Despite facing a schedule that features two showpiece limited-overs tournaments and a resumption of the Ashes battle against England, newly minted Australia coach Justin Langer believes his team’s greatest challenge awaits in India three years from now.
Langer, whose four-year appointment as Bupa Support Team men’s coach across all international formats was confirmed today, cites a Test series win on Indian soil as the pinnacle and one that is required if the outfit he now oversees wants to lay claim to ‘greatness’.
The 47-year-old former Australia opener rated the 2004 series triumph against India on their home turf under stand-in skipper Adam Gilchrist (Ricky Ponting was sidelined for much of it with a broken thumb) as the undisputed highlight of his 105-Test playing career.
And he believes that if the group that he takes over from former coach Darren Lehmann is to repair its tarnished public image and arrest its slide down the global rankings, becoming just the second Australia team to succeed in India in half a century when they tour in early 2021 will bring indelible redemption.
Langer, who begins his tenure without the services of the nation’s two most successful and experienced contemporary batters (Steve Smith and David Warner, both banned until next year), acknowledges there are important engagements between now and the scheduled India campaign.
Among them, India’s forthcoming visit to Australia where the world’s No.1 team is eyeing a first Test series victory on Australian soil, and the ICC World Cup in the UK next year that is immediately followed by an away Ashes battle where Australia has not won since Langer played in 2001.
There is also the World T20 tournament to be hosted by Australia in 2020, where the home team will face significant pressure to turn around its indifferent form in the 20-over format over recent years.
All of which will give the new coach plenty to ponder as he plans for his maiden assignment as Lehmann’s successor, next month’s Qantas Tour of the UK that features five ODIs and a T20 international against Australia’s historic rivals, England.
"We’ve got a World Cup, a T20 World Cup, a couple of Ashes (in 2019 and 2021-22) – I get nervous when I start thinking about it," Langer told a media conference in Melbourne today.
"There are some big tournaments coming up.
"But ultimately, if I fast forward it, the Indian Test tour in about three or four years’ time, to me that’s the ultimate.
"We will judge ourselves on whether we’re a great cricket team if we beat India in India.
"I look back on my career, the Mount Everest moment was 2004 when we finally beat India in India.
"We’ve got to get better at playing overseas, we become a great team if we win overseas and at home so that will be something for us to aspire to."
Langer admitted that the absence of ex-captain Smith and his former deputy Warner, who with rookie Test opener Cameron Bancroft have been suspended for their roles in the recent ball-tampering scandal, will leave a hefty hole in his on-field playing stocks.
But he said the enforced changes to Australia’s line-up will not only provide players around the country with a chance to prove their worth and seize their opportunity, it should ensure the national outfit is even better placed when the outed trio are again eligible for selection.
"It’s hard to replace their runs and their experience," Langer said when asked how he planned to cover the loss of the pair who were responsible for 37 per cent of the Test match runs Australia scored since 2014.
"Over the next 11 months, there’s a chance for some guys to take their opportunities … to even make us stronger, and add to the depth.
"They (Smith and Warner) are like the cream on the top, when it comes to big tournaments.
"You can build the depth and then you’ve got some great players coming back in, that’s a pretty exciting time."
Langer was also effusive about Tasmania keeper Tim Paine who has been elevated to the captaincy now that Smith is prevented from holding a team leadership role for the next two years (and Warner for the remainder of his career).
While claiming he was not a fan of sports teams installing a formal ‘leadership group’ and that providing input on and off-field was a prerogative and expectation of every squad member, he recognised the importance of strong bonds among all elite elements of Australian cricket.
And noted there was no more crucial interaction than those at the helm of the playing group with the coach in the dressing room.
"I know that the relationships with the captain, the vice-captain and the coach are crucial, as are the relationships with the Chairman (at CA, David Peever), and the CEO (James Sutherland) and the High Performance Manager (Pat Howard) – all the leaders in the group," Langer said today.
"To me, leadership is everything.
"Tim (Paine is) a fantastic young bloke, I’ve loved him since he’s come in.
"He’s got a bit of charisma, he trains hard, he’s fit, he’s a very good cricketer.
"I think he’ll be outstanding for the job at the moment.
"The leaders are crucial but I think everyone’s a leader."
As for suggestions that – in the wake of the fractious series against South Africa that led to the ball-tampering scandal and then Australia’s second-worst defeat (in runs) across more than 140 years of Tests – the team should radically change their on-field approach, Langer was less bullish.
The man who led Western Australia to two domestic 50-over titles and consecutive Sheffield Shield finals as well as three KFC Big Bash League crowns with the Perth Scorchers believes there is scope for a softening of the men’s team’s on-field persona.
But having been schooled under the uncompromising tutelage of former coach Bob Simpson and long-serving captain Allan Border, Langer also acknowledges that the Australia public expects the national cricket team to win and that cannot be regularly achieved without a hard, competitive approach.
"I was brought up under Bob Simpson and Allan Border, I still get nervous saying their names they were that tough," he said.
"They demanded excellence on and off the cricket field, and we played hard.
"The (Australian) public will be disappointed if we don’t play good, hard, competitive cricket.
"That said, we can also modify our behaviours a bit so it’s not angry, not over-aggressive but we’re certainly aggressive in the mindset we play with the bat and the ball."
"We’ve always played hard.
"I think some of the best banter is amongst each other to try and get the opposition thinking about other things.
"Mental toughness is simply about being 100 per cent focused on the next ball, and if you’re worrying about what you just said to me, then there’s a distraction.
"We all know what the acceptable behaviours are.
"There’s a difference between competitiveness and aggression, and we’ve got to be careful with that."