“They’re both strange. They both love batting. They both love cricket. A match made in heaven, I guess,” says Nathan Lyon about the association between Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne in the Amazon documentary, “The Test”, which goes behind the curtain of Australia’s Test tour of England in 2019.
During that Ashes, Labuschagne’s first, the South African-born Queenslander went from packing Smith’s kit bag to replacing him as the game’s first concussion substitute in the Lord’s Test. It sparked off a relationship between them that has awed and amazed cricket watchers for their freakish similarity – in style and substance.
The fact that they’re joined at the hip is well documented. But to what extent was advertised with neon lights on the first day of the Sydney Test. On Thursday, the clones not only assisted each other to push on and achieve their highest individual scores of this series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. More significantly, Labuschagne (67*) and Smith (31*) remained unbeaten on a stand of 60 runs, already Australia’s highest for the third wicket in a series that is more than halfway done.
That’s how low the bar was set for the hosts; that’s how deep their batting hole was.
On Thursday, it was Labuschagne who shone a torch through the weeds for the woefully out-of-touch Smith to follow. “I get teased all the time about being Smithy’s little sidekick,” says a sheepish Labuschagne in “The Test”, quickly adding: “But I don’t care.” Smith wouldn’t have cared either as he (Australia’s lowest run-getter in this series aggregating 10 runs before Sydney began) tried to figure out what Labuschagne (Australia’s top run-getter in the series even before Thursday) was doing right.
Despite also not being in the best of form, Labuschagne had found a way to eke out two scores in the forties in Adelaide and Melbourne. “That’s the sign of a great batsman — the ability to get to thirties and forties even when you aren’t in the best of nick,” Shane Warne had said during commentary at the Boxing Day Test. On Day 1 in Sydney too, Labuschagne was already on 38 when Smith joined him in the middle.
Soon enough, everything one did was followed by the other – especially in the way they dealt with their tormentors, Ravichandran Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah. Ashwin had dismissed Smith and Labuschagne once each in Adelaide, and then collected the Siamese set again in Melbourne. When the off-spinner came on to bowl his first over, the 14th of the day, it was Labuschagne who greeted him with a great show of confidence.
First up, Ashwin completed his action but didn’t release the ball, leaving Labuschagne midway into his trigger movement and annoyed. When the ball was released in the next go, Labuschagne blocked it and followed through all the way up to the bowler’s face, his palm twisting away to show Ashwin that he knew just the spin that was imparted on it. Some half-an-hour later, Smith would replicate the fencing follow through when he first faced Bumrah.
Bumrah had bowled Smith around his legs in Melbourne, and hence aimed for the same bail when the two met in the 35th over. But Smith – then batting on 1 — tottered down the crease, cut off the incoming angle and blocked the ball back to Bumrah, who in turn burst out laughing at Smith’s post-shot movements. The bowler wasn’t laughing when the final ball of his over, pitched up, was driven by Smith for a boundary. That four was Smith’s first of the entire series.
In the following over, bowled by debutant Navdeep Saini, Smith further got the hang of things with two more boundaries – one crisply driven down the ground and the other uppish through the leg side. The second four took him to double figures for the first time in the series. But the real test was always going to be against Ashwin, who showed up a couple of overs later.
First ball of the 40th over, Ashwin conceded an easy single to Labuschagne to bring Smith on strike. “I’ve let him dictate terms to me, something I’ve never let any other spinner do in my career,” Smith had said before Sydney. So, today, he didn’t. Last ball of the over, Smith whipped Ashwin through midwicket for four. But his intent was most clear in the first ball of Ashwin’s next, when Smith danced down the track and lofted him over his head for four.
“Nice to spend a bit of time out there and nice to stitch in a partnership with Marnus,” said Smith. “It was good to get a couple of boundaries early.”
A good while later, Labuschagne mirrored Smith’s charge off Ashwin with one of his own. It brought up their 50-run stand shortly before stumps, following which Labuschagne stood awkwardly alongside Smith for a flash interview he wasn’t invited to.
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