace acknowledges it is a nigh on impossible for Labuschagne to fill the crate-like space left at number four, but expects him to embrace the challenge: “To put him in the same bracket as Steve Smith is just unfair – he is still a young guy making his way in Test cricket.
“But he will have a chance – and all sport is about to take that chance when you get it. He will be up for it and can probably have a positive effect on the series.
“We’d like to see him do well, albeit from our perspective we want England to win. Marnus getting a hundred and England winning by an innings would be perfect.”
Glamorgan are hopeful they get the chance to bring Labuschagne back at some stage in the future – so long as they can afford him.
“We would like him to be part of the club long term – hopefully the price hasn’t gone up!” Wallace joked.
“I’ve been speaking to him since he has been away with Australia and he’s still in contact, still wishing us good luck. The day the Australia squad was announced I actually spoke to him in the morning, when he was going to meet Justin Langer to find out if he was in or not, and he was not entirely sure.
“We had a Twenty20 game that night, and he said that if he was not in the squad, could he play that evening. I said yes, because we hadn’t cancelled his registration yet, but that just showed how he has that nice, childlike enthusiasm just to play the game.”
Labuschagne’s enthusiasm for the game was evident at Lord’s. So, too, was his determination to seize an opportunity that had unexpectedly come his way. As Glamorgan will testify, he’s good at doing that.