How do Proteas solve a problem like Marnus? Bumper barrage no guarantee of success against ‘immovable force’

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South Africa need to go for the jugular from ball one against their former countryman Marnus Labuschagne or the in-form Australian No.3 batter will make them pay at his adopted home ground in Brisbane. 

Labuschagne is expecting a bumper barrage from the Proteas paceman at the Gabba when the three-Test series gets underway on Saturday but he is prepared for their short-pitched tactics. 

The 28-year-old world’s top-ranked batter rarely gets out cheaply – just 16% of the time for a single-figure score and once he gets going, he’s borderline impossible to remove. 

He’s reached a half-century 23 times in Test cricket since his debut in 2018, converting 10 of them into tons. 

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Labuschagne has cracked 50 in more than 45% of the times he’s made his way to the batting crease, not far off Sir Donald Bradman’s all-time benchmark of 52%. 

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 30: Marnus Labuschagne of Australia bats during day one of the First Test match between Australia and the West Indies at Optus Stadium on November 30, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney - CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

(Photo by Quinn Rooney – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

Steve Smith (60.98) has a similar average to Labuschagne (60.82) but he’s not as proficient in getting to 50 with the vice-captain raising the willow in 65 of his 158 innings (41.1%). 

South Africa’s expected pace quartet of Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen are likely to test Labuschagne out with plenty of bouncers but he’s been spending even more time than usual in the nets with Australia’s batting coach, Michael DiVenuto, to be prepared. 

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“I certainly was doing a few more short balls (at training),” he told reporters on Wednesday. 

Getting Marnus out ain’t easy

Year Innings of 0-9 10-25 26-49 50-99 100+
2018 1 from 4 2 1
2019 2 from 17 3 2 7 3
2020 1 from 6 3 1 1
2021 1 from 8 1 4 2
2022 3 from 16 1 7 1 4 (including a not out)

“We were working on a few technical things with Diva, just on getting my weight distribution right and being able to get back on the ball and actually swivel on that back hip. 

“We certainly were looking forward and preparing for what was to come.”

It’s virtually the ultimate badge of honour for a batter in Test cricket. If opposing captains have tried everything else to get a player out without success, they resort to intimidatory tactics. Just like Bradman copped with Bodyline and Smith has received in recent seasons from the likes of Kiwi bumper specialist Neil Wagner. 

For all the pre-game hype, Labuschagne has been around long enough to not be rattled. 

“We always talk about attacking people in different ways. But the reality of cricket is there’s not many other options you go to apart from attack the stumps early, you hang it wide, you bowl straight or you fall short,” he said.

“They’re your options, and you just mix through those with different bowlers. 

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“I’m assuming that, with their pace attack, the percentage play is there and they will absolutely go short at some stage.”

Fox Cricket expert Ian Smith saw the damage Rabada and Jansen in particular did to the Black Caps batters when they toured New Zealand last summer and he said the Proteas would be mad not to try to ruffle the feathers of Labuschagne and Smith. 

“They’ve got this insatiable desire to bat, to be out in the middle and score runs. They’re almost like the immovable force, they just don’t seem to get sick of batting,” he said.

“It was out of character to see them play so expansively in that second innings in Adelaide when they were after quick runs to set up the declaration. That goes against the grain for those guys to give their wicket away in that kind of fashion.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 30: Marnus Labuschagne (R) and Steve Smith of Australia walk off the field after day one of the First Test match between Australia and the West Indies at Optus Stadium on November 30, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“South Africa will be a bigger challenge for them but they’re just so hard to dislodge not just with the runs they score but the amount of time they bat with the wearing down factor they possess. Sometimes you come across a team with one player like that but to have two back to back and Usman Khawaja is cut from the same cloth as well so it’s quite daunting. 

“I think they’ve got to look at that (short-pitched ploy), I really do. The time that Labuschagne looked most uneasy against the West Indies was when Alzarri Joseph was working him over but they didn’t have the quality in their attack to maintain that.

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“South Africa have got more firepower in that regard and I don’t expect that to automatically thwart him because he thrives on that sort of challenge but it’ll be a helluva contest. To see how long they can maintain it will be a big key for them.”

Jansen, a left-armer who is relatively new on the international scene, has the advantage of being a bit of an unknown factor to the local batting brigade.

Kagiso Rabada

(Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Labuschagne has surprisingly been dismissed seven times in his Test career by left-arm spinners with England’s Jack Leach claiming his wicket three times so Keshav Maharaj could have a role to play for the tourists. 

The South Africans could even try to get under Labuschagne’s skin by taunting him in Afrikaans but he shrugged off any talk of split allegiances. 

“Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock, Greame Smith, AB de Villiers … as a young kid growing up in South Africa, you look up to these guys,” he said. 

My family have adopted Australia as their home and they support me, they support the Australian cricket team,” he said.

“But I certainly think it’s exciting what this Test holds because it is a little bit closer to my heart because it’s the country where I grew up and where I spent 10 years of my life.”

Catch Ian Smith on Fox Cricket – the only place to watch every ball of the upcoming Test series, available on Foxtel and Kayo Sports

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