Justin Langer can go out on a high or risk return to Flatmate Syndrome

Before England’s Test visit in 2017, Australian spinner Nathan Lyon offered a line much repeated since about hoping to end some England careers. It was taken as it was intended, as a piece of pre-series bluff and bluster. The thing is, Lyon was close to the truth. In the Ashes-obsessed Test calendars for the English and Australian men’s teams, results in that series do make or break careers, on the field and off. Cricket cycles and career cycles have their ends and beginnings marked by these contests.

Plenty of players have their last appearance in an Ashes defeat, tending to be pensioned off thereafter in an effort to make whatever comes next seem like a fresh start. Captains too tend to call it quits – see Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, and if not for an early newspaper story, Tim Paine. An Australian coach can survive a loss in England if it isn’t dire, but would never survive one in Australia. England’s current coach, Chris Silverwood, is hotly tipped to hit the exit even with two matches of the ongoing series still to play.

All of which makes the position of Justin Langer as Australia coach especially interesting. Early in 2021, and again through the middle months, stories abounded about player discontent with the boss. Those with an interest in being defensive about the situation have tried to cast it as a media concoction, but the initial information did come from within the dressing room. There was substance behind the speculation.

This does not make Langer a bad person or a bad coach. It seemed simply to be what we might call Flatmate Syndrome – when you live or work closely with someone for long enough, you can start to get on each other’s nerves. Most coaches start out with goodwill, described by players as refreshing because of their new approach. Gradually, familiarity breeds irritation. The dynamic changes. Things that would be harmless to anyone outside become intolerable. During Australia’s 2020-21 summer of quarantines and bio-bubbles, in a side losing to India, annoyances had the perfect circumstances to hit their highest pitch.

As the story rolled on, Cricket Australia backed Langer. In August 2021, senior players and senior administrators arranged a meeting to thrash out what to do next. Shortly before it took place, CA released a statement saying that Langer would see out his contract until early 2022. Being pre-empted didn’t please those players, but it essentially left no option but to work out a compromise. That involved changes to the way coaching sessions were run and to the hierarchy of input, with what seemed like an implicit understanding that Langer would move on after finishing his time.

In the few months since, Langer has won Australia’s first T20 World Cup title followed by the Ashes in straight sets. His tactical arrangements have worked, as have a number of creative inclusions abetted by selector George Bailey. The coach is having a golden run. A couple of weeks ago, when asked in a press conference whether he would like to continue in the job after his current term, his answer was simply: “Yes.”

Langer embraces Pat Cummins following Australia’s decisive victory in the third Test
Langer embraces Pat Cummins following Australia’s decisive victory in the third Test. Photograph: Hamish Blair/AFP/Getty Images

If an Ashes loss tends to cost coaching jobs, an Ashes win gives a coach more scope to call the shots. But all of this recent success has still come from working with players who have expected the term limit to stay in place. Perhaps those who were unhappy now feel differently. Presumably the team room is now a more harmonious place. But equally, knowing that there is an end in sight can take the pressure off difficult relationships, where staring into an indefinite future can crank that pressure up.

It is no surprise that Langer’s impulse will be to continue. There is no confection about the fact that he loves the job, the sport, and the national team. Working at the pinnacle of all of those things must be deeply gratifying, and nothing else would match it. And Langer has always loved a scrap, proving that he can do things when other people say that he cannot. If he really wants to stay on as coach, he is now in a position where he can probably make that so.

It is also worth considering, though, that Australia’s listed assignments for 2022 involve nine Tests in Asia, touring Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. These trips have historically been tough for teams who struggle in the conditions, and will have to be carried out under heavy biosecurity rules with the background anxiety of Covid infections. The dressing room could very quickly become claustrophobic again.

Perhaps Langer sees the coming year as a challenge and an opportunity to make history. Mind you, Joe Root said the same things before Brisbane. The alternative is for the coach to choose his own exit at a high point of success: it could be a 2022 farewell after an Ashes whitewash, just as he did as a player in 2007. These series do get too much attention, but they are still the thing that people in the competing countries most remember. There can be honour in choosing the right time to stop the fight.