Roger Alton

Bring out the biltong for Labuschagne, an Ashes hero

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Funny, the things cricketers put on their bats. England’s Jos Buttler has ‘Fuck it’ written at the top of his blade to remind him it’s only a game (or something like that). Australian Marnus Labuschagne, who for my money was one of the great heroes of the Ashes Test at Lord’s, has the image of an eagle drawn on the bottom of his bat. It’s to remind young Marnus of one of his favourite Bible passages, Isaiah 40:31: ‘For those who hope in the Lord, He shall renew their strength. They shall soar on wings like eagles; they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not be faint.’ It has the edge over ‘Fuck it’, but each to his own.

Labuschagne is a deeply religious man, and considering what he had to do at Lord’s the presence of God on your side was an added bonus — or an absolute essential. He had pitched up at the home of cricket presumably in anticipation of a bit of light glove delivery to the Aussie batsmen out in the middle, maybe some fielding, and dishing out the cucumber sandwiches.  In fact, he had to put on his helmet on Sunday and trudge out to face one of the fastest bowlers in the world, certainly the most terrifying, as a concussion substitute after Steve Smith was felled by a fearsome rising bouncer from England’s Jofra Archer.

Oh… he was also trying to save the Test for Australia and see out the final day. What then happened was extraordinary. Labuschagne’s second ball from Archer, another thunderbolt at 90mph plus, struck him on the helmet grill and he went down as if felled by a bullet. But incredibly he bounced up immediately, checked his helmet and prepared to face the next ball. Which he played forward to. It was a remarkable performance. But who the heck is he?

He was born in the north-west province of South Africa, to South African parents, and grew up speaking Afrikaans. Watching him on Sunday, you wondered how we ever won the Boer War — though we only beat them by throwing the full resources of the British Empire at the Boers. Which, I suppose, was what we were also doing at Lord’s on Sunday.

Eventually Marnus fell to a soft dismissal, caught — just — by the England captain Joe Root after the ball had deflected off another fielder. Marnus didn’t think he was out, and nor did most people, and exchanged some, er, banter with Root on the way back. Clearly he is not one of those turn-the-other-cheek Christians. By that time, though, the game had been saved for his country.

You wouldn’t quarrel with much he says, though. Marnus was brought up in a Christian household, and his family moved to Brisbane in 2004 when he was ten. He committed to his faith aged 17, and now talks some pretty good sense, though it wouldn’t go down well with Richard Dawkins. ‘Sport is a fickle game, and injuries play a big part. In the big scheme of things, what you’re worth, what you put your value in, isn’t out there on the pitch. Cricket is always going to be up and down and if you have Jesus Christ a constant in your life, it makes life a lot easier.’

He’s a canny soul, though. Keen to get acquainted with English conditions, he has spent the summer amassing runs for Glamorgan, which doesn’t on the face of it have much in common with Queensland. He has played more red-ball cricket this summer than any of the other 22 players involved at Lord’s, and is the only man in the country to have made more than 1,000 first-class runs, 1,114 at 65.53 for Glamorgan.

‘International cricket is based on failure,’ says Labuschagne. ‘Most players fail more than they succeed. It’s tough. And it definitely helps when you have your faith.’

Well, he hasn’t failed yet, this doughty son of the veldt. Time to bring out the biltong.

Written byRoger Alton

Roger Alton is a former editor of the Observer and the Independent. He writes the Spectator Sport column.

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