Justin Langer’s endless grudge threatens to cloud new cricket summer

    And so the Justin Langer grievance tour rolls on. A lengthy podcast interview spinning off into an online article and back pages across the News Corp stable, revisiting for the umpteenth time that the former Australian cricket coach is still not happy about his tenure finishing up nine months ago. It feels like the Gabba Test in 2015, when retiring bowler Ryan Harris got a lap of honour on the back of a ute when half of the stadium was closed. By now Langer’s circuit has gone on far too long, leaving a lonely figure waving at empty seats.

    In February his resignation letter said that others wanted a fresh direction and that “I respect that decision”. By May it was clear that – spoiler – he did not respect that decision. He spoke at Western Australia’s Government House about a gruff concreter tearily lamenting his absence, then broadsided Cricket Australia during a speech to the WA Chamber of Commerce. Both before and after resigning his former teammates were his allies, with everyone from Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne down through the ranks using their media jobs in a campaign that shifted from reappointment to disappointment.

    Now comes this episode. Langer can say he was only answering questions, but he chose to give an interview in which those questions were inevitable. He must have known that a coach firing shots at his former players would make headlines. “A lot of journalists use the word source. I would say change that word to coward,” ran his most telling line, one whose formulation suggested he had considered it before.

    It carries on a complex relationship between Langer and the media. As coach he often spoke about the strain of scrutiny, sometimes as a badge of honour, other times as a cause of strife. Either way he paid close attention to what was said. At one stage during the lost India series in 2020/21 he instructed players not to read anything written about them, then would get annoyed at coverage and relay it to them himself. He might contact writers with a generous response if he had enjoyed an article, and could equally make them keenly aware if he was unhappy with one. Now out of the job, media outlets are a means to settle scores.

    The enduring grudge is that players shared their discontent anonymously with journalists. Fair at a glance – who would like that? But consider the alternative. Players had been telling CA that there was a problem and were being ignored. Langer was publicly popular and so had the full support of the board. Expecting individual players to tell the coach and most influential selector that he was too difficult to work with is hardly fair. Players had their own careers on the line.

    And why put your head above the parapet when media outlets will make it about the individual rather than the issue? Look at the way that Langer’s interview has put the spotlight on Test and one-day captain Pat Cummins this week, even though his coaching position became terminal under white-ball captain Aaron Finch and Test captain Tim Paine. Already a target of the head-kicking fringe for mentioning that climate change might be a problem, Cummins is now blamed by those pundits for removing the coach after six weeks in his own job, while Langer has been embraced as a right-wing cause celebre.

    Setting aside the bluster of old squawks who think that corporal punishment made them the men they are today, none of what happened is surprising. Langer was employed in 2018 as a hard taskmaster when the Australian men’s team was in a state of humiliation. His playing era was one when hierarchy ruled and lessons were dished out on the basis that the tougher they were, the better. Even allowing for mayonnaise, one of his after-dinner stories involves being an assistant at Rod Marsh’s academy and watching the supremo pick a young player each day to give a one-on-one bollocking, before finding great amusement at their fright. A disciplinarian may have been useful at international level for a while, but soon needed to grow into something else.

    As early as 2019, in the Amazon documentary that lionised Langer, batter Usman Khawaja tells him that his players find him too intimidating to disagree with. The journalist Malcolm Conn was working as the team media officer. “I learned very quickly to stay out of Justin Langer’s way, because you weren’t sure whether you were going to get an answer or an explosion,” he later said. “I can completely understand where the players were coming from.” By the India series 18 months later, with CA fingers in CA ears, talking to the press was the only means of traction.

    Even if a player had confronted Langer, they would not have been met receptively. In July 2021 the players’ concerns were brought jointly, and Finch emerged from the meeting upbeat saying that the coach had taken it all on board. In his own press conference Langer refuted that, saying there was no problem with his style and that he would carry on as he always had. A losing tour to Bangladesh was followed by more reviews and summits, led by Finch and Paine. Finally recognising crisis point, Langer agreed to changes that got the team through the T20 World Cup and Ashes. But patched repairs rarely last for the long term. CA knew there would be no long-term offer, Langer thought there should be, and administrators let the situation drag on for weeks after the Ashes.

    Langer has a right to be annoyed at that, and the six-month contract extension offered as a tactical ploy, with CA confident that he would never agree to a short deal and that it would technically save them from sacking him. Still, he could have confounded everybody by accepting it and turning it into a positive, using the finish line of a home World Cup to get the team behind him. Even players wanting a change of scene could have handled that.

    But Langer couldn’t, and so has to keep rehashing the perceived injustice. His other grievance is that he had done what was asked, changed his style, won some big trophies, and wasn’t rewarded. But of course he patently has not changed, as demonstrated by his behaviour ever since. Cummins as team spokesman just after the resignation was prescient: “The question after the success of the last couple of months became ‘Do we think it’s sustainable?’” The initial player complaints were about Langer being erratic and moody. The way he has rattled off complaints since then does not speak of any profound emotional advance.

    There is no apparent willingness to see the other perspective, no awareness of scuffing his own reputation, and no sense that he is being used as a proxy by bad-faith opportunists in a culture war. For someone who is known foremost as a fierce patriot, a baggy green acolyte, a flag-toucher and song custodian, there is seemingly no awareness that he’s kicking holes in the current team with every outburst. In the end, personal trumps political. With television commentary and speaking engagements, the summer ahead will have a lot of room for Justin Langer to speak. For his sake and for ours, let’s hope that he finds something new to talk about.

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