Ben Jones analyses Labuschagne’s record, and whether a player can be good *and* lucky.
Marnus Labuschagne is tremendous. To watch him bat is to see a player in total command of his own style, a player blending the orthodox principles of Test batting with an individual flourish, a batsman taking the positives on offer from the coaching manuals, and throwing a few in of his own. In a way, the self-presentation of Labuschagne can actually distract from his quality. The theatrics, which vary from endearing to contrived, slightly draw focus from a man who averages over 60 in Test cricket.
But – and we’re going to pull the plaster off early here – Marnus Labuschagne is extremely lucky. The world’s No.1 batsman is a very talented player (shock), and his rapid rise from concussion substitute in the 2019 Ashes to being the highest ranked Test bat in the world has been a remarkable story. But he has been extremely lucky throughout that rise.
The frequency with which Labuschagne is dropped by opposition fielders is staggeringly high. Since he made his debut – in the UAE, in the aftermath of the ball-tampering scandal – no Test batsman has been dropped as often. Far more significantly, no Test batsman has seen a higher proportion of the catching chances off their batting dropped.
It’s there to see that, in more ways than one, Labuschagne is an outlier. On the rare occasion that Labuschagne gives up a catching chance, it’s snaffled just 58% of the time. In Test cricket, the average fielder catches just over 80% of the chances that come their way. In the matches that Labuschagne has played, the average for all other batters is 72%. His fortune does without question boost his record.
What’s more, it’s a boost he’s unlikely to maintain. If Labuschagne went through his career with almost half of his catching chances being dropped, he would be a significant anomaly. Among the top order batsmen with 50+ Tests to their name since detailed catching records began in 2006, the lowest batting-catch percentage is for the recently retired Quinton de Kock, who saw 31% of chances put down when he was at the crease – a figure still substantially below Labuschagne’s. Unless there is a substantial technical explanation for why Labuschagne is dropped so regularly, then we’d expect a reversion to the mean, and thus a fall in his average.
There are other examples of good fortune in Labuschagne’s record. On average, Labuschagne edges 22 deliveries before being dismissed from an edged shot – the most of any player in the world since the start of 2018. In part no doubt a function of soft hands, playing the ball later and managing the unavoidable risks that being a Test batsman involves; in part, a reflection of good fortune, both in the aforementioned dropped chances, but also edges not going to hand.
Similarly, there will be an element of Labuschagne’s quality which means captains have fewer slips in the cordon, particularly once he has got set, and this contributes to those edges being less likely to fall to the fielder. Yet even then, we know that when they do find the man, that man is disproportionately likely to drop the chance. Skill and good luck rarely drift too far apart.
It’s extremely difficult to talk about luck without riling people. It is all but impossible, even when faced with the most measured supporter, to bring up the idea that a player or team’s success is influenced by luck, without pushback. The phrase is never perceived as objective, only as a subjective attempt to diminish, to reduce. In sport, the illusion of control and autonomy is crucial, the central element that gives it all meaning. Challenge the autonomy behind an achievement, and you challenge the achievement itself.
Yet in society, when we talk about someone being ‘lucky’, it’s often just a placeholder for ‘wealthy’ or ‘privileged’. It’s less about suggesting highly random events have gone the way of the subject, but rather making reference to the wider structures at play, structures which allow the subject smoother progress and, in some cases, allow for their genuine ability and quality to be demonstrated. Maybe this is a fairer way of viewing luck in sport – the existence of a structure bigger than yourself.
Great players can survive bouts of bad luck and still emerge with their records intact, but for those enjoying or suffering more temporary runs of strong or poor form, the role of fortune is normally close by. A nice example is that of Ben Stokes, who was universally acknowledged to have gone to another level with his Test batting across 2019 and 2020. The circling narrative was that, in the aftermath of Bristol and his subsequent ban, Stokes knuckled down, played and trained with greater responsibility, and that spurred him onto greater heights. Perhaps that is true. What is true is that in 2019, fielders started dropping catches off him at an alarming rate, most notably during his Headingley epic but continuing to do so for the next two years. Fans and pundits might join the dots with the wrong coloured ink, embracing the idea that “well, when you’re playing well the luck just goes your way”, understandably gliding past the idea that perhaps the luck going their way, is a big reason why you’re playing well.
Similarly, perhaps one reason we try to avoid talking about luck is that, by its very nature, it influences so many different elements of life, and that pointing at a single aspect, and ascribing any great significance to that one element, is to misunderstand it. Put it this way – in several respects, Labuschagne has been quite unlucky. His introduction to Ashes cricket was midway through the third fastest over bowled by an Englishman on record, after his hero had just been felled by a gut-wrenching bouncer. His rise to prominence has come at a time when socio-economic factors have limited his opportunities overseas, and accordingly his chance to prove his worth in different conditions. While that limitation has probably enhanced his record, it leaves a slight mark on his reputation, a caveat – most likely an undeserved one.
The next 12 months will bring the chance to remove that caveat, and scrub that mark away. 10 Tests in Asia (three in Pakistan, two in Sri Lanka, then five in India) will be Labuschagne’s longest run of international cricket outside of Australia, after the brief burst in his debut series and his success in the 2019 Ashes. His credentials against spin at home have been superb, averaging over 80 and scoring deceptively quickly, up above 4rpo. Yet as many batsmen the world over have discovered to their cost, playing spin in Asia – particularly the world class spin of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – is an entirely different beast, and Labuschagne will need to be at his best.
It’s conventional to end any discussion of luck with an appearance of Gary Player’s “the harder I practice, the luckier I get” – but I think we’re beyond that now. Instead, if we’re doing sporting aphorisms, let’s go with Rico Carty’s assessment: “They say you have to be good to be lucky, but I think you have to be lucky to be good.”