There is an Australian Test cricketer from many, many decades past who reserves a specific response for his wife when she castigates him for arriving home drunk. After her rebuke, he walks silently up the stairs to his bedroom. He removes all his clothes, gathers a solitary item, then returns downstairs. They are both serene, because they have both been here before. When he re-enters the room, he is naked but for the baggy green on his head. He stands opposite her, at a respectful distance.
“How many Tests have you played?” he drawls.
As we have seen in the past few weeks, exploits in the baggy green can provide excellent insurance against truth and reason. The crux of the defence of Justin Langer as coach runs along these lines, mounted by his blood brothers with whom he sang the team song. Some of them, anyway.
The argument works two ways. The first is that because Langer’s superb playing career was marked by an extreme individual drive and will, he must by extension be a superb coach. The second is that, if a current player disagrees, it says more about their character, entitlement, and immaturity than it does about Langer. The generational undertones of the critique are clear.
But irrespective of the claims of both sides, the relationship between Langer and the players is more cooked than Haydos latest volume. Incidentally, ‘Dos’ claimed on SEN Radio last week that the issue “reeks of the lyric ‘six months in a leaking [sic] boat’”. It was a confusing analogy, because that song is about a long, treacherous voyage resulting in a break-up. Still, Hayden was a great stick who too played 100 Test matches.
A more sober reading is that both players and coach have contributed to empirically mediocre results over a sustained period, despite Cricket Australia’s near-gaslit description that it has all been “a great success”. At this point Langer’s proponents may point to mitigating factors such as player availability and, just, Covid. International sport is a zero-sum game, though, and these factors have affected every nation. It is difficult for everyone, and yet Australia is still regularly second best.
Nevertheless, some players are too quick to look externally when they play poorly. By the same token, Langer’s coaching methods are demonstrably not fit for purpose. Two things can be true at the same time. The grander point here is that after three years together, with reviews, talking-to’s, promises to change, broken promises and counselling, the relationship between Langer and the players is done. The team’s current standing no longer needs to be the fault of one party. Even Australia’s own Family Law Act provides for no-fault divorce when a marriage has irretrievably broken down. Their partnership is repeatedly producing middling results, at best. If CA has designs on improving this, Langer’s position must consequently be untenable.
CA must know it too, but instead has asked the coach and players to put on a brave face for the kids. We have just got to get through Christmas. It is hazy as to why. Making it past Christmas would suit Langer, too, because winning the Ashes may just prolong his stay. Though with respect, this team could probably coach themselves to beating England, so out of sorts are Joe Root’s charges. Many people know the experience of a relationship with false dawns. In the circumstances, it may be that the best way to jeopardise Australia’s unlosable Ashes is to retain him.
Meanwhile, the players were last week told they are stuck with the coach for six months. Curiously, chief executive Nick Hockley’s public statement to that effect was published in the hours before Tim Paine, Pat Cummins, and Aaron Finch were permitted to communicate their position to CA. Hockley’s statement blindsided them and was met with dismay. The players were expecting that conversation to go very differently. Paine’s subsequent public support must be read in that context. What else could he possibly say than “get around him”, given the decision to retain Langer had, in effect, already been made and communicated publicly? It is hard not to have some sympathy for the players. This is their turn to play cricket for Australia. Langer has had his turn, but the cricket team still seems to revolve around him.
So while the public conversation devolves down a tedious old-school-versus-new-school prism, the spotlight should instead be on CA. It must provide the men’s team with an optimal environment ahead of a World Cup and the Ashes. And when it comes to Langer, its leaders and custodians might quietly consider an opportunity to protect his dignity before it is crushed under a ceaseless cascade of anecdotes illustrating his extremities. Incidentally, the large majority of these come from those who played with or against him, and not current players. Everyone seems to have a story.
Recounting Langer’s “other side”, however wince-inducing, is not without merit. Brand Langer: the pugnacious, flag-draped, spiritually transcendent Bear Grylls of cricket – is strong. And back in the day, when he scored hundreds adorned in the baggy green, the ends explained the means. But as Australia’s coach, the ends are average so the means bear examining. An outstanding player does not necessarily make an outstanding coach. While many of Langer’s supporters demand deference because of his playing exploits two decades ago, there is yet to be a compelling coaching case for him. Few have improved under him and you wonder about what is still possible for those who have stagnated. Comparisons with Jose Mourinho, Andy Flower and Eddie Jones are kind to Langer. For all of their faults, they had discernible visions and tangible success.
If CA accepts that the relationship cannot be reconciled, logic dictates it cannot sack all of the players. Shrewd executives might see a world where Langer is authentically thanked for his turnaround job after sandpaper and rare retention of the Ashes overseas. The team may also rebound significantly in a new environment. However, as our prime minister has shown, political inertia is in vogue, and so is kicking the can down the road. And as many of Langer’s mates continue to remind us, he has, after all, played 100 Tests. So there’s that.