Clayton Murzello: Langer, the man who took blows
Australia's new coach scrapped his way to become a batting great. Now, he's challenged to become a better guide than his predecessors
Australia's new head coach and former batsman Justin Langer interacts with the media at Melbourne on May 3. He replaced Darren Lehmann. Pic/Getty Images
Australia have a great coach in Justin Langer to guide them through one of their worst cricketing crises. Correction: They have a batting great as coach. The majority of permanent coaches of the Australian cricket team were not Test greats. In fact, the last batting great to wear the coach's cap was Bob Simpson; their first ever coach.
It was under Simpson that newly-appointed coach Justin Langer made his Test debut for Australia — in the summer of 1992-93 — when the West Indies were still the number one team in the world. Langer will not forget it. How could he? The first ball he faced in Test cricket, off the swift Ian Bishop, landed firmly at the back of his helmet. The blow left him dizzy and dazed at the Adelaide Oval. Interestingly, he was also knocked down in his 100th Test — at Johannesburg in 2006 — when he was hit hard behind the right ear by South African Makhaya Ntini to play no further part in the match.
Much like that delivery, Langer's entry into international cricket in the early 1990s was hard. He expected to be on the flight with Allan Border's England troops in 1993, but he didn't find favour with the selectors. He only became a regular one-drop batsman for his country five years down the line, before combining splendidly with Matthew Hayden in the opening position.
He was part of the 1997 Ashes series in England, but did not feature in any of the five Tests. That did not stop him from playing the perfect team man. Mark Taylor was in the throes of a treacherous slump that got the critics dissecting every one of his innings. Langer and his skipper happened to be batting together in the side game against Derbyshire, who were captained by former teammate Dean Jones. Taylor slashed at one off Philip DeFreitas and Jones dropped the catch at slip. At the end of the over, Taylor exclaimed to his junior partner, "That's bloody it, mate. I just can't f****n play!" The young bull (that's what Taylor called Langer when he related this incident in his autobiography Time to Declare) refused to accept the negativity from his skipper. "Mark, that's bloody rubbish," Langer shot back and added, "Of course, you can play. You know that. Just watch the bloody ball really close, stick in here and it will come."
Taylor listened to Langer's advice and ended up hitting his first straight drive in six months to score 63 in 181 minutes. In the next game — the opening Test of the 1997 Ashes — Taylor helped himself to a second innings hundred. The following year, while Langer continued to deal with his in-out, in-out situations, he toured Pakistan where his teammates nicknamed him Arthur Morris.
In The Power of Passion, one of Langer's four literary works, he revealed that Morris (who was part of Don Bradman's 1948 Invincibles) used to be asked often by cricket lovers about how it felt to be in the same team as Bradman. Now, Morris happened to be at the non-striker's end when Bradman was famously bowled by Eric Hollies for a duck in his last Test innings at The Oval in 1948. The dismissal prevented The Don from ending up with a three-figure batting average. Morris used to remind his audience about the fact that while Bradman's duck was most talked-about, people forget that he scored 196 in that same innings. Similarly, Taylor's 334 not out is celebrated as an epic performance, but Langer scored a hundred in that innings — his first in Test cricket — at Peshawar, but it never gets talked about. Given the shared irony of their stories, the Arthur Morris moniker stuck.
Langer ended his career in 2006-07, when Australia claimed the Ashes back after England regained the urn in 2005. Gripping cricket notwithstanding, not many Australians will look back on that contest, their first Ashes series loss since 1986-87, with pleasure. While the Australians were playing poorly in 2005 and were made to follow on at Trent Bridge, my Australian friend Andrew Ramsey, who was reporting the series for The Australian newspaper, was asked to pen a piece for The Times in London.
The guest writer was critical of Australia's performance. As Ramsey left his room for the breakfast lounge in the team hotel at Nottingham, he bumped into Langer, who told him that he read the article. Ramsey was expecting a negative reaction, but Langer called Ramsey's analysis "spot on." He patted him on his shoulder twice and ran towards the elevator to join his teammates in the team bus.
Acceptance is a great trait to have. Langer has many more, developed ever since his 11-year-old eyes watched on television his Western Australian hero Dennis Lillee shatter Viv Richards' stumps off the last ball on Boxing Day in 1981 at Melbourne. Lillee's incredible inswinger made Langer yearn to play for Australia someday. Doubtless, he'll want to be a great coach now.
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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