The One who held the Fort!

The One who held the Fort!
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The One who held the Fort!

“Marnus Labuschagne’s story will be incomplete without Lord’s. For it was at the iconic Lord’s that he showed what a marvellous young batsman he is. But then, it’ll also remain incomplete without Steve Smith and Jofra Archer.”

During Australia’s tour of England for the Ashes’19, Marnus Labuschagne was presented with an offer from his idol, Steve Smith. Smith promised Labuschagne that if he packed up Smith’s kit after every Test match, he would give him one of his bats. For young Labuschagne, “it was one of the best deals of the summer.” That ladies and gentlemen, is who Marnus Labuschagne is.

Despite making his international debut in the UAE and scoring the bulk of his early career runs at home in Australia, Marnus Labuschagne’s story will be incomplete without Lord’s. For it was at the iconic Lord’s that he showed what a marvellous young batsman he is. But then, it’ll also remain incomplete without Steve Smith and Jofra Archer.

By the time the roller coaster ride of the Ashes’19 reached London, the headlines were pretty much clear – ‘Archer versus Smith.’ England had failed to stop Steve Smith in the 1st Test match at Edgbaston. Their premier fast bowler, James Anderson, was out of the remaining series so they turned to Jofra Archer. Archer, who has quite a story of himself, had just made his international debut around 3 months ago and in him England saw someone who can unsettle Steve Smith with his brute pace and bounce. So there he was, making his Test debut at Lord’s.

The dual eventually happened on the 3rd day. As Michael Atherton called, it was “Australia’s best player against the debutant and quickest England bowler, Jofra Archer.” Steve Smith played out the initial spell unscathed as the contest went to the next day. Jofra Archer came searing in on the 4th day. It was the perfect display of pure pace and bounce. He was troubling everyone. Smith. However, he was his usual self, putting the bad balls away while respecting the good ones. That is, until the main thing happened. The last ball of the 71st over, a bouncer from Archer hit Smith on the arm while he was looking to duck. Although he was good to go, it hurt him badly.

The injury did something to Steve Smith what the English bowlers couldn’t do the whole series. It unnerved him. A few minutes later, the inevitable finally happened. The second ball of the 76th over, a 148 KMPH bouncer got the better of Smith and hit him on the side of his head, just beneath the ear, rendering him unconscious. This time, he was sent back to the dressing room. Though he came out to bat later in the innings, it was almost clear he won’t be further involved in the match. On the morning of the last day, Australia announced that Marnus Labuschagne will be replacing Steve Smith for the final innings as a concussion substitute.

The game which was thought to be a lost cause because of continuous rain interruptions had now become poised, owing to some brilliant bowling from Archer and Jack Leach. To draw the match, Australia just had to bat out 48 overs but when they lost two wickets inside the first 6 overs, things started to become a bit tense and with the absence of Steve Smith, they were a wicket or two away from a collapse and an unlikely defeat. Marnus Labuschagne walked in at No. 4.

Everyone was wondering about this new kid who was going to replace Steve Smith, the best batsman in the World. He had made his Test debut in October 2018, but hadn’t quite left his mark. With just the experience of 5 Test matches behind his back, he walked towards the pitch. As he admitted later, “I think that was the real-time that it sort of hit me. You’re playing at Lord’s now. This is it. This is game on.”

Archer was in full rhythm, having just dismissed David Warner and Usman Khawaja. The first ball to Labuschagne was a wide over his head. Then came what every batsman dreads of. 140+ KMPH bouncer crashed in Labuschagne’s helmet and floored him. He, however, got up as quickly as he went down and looked straight into the eyes of Archer. Tim Paine said about the incident, “ .... That was a real statement to not only England but to his own teammates (that he was up for the challenge).” There was the customary concussion test but Marnus Labuschagne was “not going to be the first concussion sub to be ruled out for concussion.” The next two balls, he was clearly beaten and failed to make any contact with the ball.

He opened his account in the next over as, nudging a ball to the leg side for a single. In the next Archer over, Labuschagne once again was beaten for pace, collecting two boundaries nonetheless, one a four towards mid-off on an overpitched delivery and the other through an edge towards gully. That must have calmed his nerves after a dangerous start. Archer was relentless though. He kept prodding in the zone of uncertainty as Labuschagne played and missed (repeat mode on). Like a stubborn little child, Marnus Labuschagne stood his ground and refused to throw in his towel.

Once Jofra Archer finished his long spell, it became relaxing for the Australians. Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad too were bowling in the right areas but they didn’t have the pace of Archer. Along with Travis Head, Labuschagne stitched 85 runs partnership but what was more important from Australia’s point of view that they batted out 22 of the 48 overs. When he was finally dismissed on 59 off 100 balls (rather controversial decision), the Aussies were past the scare and went to Headingley with the lead.

Manus Labuschagne went on to score three more half-centuries in the series and his maiden century against Pakistan a couple of months later but the 100 balls he faced that day against the mighty bowling of Jofra Archer and company will always reverberate with him, his family and Cricket Australia.

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