Less than four months ago, Justin Langer was a dead man walking.
The wolves were circling and the jungle drums were beating louder and louder as the walls began to close in on the embattled Australian coach.
Dropped two of the last home Test summers, the most recent a staggering defeat at the Gabba to a third-string Indian team, and after two mid-year tours to the West Indies and Bangladesh gone horribly wrong, the storms were brewing in the leadup to the T20 World Cup in Dubai and the Ashes.
Langer, whose contract expires in mid-2022, is yet to formally open talks with Cricket Australia to discuss a new deal. All the while constant affirmations expressing his desire to extend his tenure beyond his current deal.
Yet not too long ago, there were questions as to whether he would even make it through the summer. With the scrutiny a World Cup, particularly one that Australia has never won brings and the volatility of an Ashes series to follow, it painted an ugly picture for the then embattled coach.
With all the uncertainty that surrounded Langer, the lack of Test cricket for Australia over the year, the questions over the batting order, and then the untimely Tim Paine resignation over his lewd texts scandal, it was all brewing to a point of potentially no return.
Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley has been resolute in his backing of the coach, who has since delivered a World Cup trophy and now a series win and retention of the Ashes at home in emphatic fashion.
Despite the backing, he has remained steadfast in wanting to let the summer and action play out before beginning discussions on a new deal.
“There’s no question Justin will see out his contract. That goes out to the middle of next year,” Hockley told the Sydney Morning Herald in a recent interview.
“Obviously, once we get through the Ashes we want to sit down and work out where we want to go from there. We’re going to sit down and work through what that process entails at that time, then we’ll be able to say more.”
Both Hockley, and even more recently captain Pat Cummins have yet to publicly endorse the incumbent coach as the man to lead Australia’s men’s team forward into a second term. When quizzed on the issue, Hockley has remained non-committal about the incumbent coaches’ future.
While Cummins gave the coach an endorsement of sort both during and after play in Hobart, sensing that the players are behind Langer and want Langer to stay on as coach, the call might still be line ball when the parties formally sit down.
“He’s been doing a fantastic job, we absolutely love JL,” Cummins said.
“He’s been really great through the World Cup and the Ashes. Honestly, it’s not been a talking point at all within the camp.
“The plan has always been to chat about it after the Ashes, so the powers that be, I’m sure, will chat at some stage.
“But he’s been fantastic for us and the boys love having him around.”
The view from the outer was that Langer had managed to flip the script and become the man to lead Australia now and into the medium term. But his great mate and confidant Matthew Hayden sees it differently.
The long-time friends and opening partners spent countless hours together on tour and out in the middle, representing their country.
The pair opened the batting together at Test level on 113 occasions, scoring 5655 runs together at an average of 51.88, and remain the best of friends to this day, with both their packed schedules still involved and rooted deeply in the game.
Hayden, as he is this summer, was part of the Channel 7 commentary team during the Test at the Gabba when India broke Australia’s stranglehold at the venue and secured the most unlikeliest of wins and series victories.
In the immediate aftermath of the trophy presentation and celebrations, Hayden was then asked to interview his great mate and ask him about what he felt had just happened.
A conversation on live TV between two best friends, one who had just seen his team lose a match they shouldn’t have and the other who wanted to comfort his friend who had just had a bad experience.
It was one of those rare occasions where both parties probably didn’t want to be their given roles at that particular moment.
But reflecting on that moment and the Justin Langer as coach of the Australian cricket team he sees today, while behind the scenes there may have been some subtle changes, on the surface, he sees largely the same person that he spent all his time with. In the dressing room and out in the middle.
“There’s not a magic switch. just the recognition of individual skills and, and culture and team spirit, which then drives team outcomes and level of buy-in” Hayden said, speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum.
“That then builds confidence and then confidence builds results and performances. And that’s it, then I don’t think he’s just remained frankly, absolutely unchanged.”
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Hayden has always leaped to the defence of his great mate and former opening partner. Having formed a connection and strong friendship that withstood being separated physically and even more recently, pitted the great friends against each other in the coach’s box.
The competitive spirit between the two partners and friends shone through then and there too, but Hayden was always going to stand up for his great mate. Even if he thought he could exploit some of the emerging cracks and beat him.
“I think there are some friendships that like that start that are friendships that are Fly By Night friendships.
“JL and I were gonna put our feelings aside during that three hours, and it was ‘play on’ aside from that,” Hayden said.
“I thought his side was incredibly vulnerable.
“As an opposition coach, I felt that there was a degree of being unsettled. I mean, how could you not? They had just been through six months of annihilating each other pretty much in the press.
“So I surprised just how together JL was frankly. Again, testimony to his calm and balanced nature and he’s passionate, and why wouldn’t he be?.
“But I was surprised with how calm the group was in general, but also how calm Justin has really embraced the criticism and was moving toward into that space”
While Langer has come around to showing his softer side and learning how to delegate more and create a winning culture and environment, with the help of the new skipper Pat Cummins, Hayden was resolute that he is the right man to lead Australian cricket forward.
As a friend, he is over the moon to see his friend, after being so deeply backed into a corner with little help of surviving as fierce a storm as there can be, and emerge having ticked off the two big-ticket items that were there to check off and deliver a stunning turnaround of the team and fortunes of the team with him at the helm.
His passion for the game above anything else, and taking the learnings from the great teams both Langer and Hayden played in, making him the type of coach he is today.
“I’m passionate about cricket, as you can hear. My heart is cricket. And not fame, not glory, Justin’s heart that’s exactly aligned to that” Hayden said
“Ricky’s hearts as well exactly aligned to that. And that’s why as a group, we were so successful, because we had so many aligned hearts around cricket, not interested in the fames and thumping’s around sport, Interested only in developing a strong culture built around friendship, built around hard work, built around respect for the game.
“And those three commodities if you’ve got those in abundance, you win.
“Because not many other sides can match that. You’re a force of sport when you’ve got those three things in your arsenal. And you know Justin, he exudes all of those three things.
Wile Hayden says that Langer hasn’t changed much of his approach, he is glad that the narrative around his best mate and his tenure as Australian coach has shifted.
“[I’m] That excited and that happy that this is now the script that’s written. Not the rubbish that was getting written six months ago, but this script is getting written because he deserves it. He said.
“There is no one that works harder, he is so passionate, he sacrifices a lot and so does his family”
What the role looks like, and for how long a tenure the role is, Hayden, and a growing chorus of former Australian captains now agree that an Australian team without Justin Langer at the helm would be a big step back after multiple positive steps forward.
But as Hayden knows his great mate, He is staying true to himself and true to the promises he made when he took on the job. Making Australians proud of their cricket teams.
“Justin is here staying through strong and rigid, built around the phrase that he said three or four years ago. whenever he joined the force of cricket that he wanted to make Australians proud again” he said.
“For mine, we are proud of our national cricket team and we should always be thankful for a character like Justin that’s willing to stay around with great personal sacrifice.
“After retiring as a legend of the game, and give us this kind of energy and momentum. I mean He builds the cultural critic disguised as I said, it’s a cricket product at the end of the day”
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