BAhead of England’s test visit in 2017, Australian spinner Nathan Lyon offered a much-repeated line since then about hoping to finish a few races in England. It was taken as intended, as a piece of swagger and swagger from the pre-series. The point is, Lyon was close to the truth. On the ash-obsessed test schedules for men’s teams in England and Australia, results in that series make or break runs, on and off the field. Cricket cycles and professional cycles have their endings and beginnings marked by these contests.
Many players have their last appearance in an Ashes loss, and they tend to be retired thereafter in an effort to make what comes next look like a new beginning. Captains also tend to drop everything; see Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and, if it weren’t for an early newspaper story, Tim Paine. An Australian coach can survive a defeat in England if it is not terrible, but he would never survive one in Australia. England’s current manager Chris Silverwood is eagerly targeted for the exit even with two ongoing series games still to be played.
All of which makes Justin Langer’s position as Australia coach especially interesting. In early 2021, and again during the months in between, stories abounded about player discontent with the boss. Those with an interest in being defensive about the situation have tried to present it as a media concoction, but the initial information did come from inside the locker room. There was substance behind the speculation.
This does not make Langer a bad person or a bad coach. It seemed to be simply what we might call roommate syndrome: When you live or work closely with someone long enough, you can start to annoy each other. Most coaches start out with goodwill, which players describe as refreshing due to their new approach. Little by little, familiarity breeds irritation. The dynamics change. Things that would be harmless to anyone on the outside become intolerable. During Australia’s 2020-21 summer of quarantines and bio-bubbles, in a team that lost to India, the annoyances had the perfect circumstances to reach its highest pitch.
As the story progressed, Cricket Australia backed Langer. In August 2021, the senior players and senior administrators held a meeting to decide what to do next. Shortly before that happened, CA issued a statement saying that Langer would fulfill his contract until early 2022. Not liking those players, but essentially leaving them no choice but to compromise. That involved changes in the way the coaching sessions were conducted and in the hierarchy of contributions, with what seemed like an implicit understanding that Langer would move on after his time was up.
In the few months since, Langer 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 with the help of coach George Bailey. The coach is having a golden streak. A couple of weeks ago, when asked at a press conference if he would like to continue in the post after his current term, his answer was simply, “Yes.”
If an Ashes loss tends to cost training jobs, an Ashes win gives the coach more leeway to make decisions. But all of this recent success still comes from working with players who hoped the term limit would stay in place. Perhaps those who were unhappy now feel differently. Presumably the equipment 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 looking to the indefinite future can increase that pressure.
It’s no wonder Langer’s drive is to continue. There is no confection about the fact that he loves work, sports and the national team. Working at the pinnacle of all of those things should be deeply rewarding, and nothing else will match it. And Langer has always liked a fight, which shows that he can do things when other people say he can’t. If you really want to continue coaching, you are now in a position where you can probably do it.
However, it is also worth considering that Australia’s listed assignments for 2022 involve nine Trials in Asia, touring Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. These trips have historically been difficult for teams struggling in the conditions and will have to be carried out under strict biosecurity rules with the underlying anxiety of Covid infections. The locker room could get claustrophobic very quickly 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 farewell in 2022 after an Ashes whitewash, just as he did as a player in 2007. These series do get too much attention, but they are still. what people in competing countries remember most. It can be an honor to choose the right moment to stop the fight.