Form batsman Marnus to step up with ball

Rob Forsaith
The Australian cricket team poses with former fast bowler Glenn McGrath ahead of Sydney's pink Test

A year after being a much-maligned first drop, Marnus Labuschagne has emerged as the leading option in Australia's search for a game-breaking allrounder.

Selectors are leaning towards naming an unchanged XI for the third Test against New Zealand at the SCG, which would leave Labuschagne as Australia's second spinner on a pitch expected to offer tweakers some assistance.

A last-minute rethink could result in a debut for legspinner Mitchell Swepson but Tim Paine made it clear on match eve that "our preference would be to keep a winning combination together".

That means Labuschagne, whose legspin has improved albeit not quite at the rate of his batting over the past 12 months, is set to play an important role with the ball.

Tim Paine believes the form batsman of the summer, who will make his ODI debut in India later this month, is more than ready for the responsibility.

"The challenge is to make sure he gets enough overs in Sheffield Shield and county cricket - and then he won't be far off being a genuine option as an allrounder," Paine told reporters.

"He's someone who can give us a great deal of flexibility in how we go about shaping teams.

"Not just in red ball.

"He is going to have some impact in white-ball teams as well."

Labuschagne produced a couple of important knocks during the Ashes, helping Australia salvage a draw at Lord's after entering the fray as a concussion substitute for Smith.

But he also delivered the clutch wicket of Jack Leach late on day five of the fourth Ashes Test, when the tailender threatened to deny Australia the victory that ensured they returned home with the urn.

"He is a hard worker. He doesn't stop batting and the only time he does stop batting is to go and bowl, he's improving all the time," Paine said.

The rise and rise of Labuschagne, whose elevation to No.3 during last year's SCG Test against India was widely criticised on the basis his first-class average at the time was 33.17, has been incredible.

The batsman rocketed from 110th to fourth in the ICC's Test batting charts during 2019 - leaving only Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson above him.

"Greg Chappell in particular saw he had some talent," Paine said.

"While Marnus wasn't scoring the runs we thought he could in Shield cricket, he ticked every other box.

"There was an opportunity there over that year to blood some young players who we thought could be the future.

"He has worked his backside off."

Paine wouldn't be drawn on whether a batsman or fast bowler would be squeezed out of the XI if Swepson were to be selected.

"Both (options) have been discussed a little bit," Paine said.

"Luckily, we could probably do both if we had to. We've got some guys around our squad that could provide quite a bit of flexibility.

"Someone like James Pattinson can really lengthen our batting."