Langer returns to his road less travelled
In marking out the professional and philosophical parameters of his stewardship, Justin Langer may reflect on the messages John Buchanan brought to his own playing group in 1999
To form a picture of the manner in which Justin Langer might approach his new job in charge of a dramatically affected Australia men’s team, it’s instructive to revisit the first lessons he took from the most influential coach of his playing days.
The circumstances could scarcely have been less similar when John Buchanan was appointed replacement for Geoff Marsh, the knockabout former Test opener who enjoyed the dressing room environment as much as he loved an end-of-day beer, in November 1999.
That’s because the group of which Buchanan took charge was nearing the peak of its considerable collective powers – recently crowned World Cup champions and just embarking on a string of 16 consecutive Test wins under captain Steve Waugh, a form line unsurpassed in the Test format.
By contrast, Langer – whose appointment was ratified by Cricket Australia today – inherits an outfit bereft of its leaders who were also its two best batters, sitting third on the ICC Test rankings and fifth in ODIs, and stained if not scarred by the ball tampering fall-out.
It’s likely therefore that in marking out the professional and philosophical parameters of his stewardship, Langer will recall the messages that Buchanan – a man with no international playing experience and only seven first-class matches to his name – brought to his all-star playing roster.
Just weeks into his tenure and with successive Test wins against Pakistan to draw upon, Buchanan challenged his men on the day prior to a match starting at the WACA Ground to explain how they – as individuals and as a unit – wanted to be remembered when they left the game.
It’s a poignant question that Langer might well pose when his troops gather to prepare for their next engagement, the Qantas Tour of England that comprises five ODIs and a T20 fixture, beginning early June.
And in helping them frame an answer, he will likely share the values and vision that drove him to become Australian cricket’s foremost first-class runs scorer and the coach who has driven so much on and off-field success with Western Australia’s elite program over the past five-and-a-half years.
Langer has long presented as a curious hybrid; part Zen philosopher, part pugilist.
A proud father of four daughters, the 47-year-old is an unashamed patriot who displays an Australian flag outside his Perth home where he has devoted much time to tending his beloved rose garden.
In recent years, he has also detailed the importance of his Catholic faith and his 2002 autobiographical manifesto ‘The Power of Passion’ included inspirational quotes from the Dalai Lama, Theodore Roosevelt, New Age author Shakti Dawain and country singer John Williamson.
Langer also earned a Bushido Cross, an honour awarded to holders of a black belt in the Australian-developed kick-boxing martial art of Zen Do Kai, and is remembered as one of the most hard-nosed practitioners within a particularly flinty team that developed under his cricketing idol, Steve Waugh.
But cynics who suggest the combative opener was a fully paid-up subscriber to the ‘win at all costs’ culture currently under review in the wake of the ball-tampering affair might be well served by examining more closely the principles that underpin Langer’s persona.
Told in the early days of his 16-year senior career with WA that he was perhaps a touch intense, Langer has since advocated the importance of playing with a smile.
He recounts how unnerved he felt when batting against West Indies’ firebrand Curtly Ambrose, not only because of the frightening pace and impossible bounce he generated but also due to the dazzling grin the Antiguan would routinely sport in lieu of provocative gestures or trash talk.
It was a ploy that Langer adopted when thrown a Test lifeline at the end of Australia’s 2001 Ashes tour – the last time they won a series in the UK – when he greeted England’s bemused opening bowlers Darren Gough and Andy Caddick with a broad grin and a cheery ‘good morning’.
Before he peeled off a career-defining century.
Another favoured mantra that Langer has embraced along the journey is “I would take character over cover drives any day”.
His insistence on developing an environment that nurtures success from roots up rather than simply grafting on raw talent is encapsulated by the offer he made to Michael Klinger at the end of the 2013-14 summer.
Told he was not guaranteed a first-class game at South Australia, Klinger – then aged 33 and after several seasons of captaincy with the Redbacks – received an unsolicited call from Langer who saw him as an ideal fit for his Warriors and Scorchers squads in Perth.
“Basically, what JL (Langer) said was ‘I don’t care if you make runs, I just want you to be part of that group’,” Klinger told cricket.com.au recently.
So neatly did Klinger fit into that structure that he happily found the most consistently productive form of his lengthy career and ultimately won the national call-up he had fruitlessly chased for almost two decades.
It was the circumstances under which Langer, then an assistant coach with the Australia men’s team, was lured back to Perth in late 2012 that will perhaps hold him in best stead for the challenges that await.
And doubtless played a sizeable part in his appointment as Darren Lehmann’s successor.
When Langer was named as supremo in Perth, the WA Cricket Association was dealing with the fall-out from the Scorchers' extra-curricular activities during the now-defunct Champions League tournament in South Africa.
A misadventure that engulfed a bulk of the playing group and triggered an independent review of WA cricket and its culture, a process also partly fuelled by a lack of on-field success over the preceding decade during which domestic trophies had all-but eluded the Warriors.
Since taking over from Lachlan Stevens, WA under Langer have secured five limited-overs titles - two in the JLT Cup 50-over competition and three in the KFC Big Bash League – and reached the Sheffield Shield final in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Just as significantly, Langer has taken the negative perceptions that had built around WA cricket and used them as a galvanising tool to forge a bond of mutual struggle for collective gain that has rejuvenated the organisation and restored pride as well as performance.
When Cameron Bancroft swelled with pride at a media conference prior to his maiden Test match at the WACA Ground last year, Langer watched on like a beaming parent.
Three months later when the opener flew back to Perth a broken man after events in South Africa, Langer met him at the airport with a heartfelt hug and unconditional support.
A cornerstone of the cultural ethos that has shaped Langer’s life and complementary cricket experiences is the slogan that he penned in screaming capital letters and attached – within a plastic sleeve – to the tiled wall of his shower at home to ensure it remained front of mind, each and every day.
"The pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment," his creed read.
That charter, as outlined in his first book comprised multiple elements, among them the discipline to watch your manners, the discipline to hold your tongue, the discipline to make the right choices, the discipline to lead by example, and the discipline to tell the truth.
Prior to his appointment, Langer had yet to venture a public interpretation of the decision taken by players wearing the Baggy Green cap that he so openly cherishes, to take a sheet of sandpaper on to the field at Cape Town last month and employ it to try and alter the condition of the ball.
It was almost certain to be among the questions posed in his first media outing as Australia coach.
But it was a subject he broached coincidentally in an interview with cricket.com.au four years ago when he was asked for his response to swirling opinions that Australia needed to develop a finger spinner capable of delivering the controversial ‘doosra’ if it was to improve their poor Test record in Asia.
“It’s a bit like reverse swinging the ball,” he said of the spin bowling art that many believe is almost impossible to perfect without a bending of the arm, in contravention of the game’s laws.
“If you want to promote reverse swinging the ball, in most cases I think you’ll find you probably have to bend the rules to get it to work.
“Is it great to have one of those (doosra) bowlers in your team? One hundred per cent.
“But do we want to promote it in Australia? I’m not so sure.
“It’s like any sort of leadership - you can go with the crowd and just follow what everyone else does or you can say ‘no’.”
The collective aspiration to which Langer and his teammates eventually committed at that pre-Test meeting chaired by Buchanan in 1999 – noting that ‘The Invincibles’ had been copyrighted 50 years earlier and ‘The Immortals’ was a bit heavy on hubris – became ‘The Road Less Travelled’.
That being, a shared pledge to find a way of achieving their very lofty ambitions by daring to depart from methodologies employed previously, and to gain the additional inner satisfaction of knowing they had charted their own unique path to history.
That journey, with Justin Langer now at the wheel, resumes today.