'Make us proud': JL ends culture clash
Australia coach reveals what he wants his team to stand for, and finds a chorus of support among leading players
29 November 2018, 10:29 AM AEST
In the months since Justin Langer stepped into the job of men's team coach, and stared deep into the wounded soul of Australian cricket, he has faced almost as many tough questions as he bore new-ball bouncers in his days as an unflinching opener.
How can his men hope to regain faith from a disillusioned and distrustful public?
What permanent scars has the ball-tampering shame in South Africa inflicted upon the game?
Was he not, himself, the product of an era when Australia Test outfits were occasionally regarded as caustically combative?
Yet the query many would expect to cut deepest and yield the most painful introspection is instead one that he – perhaps not surprisingly for a man who formerly tamed the world's fastest bowlers for a living – pounces upon with relish.
Like those short balls he would gleefully swivel-pull through midwicket throughout his playing pomp, Langer seizes on the chance to articulate what he believes the Australia men's team stands for, post-stain left behind by the sandpaper episode.
"That's really easy for me," Langer says with a zeal often only seen among openers when the third-change seamer is thrown the ball.
"What we stand for is to make Australians proud."
In its essence, it's a statement of self-evidence almost bordering on the glib.
The sort of vow mouthed by politicians who like to pretend they don't play politics; the refrain from hopeful Olympians before they're savaged for not bringing home their body weight in gold medals.
But the way Langer explains it, in his folksy hybrid of home-spun philosophy and hard-nosed pugilist, lends it a compelling credibility.
Maybe even verging on noble.
"In a lot of ways, it's Australia's team, isn't it?" he says, pointing out that – while football codes thrive on parochial tribalism and individual sports bring celebration of talent above team – cricket's appeal transcends borders and personality.
"We've got some great teams in Australia, but the Australian cricket team – it's the whole country.
"It's not some of the eastern states who love a particular sport, it's Australia's team and if we can make Australians proud, that's what we stand for.
"The other part of it is we develop great cricketers, but also great Australians.
"They go hand in hand for me.
"It's not just about being a good cricketer, it's about being a good person as well.
"If we can do that, we're achieving our goals."
The clarity and humility he has instilled in a group that suddenly found themselves spurned by a sizeable chunk of a fan base previously presumed to offer them unconditional love, is demonstrable when that same question is posed to the players.
Senior members of the Test squad canvassed by cricket.com.au spoke of the disconnect they now see had developed between those who are paid for the privilege of representing the nation at cricket, and the public who hand over their hard-earned to subsidise them in that quest.
There were signs emerging they had lost their compass well before they lost their captain and his deputy to 12-month bans.
Tim Paine, the skipper appointed to oversee this salvage operation in partnership with Langer and the refreshed ethos they preach, has previously noted those warning signs were observed, but no new course was charted.
Among the tangible changes Paine has brought to his group is the handshakes with opposing teams before on-field hostilities begin, as well as a number of other less public measures that he notes are designed to alter the way his team is perceived, not the way they play.
"It's a bit of a self-check thing for us, with everything that we're doing whether it be on the field or off the field," Paine told cricket.com.au.
"If you can ask yourself that question – 'am I making my fellow Australians proud?' – and answer that with a 'yes' then we're on the right track.
"That's what's driving us at the moment."
Paine concedes there have been more than a few hard-heads within Australia cricket – among them current and former teammates from club cricket in his home state, Tasmania – who have questioned the value of such gestures in shaping a competitive cricket outfit.
But the 33-year-old dismisses suggestions that showing humility is a sign of weakness, and reiterated Langer's view that Australia's men's team will not be taking a backward step when challenged, but simply tucking in their metaphoric elbows when on the charge.
"I just think it's a bit of a no-brainer – it's a show of sportsmanship, and that's about it," Paine said of the pre-game handshake gesture that he introduced for the final Test against South Africa last April.
"It doesn't mean we're going to be the nicest team in the world to play against, by any stretch of the imagination.
"We're still going to be really competitive and really fierce out on the ground, but I think there's just got to be that respect between the two sides.
"I think some people just took it the wrong way – they thought it means the Australian cricket team is going to be overly nice, or a bit soft, but it's not that at all.
"It's just about having respect for your opposition, respect for the game, but as soon as we cross the line we're absolutely in it to win it."
Fast bowler Pat Cummins, who through injury's curse had watched the team's evolution from a distance before being reintegrated to the fold a year or more ago, acknowledges that the "bubble" within which a professional international cricketer exists had become seemingly soundproof.
Consequently, the players became tin-eared to the unease growing among fans who felt their on-field aggression too often betrayed an air of bullying, and that their unwillingness to address that perception was born of aloofness.
As life so often teaches, it's taken a heavy crash for the scales to fall.
"We've always had that little barrier, which is us being in the bubble of always touring," Cummins said.
"We'd love to feel like we're a bit closer to the public in things that we do, and it's … just letting our guard down a little bit.
"Showing everyone how passionate we feel when we play."
It's a small but significant epiphany – that belligerence is no longer an acceptable manifestation of passion.
Instead, anger directed at opponents when luck runs dry and events conspire to deny is interpreted as arrogance and, at worst, an ugly excess that reeks of privilege.
Confronted by this reality in the fall-out from Cape Town, Australia's chastened players cite authenticity in their efforts to forge a new collective persona.
One that retains the hard-edged competitiveness demanded of elite-level sport's successful teams and individuals, but also carries a human face to which supporters, casual observers and some hard-line critics can relate and perhaps, when circumstances warrant, even empathise.
"We represent the people and the country, and we want to be the people's team," strike bowler Mitchell Starc revealed.
"There's been a lot of chats about just taking away a little bit from just thinking about winning, and being respectful and humble and getting to interact with the fans a bit more.
"We want to do that, it's a genuine part of this team going forward."
As Langer has noted since taking over from Darren Lehmann, who stood down as coach amid the turmoil in South Africa last March, mission statements and values creeds are no more instructive than "toilet paper" if simply strewn about as a form of corporate heraldry.
"It's easy to write them on a bit of paper," newly appointed Test vice-captain Josh Hazlewood says of the values he believes will redefine the men's team.
"But (the ambition is) to live by them day-in, day-out and, as time goes on, have that consistent behaviour from the team.
"It's a shame that it took something like South African events to put us on the right path.
"But … everyone's on the bus, so to speak, we're all going in the same direction and winning the crowd back is a big one for us.
"Getting that respect back from the Australian public so, we'll do everything we can and we'll play the right way, and hopefully they follow us."
Hazlewood's co-vice-captain Mitchell Marsh understands more acutely than many the importance of a healthy, nurturing and responsive team environment when the klaxons of public opinion are wailing loud beyond the changeroom walls.
The 26-year-old was a target of relentless criticism – some of it pious penmanship, most of it the venal ranting from social media platforms he now actively avoids – as he battled to secure a place in Australia's Test XI.
Marsh attributes much of his maturity as a player and a person to the philosophies and feel that Langer brought during his previous tenure as coach of Western Australia.
Where Marsh says his mentor was able to maximise the talent inherent in those who make it to the top level by showing a deep and abiding interest in his players, and their development as citizens as well as cricketers.
Marsh claims that level of personal investment spurs individuals to perform so they can deliver a dividend, and he believes the confidence and certainty that Langer shows when quizzed about the ethos of Australia's men's Test team will soon percolate through to his new group of players.
"I think if you had asked that question six months ago, 12 months ago, I'm not really sure how you'd answer that," Marsh said when pressed for his thoughts on what the current Australia men's team represents.
"We're going to come up with some team values of what we're going to stand for as Australian cricketers, (and) that will be around professionalism, mateship, honesty, things like that.
"(So) we can look people in the eye, and say 'this is what an Australian cricketer stands for'."
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 6-10: First Test, Adelaide Oval
Dec 14-18: Second Test, Perth Stadium
Dec 26-30: Third Test, MCG
Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Chris Tremain
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar