Aus vs Pak – One last chance for Steven Smith, Marnus Labuschagne to turn around their lean 2023

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Steven Smith had a few words to say about his second-innings lbw as he walked off at Optus Stadium, while the evening before Marnus Labuschagne had needed a trip to hospital to get his hand checked after a vicious blow on an increasingly spiteful surface.

Neither moment proved significant for Australia; they won by 360 runs and Labuschagne hadn’t suffered any damage to his hand, although he admitted being “nervous” for a little while. But on an individual basis for two of Australia’s finest-ever players it continued what can probably be described as a frustrating 2023 where neither have quite been able to hit their previous prolific heights.

It’s worth saying that it’s far from a crisis. Smith is averaging 42.65 for the year with three centuries and Labuschagne’s figure is 35.04 with what proved a match-saving hundred at Old Trafford. Still, it’s well below what we have become accustomed to. It is comfortably Labuschagne’s leanest year since he cracked Test cricket in 2019, and in a year where Smith has played at least five Tests it’s his lowest average since 2013.

Overall, Australia’s Test batting returns for the year are set to only finish around mid-table among their rivals. Leading into the Boxing Day Test, their overall batting average is 33.77 albeit they have played significantly more matches than anyone else. Conditions in India played a part in that, although only the Indore surface was really a lottery for batters.

Usman Khawaja has led the way followed by Travis Head, who has made crucial contributions when they have really mattered, which is as important as the shear volume of his runs. Mitchell Marsh is the surprise entrant among Australia’s leading batters this year, taking a 2023 average of 67.16 into Boxing Day.

Smith admitted before the Perth Test that he hadn’t quite been at his best. For much of the time he was in the middle he looked sharp but was given a bit of a working over debutant Khurram Shahzad before fishing at a reasonably wide delivery in the first innings then getting the borderline lbw in the second. Unfortunately, Shahzad won’t have the chance to add to those successes with his tour ended by injury.

Prior to that, two of Smith’s three centuries – against India at The Oval and England at Lord’s – had set up victories that won the World Test Championship final and gave Australia a 2-0 Ashes lead which ultimately proved crucial. In England he also made a rare admission that the fuss around his 100th Test at Headingley had affected his focus and was then hampered by a wrist injury at the back end of the tour (although still managed twin fifties in the last Test).

It is Labuschagne who is the more interesting case having had the trickiest year of his Test career to date, albeit he had set very high standards. He was not alone in being troubled by Ravindra Jadeja in India, although managed to reach double figures in all but one of his eight innings. He was then done by Stuart Broad’s outswinger (which Broad was happy to say was designed especially for him) in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston. There was also the uncharacteristic slog sweep at a crucial moment of the Headingley Test when Australia were a probably a couple of hours away from setting up a 3-0 lead.

As the best players do, he found a way to still make a telling contribution at Old Trafford – without his scores of 51 and 110 the rain may not have been enough for Australia – but at The Oval he was extraordinarily becalmed in the first innings to get to 9 off 81 balls in nearly two hours before edging to slip against Mark Wood the ball after Broad switched the bails.

2023 is comfortably Labuschagne’s leanest year since he cracked Test cricket in 2019, and in a year where Smith has played at least five Tests it’s his lowest average since 2013.

Through the year, Labuschagne has only failed to reach double figures – what can loosely be termed “a start” – in four of his 23 innings. For someone with such an insatiable hunger for runs, and a love of batting, you would suspect that will add to the angst as much as anything.

When asked if his net session against reserve quicks Lance Morris and Scott Boland on the fourth morning in Perth was to test out his hand, he replied: “It was to bat…something I didn’t do enough of in this game.” You pity Australia’s coaches with the wanger in the couple of days leading into Boxing Day.

Labuschagne and Smith will be vital for Australia in the next year or so as a transition phase begins. As a sign of the mature make-up of the team, Labuschagne was the youngest member of the XI in Perth – one of only two players under 30, alongside Head who turns 30 during the second Test. David Warner will be the first to depart in two Tests’ time and the selectors will hope that Smith and Khawaja do not end too close together.

Smith has an outstanding record at the MCG where he averages 84.75. He hasn’t scored a Boxing Day Test century since 2017 but has twice fallen close with 85. Labuschagne on the other hand averages 28.83 there, his lowest for a home venue with more than one Test.

However, it is not insignificant that both Smith’s wait to add to his MCG hundreds and Labuschagne’s relative struggles at the ground have come since more life was injected back into the pitch following the moribund 2017-18 Ashes Test. The groundsman, Matt Page, has promised there will be assistance for the bowlers again this year. There could be some hard work ahead if they want to finish the year on a personal high, but few would be surprised if they find a way to do it.

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