Cricket

Justin Langer was a dogged opener over many seasons for the Australian men’s cricket team. But after ascending to the role of head coach, that same gritty determination brought him undone at the hands of an arrogant Cricket Australia. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

What have we learnt from the Justin Langer saga?

Pat Cummins and Justin Langer embrace after Australia wins the third Ashes Test match.
Pat Cummins and Justin Langer embrace after Australia wins the third Ashes Test match.
Credit: Hamish Blair / AFP

This is part one of a two-part series.

As both a player and a coach, there was never any question about Justin Langer’s commitment to the game or his loyalty to the Australian cricket team. Langer’s passion was famously fierce and sometimes self-endangering. Take his 100th Test, played in Johannesburg in 2006. It was the final Test of three, and Australia was batting second. Facing the first ball, Langer ducked haplessly into a short delivery from Makhaya Ntini, which struck him flush on the side of his helmet. Langer fell to his knees, bleeding and dazed, and retired hurt.

After scans at the local hospital, Langer stayed in his hotel room for days suffering nausea, fatigue and occasional confusion. There were severe headaches and vomiting. Doctors told him if he returned in the second innings and was struck again, he could die. His captain, Ricky Ponting, had also received this medical advice and vowed not to send his opener back out.

The match was tight, very tight, and as Langer watched the wickets fall during his team’s run chase, he became convinced he was needed – there was a possibility that, having lost nine wickets, Australia might be a handful of runs shy. So, he padded up and began jogging circles to better persuade himself that he was right to play. Ponting was astonished. “You’re not playing, mate,” the captain told him. But Langer was so furiously adamant he would go out there if the ninth wicket was lost that Ponting told him he would officially declare the innings over to prevent it. As it was, Australia won without need for this intervention. (One detail often lost with this anecdote is that the game Langer was prepared to risk his life for was a dead rubber – Australia was already unassailably 2-0 up in the series.)

As national coach, Langer’s intensity and passionate eye for detail upset some Australian players for whom these two qualities became “intimidation” and severe “micromanagement”. In the past year, certain players had leaked grievances about Langer to the press, about his unapproachability and their “walking on eggshells” around him.

Then there was a virally shared column last August from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief cricket writer Malcolm Conn, who had previously worked as communications manager for Cricket Australia and had drawn upon his own experience working with Langer for a piece that seemed to ratify player concerns.

Conn described Langer as “erratic”, “volatile” and “grumpy”, a man who repelled players with his moods and who had an eccentrically hostile view of seemingly inconsequential things, such as a player running out with a half-eaten cheese toastie in his pocket, or the playing of a highlights montage of the opposition on the ground’s jumbo screen before a match. Conn’s point was that Langer’s passion and legendary status did not much matter if his players disliked him. Former players, such as Mitchell Johnson, viewed the piece as a betrayal of confidentiality.

But it was the series of player leaks that was most damaging, and the leaking sowed its own discontent: first with Langer, who was naturally upset but vowed to change; and second with a powerful lobby of older players, “golden era” teammates of Langer’s who thought this shadow campaign against the coach devious and cowardly. After all, Langer was always straightforward. He would tell you what he thought directly and expected the same. The cherished “inner sanctum” of the national team was breached.

One thing to be said for Langer, though, is that in a world of obdurate men disinclined to personal change or reflection, he did, indeed, change. He called a series of team meetings and made painful concessions about his behaviour. It was because he cared, he said, but he accepted that his intensity had alienated some of them. He was apologetic both privately and publicly, and he matched those apologies by relaxing some things. He also asked that if players had problems that they should come to him. Directly. From what I’ve learnt, Langer seemed as serious about modifying his behaviour as he was about winning.

And win he did. In sport, success typically obscures – and mollifies – internal frictions, but this is a strange exception. In November, Australia won its first T20 World Cup when it was given little chance of doing so. Then, after a triumphantly dominant Ashes series, Australia reclaimed the world’s top Test ranking last month.

And there was another win, less measurable, but just as important. In 2018, following the ball-tampering scandal, Langer inherited a historically scandalised team, and was charged with slowly restoring pride and altering a culture that had come to sanctify the arsehole. Phrases such as “Langer saved Australian cricket” seem too neat and triumphantly conclusive to describe the vagaries of culture, but regardless, in four years Langer has acquitted the responsibility. And as far as I know, no current player has publicly acknowledged Langer’s role in helping repair the team’s reputation.

And so, rumours of Langer’s having lost the faith of his players – or at least its senior core – burbled away for almost a year. There was a polite, relative pause of speculation during the Ashes series, and after its successful conclusion it was widely held that Langer had done enough – more than enough – to be offered a generous new contract.

But while negotiations were held between the coach and Cricket Australia, still no player came out to explicitly endorse him. This was most true of captain Pat Cummins, a man at the height of his playing powers, who conspicuously equivocated on the question in multiple interviews. Some say Cummins was jammed in a difficult spot – innocently compromised by having to simultaneously respect the wishes of his players while wanting to publicly respect the coach. Others believe Cummins was disingenuous, and that if he wanted Langer to remain as coach then his explicit endorsement of him could have probably secured it. Regardless of what his view was, the argument goes, he should have made that view plain instead of deferring to Cricket Australia’s authority, while pretending he had no influence of his own.

And so, last weekend, after being offered an insultingly paltry six-month extension to his contract – which was otherwise set to expire midyear – Justin Langer quit, effective immediately.

Suddenly, a generational schism could be seen in the emotional and astonished responses of former players, many of them old teammates of Langer’s. Former captain Mark Taylor warned that players should be careful not to estrange the retired ones from wanting to coach them. Former fast bowler Mitchell Johnson called his old colleague Pat Cummins “gutless”. Langer’s former opening partner Matthew Hayden cried on radio, and described the men’s team as a “leaky boat” that had greatly disrespected his old friend. Adam Gilchrist thought Langer had cruelly “been painted by some particular people as a monster” and said Cricket Australia’s love of corporate buzzwords was concealing their own agendas and mistakes. On social media, former captain Steve Waugh also mocked the corporate jargon of the game’s administrators.

Among these responses, there was also a sense, made either explicitly or implicitly by an older generation, that today’s players were soft, disloyal and disproportionately powerful.

A stronger argument – and one shared by just about everyone commenting on Langer’s resignation – is the arrogance and sustained ineptitude of Cricket Australia. A 2018 Ethics Centre report on Australian cricket, commissioned after the ball-tampering affair, said: “The most common description of CA is as ‘arrogant’ and ‘controlling’ ”, something the body confirmed itself when CA’s then chairman delayed the report’s release until after his reappointment by the board.

Cricket Australia has never adequately, nor respectfully, handled the situation, and nor have they ever been clear about their position – even privately. Instead, they sprayed words such as “evolve”, “transition” and “new needs” and relied, in the end, upon the dubious alibi of having offered Langer a contract, one they knew he’d reject.

A quorum of current players may well have had lingering doubts about their coach, and it may well have been Langer’s time. But the weird aloofness of Cricket Australia, their own internal disharmony, and their obscuring love of jargon, has combined to unfairly injure a man and rescandalise a team it had pledged to recover. 

Read part two: What does the national men’s cricket coach actually do?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Losing appeal".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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