Marnus Labuschagne sets the example for Australia - and England

Marnus Labuschagne plays a shot AFP

Among his many achievements over the past three innings, Marnus Labuschagne has had numerous intended outcomes, namely shoring up the Australian batting order and granting the tourists their best chance in 18 years to win the Ashes in England. But on day three his exceptionally doughty, brave and intelligent batting also had another rather less desired consequence - setting a template for how England set about their chase for a distant, national Test match record fourth innings target of 359.

For just as Labuschagne had fought and scraped, battled and bunted his way through consecutive knocks of 59, 74 and 80 at Lord's and Leeds, so too did Joe Denly, Joe Root and Ben Stokes search far more deeply into their reserves of concentration than had been the case little more than 24 hours before.

Their adaptation of the Labuschagne way - what else could it be called given that he is not only on a streak of three consecutive 50s but also the highest first-class run-maker in England this year through his efforts for Glamorgan in the second division of the County Championship - allowed England to remain breathing at the close, 203 runs away from their goal with seven wickets still in hand and the prospect of an expectant Sunday crowd pouring into Headingley to cheer them on.

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A key to Labuschagne's performance has been sound judgment of the whereabouts of his off stump, leaving far more deliveries than his contemporaries on either side. According to ESPNcricinfo's figures, his percentage of balls left (35.1% of 416 balls faced in the series so far) ranks him third out of the top five leavers of the ball in a Test series over the past decade.

Of the rest, Murali Vijay, MS Dhoni and Cheteshwar Pujara all let plenty go by in England in 2014, and the other was none other than Joe Burns, left out of this Ashes squad but an outstanding judge of what to play at in New Zealand in early 2016. Looking at two competing teams with a fair share on each side to have taken part not only in the World Cup but a huge volume of white ball cricket in recent times, there was little doubt Labuschagne's consistency of preparation helped him to get into a rhythm.

"Playing for Glamorgan helped a lot," Labuschagne said. "Obviously playing 10 first-class games in probably less than two months, maybe a bit more, was very helpful. Playing against the swinging ball in different conditions - and just learning my game and learning to put big runs on the board - definitely helped me and built my confidence as well. Then transitioning to this - I think I didn't play many other formats leading up to this. so my focus was really on red-ball cricket. So the lead-up and preparation was really good.

"Especially in Test cricket you go through - I think Wadey [Matthew Wade] and I went through a period yesterday when we were like 'let's get to a 50-run partnership' and it took us about 15 overs to get another five runs. In Test cricket it can come in patches and when they're bowling well, you've just got to trust the process and trust the runs will come, they will get tired and it will open up."

For a time on the third evening, it looked as though Denly and Root had got out of the hills and onto the flat land as runs began to accrue more rapidly around the time both men passed 50. Denly acknowledged that his approach and those of his teammates drew something from the way Labuschagne had fought through Lord's and Headingley, surviving chances on 14, 42 and 60 while also being caught behind off a Ben Stokes no-ball when on 35. If these lapses sound frequent, Labuschagne had not given a chance in either the second innings at Lord's or the first at Headingley, showing that fortune not only favours the brave, but also the prudent.

"Marnus has come in and done a pretty good job for the Australian team," Denly said. "He's rode his luck at time but he's showed a lot of character in tricky situations and played well for his team. For us as a team it's about getting through those tricky periods against a very good bowling attack, there's going to be ebbs and flows in the way the game's going and today was no different. We had to battle hard for those runs especially early on and show a bit of grit."

There was a time early this year when Labuschagne had looked about as far from an Ashes berth as England had been from hope when they were bowled out for 67 in the first innings here. Having fallen cheaply in both innings of the last home Test of summer against Sri Lanka in Canberra, and then made few runs in the back half of the Sheffield Shield for Queensland, he had fallen behind plenty of others. But his arrival in England brought a refreshing change of scene, and the runs began to build up.

"I didn't have a great finish. The change in environment freshens you up," he said. "Over here you play a lot of games. When you're struck a run of form and playing back to back to back games you can build a lot of momentum. I was lucky enough to find that momentum and be able to keep that rhythm going with my batting through the whole season at Glamorgan. Every kid dreams of playing in the Ashes. Your mindset back then, you want to play, but it became more of a reality towards the back end of the county season.

"I wasn't scoring runs. But it happens quickly. Cricket works that way. One minute you're not playing, another minute you are playing. You just have to make sure you're ready, keep trusting your processes, and keep working hard."

Similar maxims will apply to the Australians on the fourth day in Leeds, as they set about the task of claiming seven more England wickets. A strangling period of play late on the third day, as the final 21 overs cost just 21 runs while also reaping the wicket of Denly, allowed the tourists to creep to within eight overs of the second new ball with England still requiring more than 200. And as Labuschagne knows well from this county season, the old Australian phrase of "one brings two" is even truer in these parts.

"That's how it works over here, you always find that there's big partnerships but then there's one, two, three wickets," he said. "It can happen very quickly, so that's why you've just got to make sure you shut that scoreboard down, make sure you keep the pressure on, because when you lose one or two wickets all of a sudden the scoreboard can look a lot different, you add two wickets to it. That'll be what we're trying to do tomorrow, trying to make sure we're shutting down the scoreboard and making sure we're bowling balls in good areas with that new ball.

"The pressure you build - that's Test cricket isn't it? It's hard work, you build up, it's a 15-over plan to work over, make sure you're challenging the edge, both edges for Lyon and then we got the reward there at the end. We're just going to have to do more of that tomorrow."

From ardently following the example of Steven Smith, to substituting for him, and now setting an example himself, Labuschagne is a living embodiment of how quickly Test cricket can change.