Marnus Labuschagne vs Marcus Stoinis: Australia’s big call for ODI World Cup semi-final

Marnus Labuschagne or Marcus Stoinis. Who survives? For the first time at this ODI World Cup, Australia look like having a full complement of 15 players to select from for their semi-final against South Africa which means the selectors will finally need to take a call on the structure of the top seven.

Each time during the group stage that it appeared that decision would need to be made, there was a natural vacancy: Glenn Maxwell‘s concussion, Mitchell Marsh‘s trip home, Stoinis’ niggles, Steven Smith‘s vertigo and latterly Maxwell being rested against Bangladesh after his spectacular double century.

It means that the big judgement over who misses out has not yet been needed, but barring any further injury problems ahead of facing South Africa on Thursday that moment will arrive in Kolkata.

It appears to be between Labuschagne and Stoinis – two very different cricketers.

Even before his half-century against Bangladesh there was virtually no chance that Smith would be dropped, and there were a couple of shots in Pune – a back-foot drive through cover off Nasum Ahmed and an on-drive against Taskin Ahmed- that suggested his best touch was returning.

He will remain at No. 4, even though he would prefer No. 3, which means the battle comes further down the middle order.

Stoinis has chipped in during the World Cup but never dominated. His two wickets against Pakistan were his most important contribution and the 35 against England was handy but unfulfilled. However, the selectors like his all-round skillset; the potential for that quickfire knock in the middle order that could change a game and his bowling that can be used at various stages of an innings.

With Maxwell in such devastating form there is an argument that he can provide the batting power, although you wouldn’t want to rely on a 40-ball hundred or his Afghanistan feats every day. Stoinis and Marsh went for 93 runs in their nine overs against Bangladesh and Maxwell’s return should provide 10 overs against South Africa, but the selectors may need to decide if they trust Marsh as the back-up seamer.

Meanwhile, Labuschagne has scored 286 runs at 35.75 and a strike-rate of 77.08, boosted by his 62 off 47 balls against Netherlands. It’s that latter figure that stalks him in a selection debate such as this.

His highest score of the tournament, the 71 against England, came when the ball nibbled around and his Test skills were called upon. He also batted No. 4 that day. Against Pakistan, he slipped down to No. 7 as Australia tried to make the most of the huge opening stand between Marsh and David Warner.

But Labuschagne has shown his added value in the field. He was a critical figure in the closing moments of the epic clash against New Zealand in Dharamsala where he regained his composure having just failed to haul in Trent Boult’s six to make crucial interventions at deep cover in the last over.

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“You’ve seen how good of a fielder he is,” Travis Head said after the New Zealand outing. “He’s got full confidence in making plays and to knock one back and then to make the run out, two huge ones. He doesn’t make many mistakes.”

Then against Bangladesh, albeit a game with little significance, he was brilliant with two superb pieces of work to run out Najmul Hossain Shanto and Mahmudullah, the latter a swooping direct hit at the stumps that drew comparisons with his hero Jonty Rhodes.

“It’s getting pretty incredible at the moment how much he [Labuschagne] hits the stumps,” Sean Abbott told reporters after the Bangladesh game. “That sort of stuff is invaluable, and most one-day wickets are quite flat as well so it’s free wickets when the guys are hitting the stumps like that.”

If Labuschagne was to retain his place in Australia’s XI through the knockout stages of the World Cup, it would cap a remarkable journey to his role in this tournament.

He was omitted from the preliminary squad and the group for the lead-up tour in South Africa having endured a difficult period in ODI cricket which raised questions about him and Smith being in the same XI – a debate which still remains now.

But he was recalled for the South Africa trip when Smith withdrew with a wrist injury, although was still outside the XI when the series started in Bloemfontein. Then Cameron Green was concussed by a bouncer from Kagiso Rabada, Labuschagne replaced him (as he did Smith at Lord’s in 2019 to kickstart his Test career) and produced a matchwinning innings. In the next match he made a fluent career-best century and he appeared to have found the extra gear he, and the selectors, wanted.

He went on to play all the lead-up matches ahead of the World Cup and just when it appeared he was tailing off, he made 72 off 58 balls in Rajkot to ensure his starting place. When the decision was taken to carry an injured Head through the first part of the tournament, a spot was found for Labuschagne by him replacing Ashton Agar.

From there, each time it looked as though he was vulnerable, an absence elsewhere has secured his spot. In regards his batting alone, the conversation hasn’t really changed, and though there are ways his fielding could have an impact from outside the starting XI, it now adds a fascinating dynamic to the discussion. Little more than two months ago, playing World Cup finals was a distant dream for Labuschagne, but he could prove one of the great survivors.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo

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