Marnus Labuschagne’s friendly ‘homecoming’

The Australian batsman’s return to South Africa for the series against the Proteas will be friendlier than that of other cricketers who were born here and went on to represent other countries.

Littered along the route to Marnus Labuschagne’s birthplace of Klerksdorp are reminders of the South African resources that have been mined and shipped off to wealthier nations, only to come back as polished, highbrow products.

Relic monuments such as Mponeng Mine, the world’s deepest gold mine, remind you of the gifts that nature and existence have bestowed upon this country of bountiful riches. It was no surprise, then, that the export of resources spilled over to the sporting fields, dating as far back to Capetonian Basil D’Oliveira turning out for England, to Kepler Wessels captaining Australia and the brash Kevin Pietersen coming back in England colours with more than a point to prove.

Though the circumstances differ, the result was always the same. They left these shores as raw talents because of the circumstances of their time and came back – although not in D’Oliveira’s case, because the government of the day refused him re-entry into the country of his birth because of his skin colour – as shiny, refined sportsmen and women.

La-bu-skaag-nee or Lab-oo-shane?

Right-handed batsman and run machine Labuschagne, 25, is the latest export whose roots run deep in South Africa. He is the antithesis to Pietersen in that he could very well be the first sporting export to be loved on both sides of the South African-Australian divide. It’s because he doesn’t have a bad word to say about the country of his birth and, as his uncle Martin said, he remains committed to his family even though the Afrikaans pronunciation has long been taken from their family name.

“Ag, there’s not much you can do about that,” his uncle said about the peculiarity of the “Labushane” pronunciation. “It’s a bigger problem for us here in South Africa that they don’t pronounce his name correctly. But for them staying in Australia, they are fine with ‘Labushane’. We did have a bit of a laugh when we first heard it, but we don’t worry about it too much.”

After a subdued start to international cricket in 2018, Labuschagne had a Bradmanian breakthrough in 2019, stacking up numbers and clocking records almost unlike anyone else since the late great Australian batsman Don Bradman.

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His first five Tests produced only one score above 50 but his record in the ensuing nine read like a Rolodex of numbers: 59, 74, 80 and 67 in four consecutive innings against England during last year’s Ashes, before his 185 and 162 against Pakistan in back-to-back November Tests on home soil. By the time New Zealand visited Australia last year, Labuschagne had announced himself to the world. The Kiwis realised they weren’t dealing with a knock-off Steve Smith but an educated batsman. They were powerless to stop him.

His third straight ton came in Perth against the Black Caps (143) before his mammoth 215 in Sydney at the turn of the year. He finished 2019 with the most Test runs of any batsman (1 104 at an average of 64.94) and was duly crowned Australia’s Test Player of the Year.

He even drew praise from cricketing royal Sachin Tendulkar, who said, “This player looks special. There’s something about him. His footwork is precise.”

His ticket back to South Africa, however, came in the one-day international (ODI) format, where he had an admirable debut series against India in India, which earned him a place in the side to tour South Africa this month.

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“He was always a star, always good in his schoolwork and he was great at sports,” said Frans Marx, his former primary school cricket and rugby coach. “He was an allrounder, good at batting, bowling and fielding. He always reminded me of Jonty [Rhodes] and I called him ‘Jonty’ at times when he was playing here.

“When he was still Under-9, we took him to his first cricket trials for Under-10s. There was a KOSH [Klerksdorp, Orkney, Stilfontein and Hartebeesfontein] Under-10 cricket team trial. He didn’t make the team because the Constitution said they couldn’t take a boy that was younger than the prescribed age group.

“They took boys that were the same age. But I took him to the trials just so he can participate and to experience it. He was very good and all the teachers and coaches were talking about him.

“All the other schools wanted to ‘buy’ him. It was always a struggle. When they decided to go to Australia, I told his parents I want to keep him here, I don’t want him to go,” he added with a chuckle.

Better rugby player than cricketer 

Labuschagne went to Laerskool Driefonteine in Stilfontein, where Marx had the brief opportunity to mentor a future Australian cricket star. Marx would ferry the kids to and from games in the 1969 GS custom-made school bus dubbed Die Ark, as in Noah’s Ark.

In the 20 years he’s been at the school, he’s rarely seen a child so focused, one who knew early on what he wanted to become. As with most children with mercurial talents, the young Labuschagne was adept at a number of sports and excelled at rugby, playing either at scrumhalf or flyhalf.

“For me, he was a better rugby player than a cricketer,” said Marx. “But since he was a small boy he told me that he wanted to play professional cricket and doesn’t want to play rugby. He was an all-round talent in sports and did well in athletics, too. It’s ball sense for me, and you get children that were born with it and Marnus was one of them.”

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Cricket was an obsession. And when his parents moved to Australia in 2004 – the year Marnus turned 10 – after his father Andre got the opportunity to open an international office for the mining company where he worked, he was put in one of the most fertile cricket-breeding grounds on Earth.

“His parents were very supportive and they were very good sportspeople in their own right,” said Marx.

“His mother [Alta] coached the netball team at Hoërskool Stilfontein. The Labuschagnes were always there next to the field when he was playing and cheering him on. Support from parents is very important and the child with support always does better than one without support.

“That said, I’ve seen children without the support also doing well. It’s all about the mindset: if you want to do something badly enough, you will always do it. A good sportsperson always does well when their mind is in the right place.”

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Labuschagne’s head was screwed on right, as they say. Though career wobbles along the way included the tendency to throw away his wicket when he had chances of big first-class scores in his early Queensland days, he knuckled down and channelled that good old Afrikaner grit and worked on his game.

Today, he wields one of the most dangerous blades in cricket.

“At that stage, I probably wanted runs too much, and sometimes when you want it too much, almost instead of trusting the process and trusting that you’re going to get the runs, you go out in search of it a bit,” he told Cricket Monthly magazine in January.

Coming ‘home’

His uncle spoke of Labuschagne’s innate work ethic – perhaps inherited from his parents or perhaps driven by a myopic pursuit of a dream he’d had since he was six years old – that propelled him to the top tiers of the biggest stages.

Martin said: “It’s something that he’s dreamt about, playing for Australia and coming to play against South Africa here.

“He’s always been the kind of person that gives his everything, every time. Even when we would play cricket on the beach, whenever we were on holiday, he would chase everything like he’s on the field. And even from a very young age he could sit in front of the TV and watch the full five days of a Test match. That’s why he has become so good at it, because that’s all he’s ever wanted to do.

“He developed a big work ethic because he enjoyed playing the game so much. When we saw him make the Australia team, we were really happy for him and very proud. All of us were sitting in front of the TV waiting for him to start batting. It’s gonna be even nicer for us to go out there and watch him now that he is in South Africa.”

It’s fitting that the third of the five scheduled ODIs between the Proteas and Australia will be staged in Potchefstroom, just 40km from where Labuschagne was born. He will have the honour of receiving cheers from the usually hostile South African spectators, even though it puts his family in the dubious position of supporting an Australian against South Africa.

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