Justin Langer believes rumblings within the Australian dressing room about its uncompromising environment are a “wake up call” he cannot ignore, ahead of key meetings among administrators who have the ultimate say about how long he remains as coach of the national team.
The CA Board are due to meet on Friday for the first time since the end of the series loss to India, while any concerns from within the team about Langer’s approach as a coach may well be addressed when the new Australian Cricketers Association (ACA) chief executive Todd Greenberg has his first formal sit-down with the governing body’s interim chief executive Nick Hockley later this month.
A shocked Langer had fronted some of the concerns in reply to a piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, seemingly adamant the anxieties raised are without basis. But the fact that a way was found for sensitive internal issues to be raised publicly underlines that numerous players have either not been comfortable enough to front Langer about them directly, fearing selection or other consequences, or do not feel that any feedback already presented thus far has had the desired effect.
Speaking to ESPNcricinfo on Monday, Langer acknowledged that any issues could be a matter for discussion between Greenberg and Hockley, and described the episode as a considerable reality check for him between the end of a draining India series and the proposed tour of South Africa.
“I’m not going to ignore this, of course, and absolutely it is a wake-up call,” Langer said. “Whenever I finish this coaching career I hope I’m still calling myself a novice coach…I’ll see this criticism as a great gift in a few weeks or months.
“My greatest mentors in life are the people who told me the truth and were toughest on me, and I’ve always needed that honest feedback. I might not enjoy it at the time, but it is so, so valuable.”
The Test captain Tim Paine stepped forward to defend Langer over the weekend via News Corp, where he is contracted as a columnist, but others have been extremely hesitant to stick their heads above the parapet in public.
“JL is a passionate guy, particularly when it comes to this team and Australian cricket,” Paine said. “He’s also the guy who kicks the bin over and then puts the rubbish back in. He wears his heart on his sleeve, is tough, fair and at times emotional, just as he was as a player and now as a coach. You would be worried if that wasn’t the case.”
Langer and his backers argue – with plenty of merit – that his methods, moods and propensity for the occasional outburst at players and staff have not changed over the course of nearly three years in the coaching job. He began amid the depths of the months after the Newlands scandal, through grueling but successful World Cup and Ashes campaigns to this summer’s draining cycle of Covid-19 bubbles and Australia’s third consecutive Test series loss to India.
However, the counter view is that Langer should have changed more significantly, evolving his ways and loosening up slightly with a group of players he has now spent a lot of time alongside that is no longer the remorseful and less seasoned bunch he inherited from Darren Lehmann in 2018.
The key question is whether Langer’s intensity – a tag that has followed him around across his whole playing and coaching career – can again be tempered as it was somewhat by the presence of Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh at considerable expense on the 2019 England tour.
Anxiety about broaching sensitive issues with Langer has been a recurring theme from time to time over that period among players and staff, a dynamic captured quite frankly in the Amazon documentary The Test.
Greenberg, as a former chief executive of the NRL and the Canterbury Bulldogs before that, is well acquainted with the difficult conversations around a long-term coach’s future. He was only a matter of months into the Bulldogs job in 2008 when he and the Canterbury board guided the late Steve Folkes to the exit after a period of underperformance at the end of 11 seasons as coach that had also reaped five premierships.
There were sound judges of Australian cricket who felt, even as Langer was about to take the job in 2018, that the aftermath of Newlands was the only time when his ways would have suited the national team coaching role, given a set project to improve the team’s reputation and performance over a specific period. At other points, they reasoned, Langer’s methods were better tailored to domestic cricket, as he had demonstrated with the Perth Scorchers in the BBL in particular.
Equally, Langer’s tenure has been marked by a gradual build-up of handpicked staff and support around him. The team manager Gavin Dovey stayed on in his role after Lehmann’s departure largely due to his closeness to Langer, while the head of national teams, Ben Oliver, had a long history of working alongside Langer in Western Australia prior to his appointment – alongside high performance chief Drew Ginn – to fill the large managerial hole left by Pat Howard and then temporarily occupied by Belinda Clark.
Among team support staff, the likes of David Saker and Graeme Hick departed in 2019 and 2020, replaced by Andrew McDonald as senior assistant, while others such as Troy Cooley and Trent Woodhill have lent their support on a tour-by-tour basis. The former ODI captain George Bailey joined Langer and Trevor Hohns on the selection panel towards the end of the 2019-20 season, a deeply respected figure among Australian playing ranks.
Paine and Aaron Finch, the national ODI and T20I captain, have formed effective working relationships with Langer during that time. Paine is set to lead the Test squad on the proposed tour of South Africa later this month, while Finch leads a white-ball squad on a short tour of New Zealand, where that team is to be coached by McDonald. Langer has always been strident in his belief that the national team coach needed to be in overall command given how much the game’s formats overlap.
“I don’t see anywhere around the world where it’s worked well to split the roles between formats, and that’s stayed true since the first letter I wrote to David Peever and James Sutherland about the job,” he said. “I love the job, there’s nothing I don’t love about it, including the criticism.”
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig