Langer's empathy born from bitter experience
Australian coach reflects on the 1997 and 2001 Ashes tours as he prepares to have six difficult conversations when deciding on Australia’s first Test XI
Andrew Ramsey in Birmingham
31 July 2019, 12:30 PM AEST
When Justin Langer told a pre-Test media conference at Edgbaston that he felt deep empathy for the six players in his touring party who will miss selection for this week's Ashes opener, he spoke from heartfelt experience.
A cursory reading of Langer's exalted playing career – 105 Test appearances, more first-class runs than any Australia batter to have played before or since - might suggest he was a walk-up start whenever selectors inked in their preferred XI.
But over the course of that 14-year Test career, there were numerous occasions when Langer felt the sting of rejection as he was overlooked for teams and touring parties.
And nowhere was the pain of missing out more acute than in the UK, where Australia cricketers have traditionally forged their reputations in the white-heat of battle against the nation's historic sporting foe.
Despite entering Test cricket against the full might of the West Indies in early 1993, a subsequent string of low scores batting at number three against New Zealand saw him miss the 1993 Ashes squad led by Mark Taylor.
Having won back his place during the 1996-97 Australia summer, Langer was included in the 17-man squad for the 1997 Ashes campaign, but did not play a Test and was restricted to batting in half a dozen tour games.
Then, in 2001, he was again considered surplus to requirements for most of the series under Steve Waugh even though he'd played 33 consecutive Tests leading into that British tour.
As a result, he experienced a low point from which he feared he might not rise until he won inclusion at the expense of Michael Slater in the final Test of that northern summer.
From the time he scored a century (retired hurt) as an opener alongside Matthew Hayden in that game at The Oval, it was only injury that kept Langer out of Australia's Test XI until his retirement from international cricket in 2007.
It's therefore understandable that Langer, about to embark on his first Ashes assignment as men's team coach, cares deeply for the pastoral care of those who won't make muster when the team sheet is formalised on Thursday.
Given the competition for places in the Australia line-up for the opening Test at Edgbaston, which was effectively underwater following persistent rain Tuesday afternoon, that unlucky group might extend to incumbents the calibre of left-arm quick Mitchell Starc and opener Marcus Harris.
"There’s going to be six guys, and whoever misses out deserves to play this Test match," Langer said today.
"It’s a good position to be in, but you’ve got to make sure you keep encouraging them.
"From experience it’s a tough one.
"In 2001 I was in, then I was out, and the next six weeks were hard yakka.
"So you’ve got to make sure you look after all of them."
The message that Langer sends to those who are included in the starting XI come Thursday, and those who hold their places throughout the tightly compacted program of five Tests in less than seven weeks, is similarly drawn for his own lived experience.
As the opener discovered after completing that fighting century at The Oval in 2001, an innings that was ended by a blow to the head rather than him surrendering his wicket, Ashes battles are the pages upon which legends are penned.
That truism was echoed this week by Waugh, the skipper who made the tough call to omit Slater and end his Test career in 2001, who noted that a feature of Ashes cricket was its capacity to bring the best out of those players that thrive on challenge.
Waugh is acting as mentor to Langer's team, and as the men's player with the most Ashes wins among all combatants across 142 years of competition, his recollections and motivation has already been cited as a potentially crucial advantage in Australia's preparation.
"Steve Waugh said it yesterday – this is where you find out about people," Langer said.
"Every Ashes series, heroes come through and that’s because they adapt to the conditions, they’re up for the fight.
"There are going to be plenty of times they have to show a bit of steel, with the bat, the ball or in the field.
"We’ve got some young guys, some great players, some players finding their way, some young kids.
"We’ll have to adapt pretty quickly."
Langer also shares the view of England and Wales Cricket Board Managing Director of Men's Cricket, Ashley Giles, who became one of those heroes when he piloted England to the crucial fourth Test win that sealed their historic 2005 Ashes triumph.
Giles said yesterday that while England's players had committed to building and sustaining a more respectful team culture, he expected there would inevitably be moments during the heat of competition when on-field flashpoints were reached.
"We know in this series that something's going to come out," Giles said.
"There's going to be an incident at some point on the field, and I'm sure it's not going to be particularly pretty.
"But that's the Ashes."
Langer said his players were prepared for the hostility and heckling expected from partisan English crowds during the Ashes, and was confident that even under the intense pressure and scrutiny the new approach similarly adopted by the Australia men's team would not change.
Although he reiterated Giles's view that there will be moments when the innate combativeness of players in both camps brings temperatures to boiling point.
"The players know what the expected behaviours are, and I'm confident we'll continue to do that," he said today.
"We have to.
"There's still going to be some fight in the Ashes, we'd all be disappointed if there wasn't.
"We know what the expectation is, we know what the standard is, we have to make sure that we're on top of the game with that all the time.
"But boys are still boys - they're playing a tough game, and every now and then emotions take over."
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Moeen Ali, Jimmy Anderson, Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Olly Stone, Chris Woakes.
Tour match: Australians v Worcestershire, August 7-9
Second Test: August 14-18,Lord's
Third Test: August 22-26, Headingley
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval