Shortly after the second match of Australia’s one-day international series against England in September, Justin Langer fronted his players in their dressing room in the bowels of Old Trafford.
It’s fair to say he wasn’t impressed. Having bemoaned missed opportunities in dropping the Twenty20 campaign that preceded it, Australia were one up in the ODI series against the world champions and seemed on the precipice of wrapping it up.
Presented with a modest victory target of 232, they were cruising at 2-144 with nearly 20 overs in reserve and captain Aaron Finch and Marnus Labuschagne well and truly set.
Then came the collapse. Labuschagne’s exit, lbw to Chris Woakes, triggered a capitulation reminiscent of the one that cost them victory in the first T20 of the tour when, needing 163 to win, they were 1-124 after 14 overs but fell short.
All out for 207 before an empty venue in Manchester there was barely anyone but Australia’s players and staff around to hear what Langer had to say. But it didn’t take too long for word to filter back to Australia that he had given the team both barrels in an old-fashioned spray.
More than two months later, Langer’s version of events is a little less theatrical but he does not deny he was unhappy and let the team know.
Justin Langer has embraced the period in which cricket has been impacted by COVID-19.Credit:Getty Images
“We lost an almost unlosable game and if you remember, I think it was the first T20 game, we lost an almost unlosable game,” Langer told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in an interview this week.
“It was just giving our guys a reminder that we’ve got to get better at it.
“When I spoke to the guys after that game, there was nothing personal in it. We were talking about how we can get better as a group and chasing runs is one of those areas.
“It wasn’t a personal spray at any of our players. I’ll never get personal with any of our players, never, ever. It’s not my style.”
I say this with great respect and compassion but the only thing I haven’t loved about COVID is COVIDJustin Langer
Australia went on to win that series 2-1, reversing the narrative dramatically when Glenn Maxwell and Alex Carey pulled them out of the fire in the decider three days later with a century apiece to reel in an England total of 302.
Maybe Langer was on the right track then with the spray/rev-up/dressing down/performance review after game two?
“We ended up winning the series in England so it was an awesome result,” he said.
“I think in two and a half years I’ve got grumpy with the team two or three times, maybe. The thing about it and it’s something I’ve learnt and I’ve reflected on it … it’s like when I used to get out, every now [and then] you’d throw your bat and you’d swear and you’d regret it straight after. What I’ve learnt is [that] emotion in sport is really important. What isn’t important is getting emotional … you’ve got to be very careful how you do that.
“There are different pressures that go with the job - you’ve just got to make sure you can control them. Hopefully, like in the Dettol ad, 99 per cent of the time I do. Every now and then you get a little bit emotional but my gosh I am human and my players are human as well.”
Langer addresses the Australian team at the SCG this week.Credit:Getty Images
Two and half years into the post, Langer has approached Australia’s COVID-19 summer as a very different head coach to the one who had just taken over in the aftermath of the Cape Town scandal when India were last here.
With viewers treated to a compelling look beneath the hood of the Australian team in The Test documentary, the challenges of Langer’s introduction to the post and first year were laid bare for all to see. Usman Khawaja told him he was being too negative and later that players were walking on eggshells. He kicked over a bin in the frantic final moments of the third Ashes Test at Headingley before immediately and amusingly picking it up and putting the empty water bottles that fell out of it back in.
Away from the doco, he got a little hot under the collar at a press conference at the SCG in January 2019 when queried about the selectors’ treatment of Maxwell. In classic Langer fashion he introduced himself to the reporter straight afterwards and made peace. But the pressure on him that summer was so intense it drove his wife Sue to tears.
With players and coaches living in a bubble and having had to quarantine upon re-entry to the country, you might think this season looms as the most difficult yet of the Langer era. He may not see his own family until April due to Western Australia’s hard border and his preference that they not have to serve time in quarantine if they leave and return there.
But ask the Australian opening batting great and what’s ahead looms as far more appealing than the summer when Virat Kohli’s team visited two years ago.
“My development as a coach and a person through going through some tough times has been huge. But also we’ve been together as a team for two and a half years,” Langer said.
“That first six months they were feeling out me, I was feeling out the players, we were trying to work out who we were going forward with. So there were huge challenges.
“There are going to be some challenges [this summer] but we’re well equipped to face those challenges because we’ve been together a long time. We’ve got incredibly capable people working behind the scenes to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible.
Australian players have spoken about the mental rigours of quarantine.Credit:Wolter Peeters
“We’re in a much better position now than we were two and half years ago.”
Langer used the coronavirus-induced hiatus in the international cricket schedule this year well. He wrote a children’s book, Cricket - The Aussie Way, which has just been released, he read widely, listened to a stack of podcasts and generally rejuvenated.
It’s not nothing for someone who has spent much of the last 25 years on the road.
“I say this with great respect and compassion but the only thing I haven’t loved about COVID is COVID,” he said.
“Last year I think we were on the road for nearly 300 days for different things and through that England period [the World Cup and Ashes in 2019] I saw my family for two weeks in four and a half months.
“It was like a blessing, like a gift for our players. I was sleeping in my own bed, eating home-cooked meals, I was with my kids every day, I was in my garden training.
“So whilst I’m not going to see my family potentially until April, and it’ll probably be the first time ever that I haven’t been with my family for Christmas, I feel recharged and ready to go.”
How long that lasts for Australia’s coaches and players is the question. With international cricket back up and running, there is once again a busy calendar ahead next year, taking in, among other commitments, a return to South Africa for Test matches for the first time since the sandpaper scandal, a likely appearance in the first World Test Championship final at Lord’s and, for some, the Indian Premier League.
With the biosecurity and quarantining demands associated with travel and elite sport in a pre-vaccine world, the likes of Steve Smith, David Warner and Josh Hazlewood have already forecast that players will look to take breaks during 2021, such is the unsustainability of cricket in a bubble and its mental and emotional toll.
Langer is ready for that, and is already talking to players about it, the concern for their welfare paramount.
At the same time, he is just getting on with it himself. In his mind, aside from having to be trapped in a hotel room for two weeks at a time, there is not a great deal different to life as an international player now than there has been for a quarter of a century.
“The hub life … in a sense we’ve done it our whole adult life, haven’t we?” Langer said. “When I first started playing I’d go to England and my wife never came to England. And they were long tours.
“My wife, who I’ve been going out with since I was 14 years old … throughout my whole career she came to England twice. Not during county cricket obviously, when we lived over there, but on Australian cricket tours. My wife came for two one-week trips on an England Ashes tour in 15 years. And she never went to any other country around the world to watch me play cricket because it never used to happen. It wasn't the done thing.
“The only difference now is quarantine and with the hub life as we know there is less choice. But we’re also very lucky now the wives and partners and the kids can come into the hotel.
“It’s a choice we make. No one is making us do it. We’re making a few sacrifices but we’re still doing what we love doing. We’re putting smiles on people’s faces, we’re ensuring that the health of cricket around the world continues economically … it’s a good challenge and we’re all ready for it.”
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