Made in Plymouth & Sandwich – Labuschagnes debt to English club cricket

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/59945356

Marnus Labuschagne playing for Sandwich Town in 2014
Labuschagne played for Sandwich Town in 2014

There is a bench somewhere in Kent that has played a part in Australian Marnus Labuschagne’s rise to Ashes winner and ranking as the number one Test batter in the world.external-link

It was on this particular bench in 2014 that the 19-year-old Labuschagne would sit on a Saturday morning, visualising the innings he would play for Sandwich Town in the coming afternoon.

He was so focused on his mental preparation that he would not notice house-mate and team-mate Matt van Poppel walk past on his way to the Sandwich ground.

“I’d go for an hour’s walk, sit on a bench and visualise my innings ball by ball – literally until I got a hundred,” Labuschagne tells BBC Sport. “The first game for Sandwich, I got 127 in 24 overs. We played 55-over games. There was still more than half the overs left, and I got out.

“I thought if ‘I want to get a double hundred, I need to visualise it’. The next week I visualised the hundred, then getting to 200. I got 203 not out.”

Labuschagne’s time at Sandwich, a year after he spent a summer in Devon with Plymouth Cricket Club, included playing alongside Ashes-winning, Australia-raised England wicketkeeper Geraint Jones at the club that also produced England batter Tammy Beaumont.

His 1,049 runs set a new Kent Premier League record for a batter in a single season, going past the previous best of 1,012 set by the man who is now his coach for Australia, Justin Langer, during his spell with Dover in 1992. Labuschagne’s mark still stands.

Apart from giving him bragging rights over Langer (if he is actually brave enough to rib his coach), it taught Labuschagne a skill that would take him all the way to world number one.

“It was in that period I learned how strong the mind can be,” he says. “I’d visualise the batting, the bowlers and different plans. It’s something I will do now, but more subconsciously.

“I can do it talking to you now. Thinking about batting, how I want to play, changes I want to make and things like that.

“I’m on the rarer side when it comes to my cricket thinking. I’m used to being different.”

These days, Labuschagne’s “rarer side” includes congratulating himself when he successfully ducks under a Ben Stokes bouncer and leaving the ball with a style so flamboyant it could enter RuPaul’s Drag Race.

When he played for Plymouth in 2013, those idiosyncrasies had yet to fully form.

A stint in the south-west of England came after successfully persuading his father Andre that time in England was right for his cricketing education, then bombarding agent Rob Humphries with phone calls in order to find a club.

Sandwich Town
Labuschagne (front right) played in the same Sandwich team as Geraint Jones (back right)

“I phrased it to my dad as being like study,” says Labuschagne. “Going to England was my university. I wanted to play cricket. You don’t see a doctor kicking around an AFL ball to get his degree.”

Living in Plympton, he got around on a bike. His deal with Plymouth required him to coach, work behind the bar and help maintain the ground. Labuschagne made hundreds in his first two innings in England, but did not reach three figures again that summer.

“Jeez, it was cold,” he says. “My first few games, I batted in a long jumper, something I’d never done before.

“I learned a very valuable lesson from that trip. I said I wanted to get two hundreds for the year and be really consistent. I got 126 not out and 130 not out, and I didn’t get another hundred.

“I learned about setting goals. I don’t like to limit myself or anything like that because I realised on that trip I set a goal, achieved it, then all of a sudden I subconsciously took my foot off the pedal.”

Next summer, after a move to Kent, Labuschagne was not only improving his batting, but also his lifestyle.

Living with Van Poppel and fellow Sandwich player Dan Evans, Labuschagne recognised the need to change his diet. He cut out sugar and bread, instead eating sweet potato with virtually every meal, leaving his house-mates frustrated at the state of the kitchen.

“They always blow that up,” says Labuschagne. “They reckon I left the kitchen messy, but I’m not so sure.”

When Labuschagne was not cooking, he was shadow batting. As well as Van Poppel and Evans, he became firm friends with another Sandwich player, Rory Smith.

Smith has since had two stints living with Labuschagne in Queensland, while all of Smith, Van Poppel and Evans dashed to Dubai when he made his Test debut against Pakistan in 2018. They were in the Australia team huddle on the outfield as he was presented with his baggy green cap.

Marnus Labuschagne
Labuschagne scored more than 2,000 runs in all cricket for Sandwich Town in 2014

Despite becoming a Test cricketer, Labuschagne’s education in the UK was not over.

He had dabbled with county cricket during his time with Sandwich, featuring in some second XI games for Kent, only to abandon the endeavour when it became clear there was no chance of qualifying as a local player.

When Labuschagne returned as Glamorgan’s overseas player in 2019, more than 1,100 runs in 10 Championship matches propelled him into Australia’s Ashes squad, where he famously became Test cricket’s first concussion substitute after Steve Smith was struck by a rapid Jofra Archer bouncer at Lord’s.

From the first ball he faced, Labuschagne himself was floored by a horrible blow to the grille from Archer, only to pick himself up with a smile and a thumbs up. Since that moment, no-one with more than 1,000 runs can better Labuschagne’s average of 67.62. His overall career average of 58.67 is eighth on the all-time list.

“Glamorgan certainly took a punt on me,” he says. “My statistics weren’t something to wow over. They knew my character and work ethic and that is something they were looking for.”

Still, Labuschagne does not look on his responsibility with Glamorgan, to whom he returned in 2021 and will again this year, as any greater than the time he spent at Plymouth and Sandwich Town.

“When I was playing for Sandwich and Plymouth it was probably harder because I didn’t have experience,” he says.

“It’s your job to win games. They give you the ball when they need wickets; you need to score hundreds. It’s your job. Now it’s just a different level.”

If it is England that helped put Labuschagne on the way to becoming the best batter in the world, it is England that he has helped vanquish en route to getting his hands on the Ashes urn after the upcoming fifth Test in Hobart.

His scores of 74, 103 and 51 not out set up victories in the vital opening two Tests, with Australia now on course for another thumping win in a home Ashes series.

“The UK has helped me tremendously,” says Labuschagne. “Just the sheer amount of games. I was playing three times a week in club cricket. Learning the craft.

“I’ve got a lot to be thankful for from English cricket.”

English cricket might not be so thankful in return.

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