BPrior to England’s test visit in 2017, Australian spinner Nathan Lyon offered a remark that was much repeated since about the hope of ending some English careers. It was taken, as it were meant to be, as a piece of pre-series bluff and blaster. The thing is, Lyon was close to the truth. In the ash-obsessed test calendars of the English and Australian men’s teams, the results of that series create or break careers, both on and off the field. Cricket cycles and career cycles have their endings and beginnings marked by these competitions.
Lots of players have their last appearance in an Ashes defeat and they tend to retire then in an attempt to make the next one seem like a fresh start. Captains also tend to stop – see Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and, if not for an early newspaper story, Tim Paine. An Australian coach can survive a loss in England if it is not terrible but would never survive one in Australia. England’s current coach Chris Silverwood is heavily tipped to hit the exit, even with two games in the ongoing series still to play.
All of this makes Justin Langer’s position as Australia coach particularly interesting. Early in 2021, and again through the middle months, stories abounded about players’ dissatisfaction with the boss. Those with an interest in being defensive about the situation have tried to make it a media mix, but the first information came from the locker room. There was substance behind the speculation.
That does not make Langer a bad person or a bad coach. It simply seemed to be what we might call Flatmate Syndrome – when you live or work closely with someone long enough, you can start getting on each other’s nerves. Most coaches start out with goodwill, described by players as refreshing because of their new approach. Gradually, intimacy breeds irritation. The dynamics are changing. Things that would be harmless to anyone outside become intolerable. During Australia’s summer 2020-21 with quarantines and biobubbles, in a side that lost to India, irritations had the perfect circumstances to hit their highest pitch.
As the story unfolded, Cricket Australia supported Langer. In August 2021, senior players and senior administrators arranged a meeting to find out what to do next. Shortly before it took place, CA issued a statement saying Langer would expire until the beginning of 2022. Being staggered did not please these players, but it left essentially no choice but to come up with a compromise. It involved changes in the way coaching sessions were conducted, and in the hierarchy of inputs, with what seemed like an implicit understanding that Langer would move on after the end of time.
In the few months since, Langer has won Australia’s first T20 World Cup title, followed by Ashes in a straight set. His tactical arrangements have worked, and so have a number of creative engagements aided by voter George Bailey. The coach has a golden run. A few weeks ago, when asked at a news conference if he would like to continue in the job after his current term, his response was simply, “Yes.”
If an Ashes loss tends to cost coach jobs, an Ashes win gives a coach more leeway to take on. But all this recent success has still come from working with players who have expected the period limit to remain in place. Maybe those who were unhappy now feel different. Probably the team space is now a more harmonious place. But in the same way, knowing that there is an end in sight can take the pressure off of difficult conditions, where it can screw up the pressure to stare into an indefinite future.
It is no surprise that Langer’s impulse will continue. There is no confection that he loves the job, the sport and the national team. Working on top of all these things must be deeply satisfying and nothing else would match it. And Langer has always loved a scrap that proves he can do things when others say he can’t. If he really wants to stay as a coach, he is now in a position where he can probably do it.
However, it is also worth considering that Australia’s listed tasks for 2022 involve nine tests in Asia, touring in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. These trips have historically been tough for teams struggling under the conditions and will have to be carried out under strict biosafety rules with background anxiety for Covid infections. The locker room could very quickly become claustrophobic again.
Perhaps Langer sees the coming year as a challenge and an opportunity to write history. Remember Joe Root said the same things before Brisbane. The alternative is for the coach to choose his own exit at a high level of success: it could be a goodbye in 2022 after a laundering of Ashes, just as he did as a player in 2007. These series get too much attention, but they are still that thing , which people in the competing countries remember most. There can be honor in choosing the right time to stop the fight.