On the first day of Test cricket for the new year the apprentice again proved the master of his craft.
The master, meanwhile, muddled along, unbowed but lacking the sense of the indomitable and inevitable to which we’d become accustomed.
Marnus Labuschagne has a long way to go before he will be mentioned in the same breath but at this point of his journey he is finding cricket a canter while his idol, Steve Smith is, well, hanging in there. Along for the ride, if you like. Doing better than most but not as good as he has mostly been.
Labuschagne brought up a crisp century on the first day of the Test, the fourth of a summer in which he has come of age. Smith got two thirds of the way there but again failed to reach three figures.
The pair came together when David Warner threw it away after doing what should have been the hard work.
It needs to be stated that a New Zealand side already struggling to compete in the series was compelled to make five changes to its XI for this game — at least three of them because of an illness that has gone through the team.
Allrounder Mitchell Santner could not get out of bed. Captain Kane Williamson and batsman Henry Nicholls made it to the ground and attempted a net session but realised they were in no fit state to play Test cricket and so returned to their hotel.
Trent Boult could not play because he had broken his hand.
Tim Southee was rested after bowling 100 overs in the previous two Tests and was replaced by Matt Henry. It was a blow to the ego of the veteran bowler. Coach Gary Stead explained after stumps that they wanted more speed.
Will Sommerville, who flew in a few days ago, and Glenn Phillips, who was out bodyboarding in New Zealand on Thursday, were both called up.
Phillips, the batsman who scored a century in a tour game against England recently, was presented with his first Test cap, while the spinner, Sommerville, was granted the honour of playing his fourth Test on the ground where he made his first-class debut for NSW five years before.
Legspinner Todd Astle was brought in to play what is the fifth Test of his career and dumped opener Jeet Raval was brought back as a No 3.
When the suspicion is that even a full Kiwi side would struggle against the Australians at this moment, the sight of so many forced and unforced changes exponentially lengthened the odds of a Kiwi victory.
So, Warner had got into the 40s but played a lazy slap to a sloppy legside half-tracker from Neil Wagner just after lunch and was neatly caught around the corner by Colin de Grandhomme fielding in what the players call “the 45”.
Labuschagne was moving into his work and held his nerve as Smith faced up to his nemesis Wagner and dug in.
Some 38 balls later, Smith was still digging and still on a duck. When he did scramble a single a roar went up from an intrigued crowd that was heard in surrounding suburbs.
The constipated master and his apprentice managed just 12 runs from the 11 overs after the break, but Wagner could not bowl from both ends and the spell was broken before Smith’s hole became the sort around which mourners gather.
The former captain found a way. He’s not too flustered about how he looks with bat in hand. He may pose for the camera on Instagram but he’s happy to bat ugly if he has to.
Labuschagne, by comparison, looks the goods.
This time last year eyebrows were raised when he was slotted into No 3 in the match against India. He didn’t hold on to his spot for that long, not doing enough in the last three games of the summer to ensure he stay in the side for the first match of the Ashes.
He found his way in for the back half of the Lord’s Test as an understudy to Smith, who’d had his first problem with a short ball.
Taking the Ashes as a starting point, Smith and Labuschagne have batted 14 times in nine Test matches.
Smith, who was out for 63, has scored 1028 runs at an average of 73, while Labuschagne, who is still in motion on 130no, has 1105 runs at an average of 85.
The latter admits he is going well but says people need to have a broader view.
“There’s no comparison, for one person to perform over a year and to compare that to a guy that has been performing for eight years and been at the top of his game for five or six years — that’s what I aspire to,” he says.
“Of course I want to be consistent and as consistent as Steve, but for me it is just making sure I keep taking it step by step, game by game and keep trying to put runs on the board.
“When runs are flowing nicely you want to make sure it lasts as long as possible as it can turn very quickly.”