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After weeks of feverish debate, the biggest question heading into the Australian Test summer has been flipped on its head.
Now it’s not who bats with David Warner, but who bats instead.
The 34-year-old and Cricket Australia will do everything in their power to make sure the opener is fit for the first Test in Adelaide on December 17, but doomsday preparations are bound to be taking place behind the scenes. Coach Justin Langer on Monday night gave the strongest indication yet Warner wouldn’t play.
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While D’Arcy Short has been called up to replace Warner for the three T20s, mystery surrounds who will open the batting in Wednesday’s third and final ODI.
Marnus Labuschagne was quick to put his hand up, saying: “We’ll wait and see how our team shapes up for the next game and see the balance of the side, but yeah, I would love doing it.”
It’s in that typical happy-go-lucky response from Labuschagne that Australia’s bigger conundrum may have just been answered: Labuschagne could be the perfect option to open the batting in Adelaide, too.
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Of course, that doesn’t fully solve the issue per se. There would be a hole at No. 3, but we’ll get to that later.
If Warner is to miss the start of the Test series, Australia is suddenly without 84 Tests of experience and an average contribution of 65.94 at home venues. Any way you look at it, it’s a massive hole to fill.
There were two contenders and one certainty for Australia’s opening spots before Warner’s injury — Joe Burns and Will Pucovski were the former.
With Warner possibly out of the equation, logic dictates the contenders become the certainties, but it’s not that simple. That Australia may need to replace a leading star instead of a struggling role player changes the entire complexion of the issue itself.
No longer is Australia looking for a Robin, it needs a Batman.
Australia has rarely entered a Test series without a genuine gun at the top of the order, and when it hasn’t, it has generally lost — think the period between Matthew Hayden’s departure and Warner’s arrival or, more recently, the last time India toured these shores.
What it comes down to this summer is if Australia is really willing to send out a Test debutant and a batsman averaging 11.40 this Sheffield Shield season to face Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami with a new rock.
It’s a possibility, but also a major risk Australia may not be willing to take.
That’s where Labuschagne comes in.
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Australia’s next opening pair?Source: AAP
Every great side in any sport needs a utilitarian for moments like these — and Labuschagne is Australia’s.
In just 14 Tests, he’s batted across five different positions, been the world’s first-ever concussion substitute, scored runs in England and at home, with Steve Smith and without.
He hasn’t opened the batting for Australia — yet — but if his gritty performances on lively English pitches have proven anything, it’s that he has both the technique and temperament that stand up to the rigours of facing the new ball.
Furthermore, he made 162 in the day/night Test in Adelaide last year having come to the crease in just the fourth over.
Opening the batting in a Test is a daunting task — especially for the first time — but Labuschagne’s confidence is sky high after last summer, in which he scored three hundreds, one double century and averaged 112.00.
It’s also worth noting Labuschagne made his first-class debut as an opener, batting alongside none other than — you guessed it — Joe Burns.
As for if he would want to do it; it’s hard to see an issue there. There’s a feeling Labuschagne would bat at No. 8 if it meant wearing the baggy green one more time.
Will Pucovski could easily slot into No.3.Source: Getty Images
Now for the hole at No. 3 his elevation would create.
From the Chappell brothers to Allan Border and Mark Waugh, Pucovski has filled his corner with the who’s who of Australian cricket, calling for him to open the batting.
It makes sense based on weight of runs, but the Labuschagne workaround has been hiding in plain sight.
Pucovski was not originally an opener, nor did he only emerge as a Test option based on his dual double centuries at the top of the Victorian order this season.
The 22-year-old was already on the selectors’ radar well before thanks to the three centuries and one double — made from No. 3 — he had already scored in first-class cricket.
Granted a move up the order has delivered astonishing results so far this Shield season, but a Test berth at his natural No. 3 could ever so slightly ease some of the pressure of making his debut.
More importantly, it shares the responsibility of covering for one of Australia’s best players of the past decade instead of lumping the entire load on Pucovski.
Coach Justin Langer declared last week that opening the batting was not Pucovski’s only way into the Test team, saying: “If you can bat in the top three in Shield cricket, you can bat anywhere in the order for Australia.”
Injury a blessing for Burns
Of course, he’s not the only option. It would be remiss to not mention Shaun Marsh, who’s made a lazy 485 runs at 97.00 this Shield season from No. 3.
Selectors have made it clear his time for Australia has passed, although it remains to be seen if an injury crisis could change that.
Meanwhile, there’s still a spot at the top of the order for Burns after all, because his 21 Tests of experience have suddenly seen his stocks soar in Warner’s absence.
Queensland teammate Labuschagne backed him to take on a senior role at the start of the Test series despite his form slump.
“Joe’s averaging (almost) 40 in Test cricket so he’s certainly established, and he’s got four Test hundreds – he’s a very good player,” Labuschagne said.
“Although he hasn’t scored the runs in Shield cricket that he’d like, he got (97) against Pakistan in the first Test last summer and he negotiated through that new-ball period almost every time.
“So he’s not far away from a couple of big scores, and if he was to step up into that senior opener role I think he’s the sort of player that can.
“He’s done it many times for Queensland, and a few times for Australia as well.”