Justin Langer is the kind of sportsman that English cricket should produce, but doesn’t: a batsman whose huge application and undistorted focus make the most of his slightly above average talent.
He can look scratchy and ungainly at the crease, his feet often stutter, he nibbles at balls he shouldn’t, he gets hit on the helmet so often he should be renamed Justin Clanger. But nothing undermines his resolve. He makes truckloads of runs and he doesn’t care in what fashion they come. He is a metaphor for Australian batsmanship: it’s not how, it’s how many.
Despite heavy scoring in Australian domestic cricket during the mid-Nineties, his path into the national team was consistently blocked by other more luminous left-handers — Mark Taylor, Matthew Elliott, Matt Hayden. Not to be put off, he made even more runs, showed even greater dedication. On Australia’s 1997 tour of England, he didn’t play a single Test, but trained and practised harder than anyone, often remaining at grounds until nightfall and whacking balls fed by lingering children into the hoardings.
Illustrating his total immersion in the game, he published a daily tour diary on his own website and, during a subsequent season playing for Middlesex, wrote a detailed account of his year From Outback to Outfield, without the help of a ghost writer.
When he was then made captain of the county, he alienated people in the dressing room with his high expectations and low tolerance levels, but this just made him even more intensely driven.
He has no truck with laziness or excuses. He relies on no one and nothing, except that what you sow, you will reap. Offered an isolated opportunity at the end of the 2001 Ashes series, he made a hundred, and has been ever-present since.
The Little Aussie Battler’s attitudes were writ large in Melbourne. He ground, grafted, occasionally gunned, his way out of a trough of indifferent form, resisting for close on 10 hours, rarely looking ‘in’ but, vitally, never getting out, dragging another game out of England’s reach. It was a performance of substance over style, which once characterised English batting, but does no more.
Langer then vented his spleen about the travelling English fans, accusing them of being ‘a disgrace’ and being ’50 kg overweight making ridiculous comments’. Some of the chanting was slightly boorish, and further evidence of our flaccid youth, but it was only the same kind of thing that the likes of Philip Tufnell, Muttiah Muralidharan and most New Zealanders have been subjected to by Australian spectators.
That Langer overlooked this underlined his, and Australia’s, one-dimensionality and essential lack of humour. It’s why they tend to win at cricket (except in India, where the incessant cacophony obviously gets to them) but tend to lose in the great-companion stakes.
So far, these four Ashes Tests have highlighted four major flaws. England’s batting, bowling and fielding, and the use of television in decision making.
Within half an hour on the second day, a batsman (Hussain) who had chipped a catch to mid-on was given not out after lengthy referral to the third umpire, and another batsman (Butcher) was judged leg before, which a quick referral would have proved wrong.
What we need here is, first, more wide-ranging use of television pictures to help the adjudication process, second, an acceptance that these will more often than not be conclusive, and third, the umpires investing some time practising with the technology, so the system is solid and thorough, if not infallible. In other words, Justin Langer in a white coat.