As part of our continuing series, World Cricket Watch and Balanced Sports invited Glenn Mitchell, sports broadcaster and mental health advocate, to write about his favourite cricketer, Justin Langer. Glenn's website is glennmitchell.com.au and he tweets @mitchellglenn
I clearly remember standing in the middle of a rain-soaked Sinhalese Sports Club in September 1999 as the third and final Test of the Sri Lanka-Australia series came to a very wet conclusion and the hosts on the precipice of a historic 1-nil series win.
Beneath the light drizzle that day I had a chat with Justin Langer near the heavily covered pitch.
Like many of the Australian batsmen during that ill-fated series, Langer had struggled for runs, scoring just 51 in four innings. Those lean performances took his then 23-Test career aggregate to 1261 runs at an unflattering average of 33.
Having taken almost six years to compile those numbers, Langer’s long term place in the team looked precarious – in fact, his short term viability at Test level looked decidedly uncertain.
As we were chatting, I asked him what his goals were for the future. He looked me straight in the eye and said he wanted to play 100 Test matches.
I smiled back, but behind the smile I was thinking that such an ambition was more than likely a quixotic dream, the misplaced desire of a young man who loved the sport and with it, representing his country. In short, I doubted his future while Langer believed firmly in his.
History will indicate that one of us got it right and I am happy to state that it wasn’t me.
|Courtesy: Wikimedia commons|
Langer entered Test retirement the same day that Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath hung up their boots – at the end of the historic final Ashes Test at the SCG in January 2007, on the back of a 5-nil series whitewash.
Langer left centre stage having played 105 Tests during which time he amassed 7696 runs, with 23 centuries, at 45.3.
Those figures speak volumes for his ability, drive, self-belief and desire to succeed. But, like so many statistics in life they are merely numbers – numbers that fail to truly paint the picture of Langer’s career.
He first made people sit up and take notice during the last match of his maiden Sheffield Shield season for Western Australia. Batting at three, the 21-year-old came to the crease at the WACA Ground in the Shield Final against New South Wales without a run having been scored in his side’s second innings.
In the blink of an eye, he found himself staring at a scoreboard that read 3/3; the batsmen falling all well-credentialed and experienced – Geoff Marsh, Michael Veletta and Tom Moody. While those around him lost their heads, Langer firmly applied his to the daunting task at hand.
He compiled a match-defining 149 against an attack that boasted Test quicks Geoff Lawson and Mike Whitney. WA went on to win the match by 44 runs on the back of Langer’s heroics.
It came to light after his innings that he had been involved in a serious car accident on the way to the ground that morning.
The confluence of events that day, both on and off the ground, said much about Langer’s inner resolve, a trait that served him well throughout his career.
His first match beneath the baggy green was against the West Indies in Adelaide in January 1993. It was a baptism of fire. Australia famously lost the encounter by a solitary run while Langer made scores of 20 and 54, along the way being felled by a bouncer from Ian Bishop.
From the time he took guard in that match, he had been pigeon-holed by all and sundry as a grafter – an ugly duckling whose heart far outweighed his technique and attractiveness at the crease. Throughout his Test career he had to fight constantly to convince the naysayers that he was worthy of his spot.
Langer was always at his best in such times with his back to the wall.
A black belt in martial arts, when Langer’s position was questioned, his eyes lost their traditional sparkle and were replaced with a look of a man who had received a corneal transplant from a shark: the steely resolve and intensity clearly displayed by a man who was anything but frangible.
Opponents would no doubt have cringed when the nuggety little left-hander’s place in the team was questioned on the eve of a Test, as more often than not Langer would make critics eat their words.
After the fateful discussion in Colombo in late 1999, the Australian team strung together a world record 16 consecutive Test victories. Langer was one of only three men – along with Mark Waugh and Michael Slater – to play in each of those historic wins, averaging 49 throughout.
Ironically, it would be Slater who provided Langer the opportunity that in many ways would provide his biggest legacy in the sport. After a lean trot during the home series against West Indies and India in 2000/01, Langer didn’t make the team for the first four Tests of the Ashes series in England. By his own admission he became despondent and withdrawn; at times he considered his international career was over at age 30.
A lifeline came ahead of the final Test at The Oval when tour selectors omitted Slater whose form and off-field antics earned him a spell. Langer seized the opportunity, opening the batting with Matthew Hayden.
He reached 102 before an Andy Caddick bouncer forced him to retire hurt. That single innings was the genesis for what became one of the great opening pairings in the game.
Back home the next Australian summer, he and his confrère eviscerated first New Zealand and then South Africa. Each made four centuries and through the six Tests shared four 200-plus opening stands.
The pairing of Langer and Hayden produced an aggregate of 6081 runs, making them the third most productive partnership in Test history behind Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid (6920), and Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes (6482) – quite some company.
One of Langer’s proudest possessions is a photo that hangs in his home gymnasium. It's a shot of the scoreboard during the second Test against New Zealand in Hobart in 2001/02 which reads Langer 50no, Hayden 1no!
Langer can still bristle when asked about why he played such limited One-Day cricket for his country. His standard answer points to the six games where the selectors chose to use him and his near-Gilchristian strike rate of 89. Indeed, in the English summer of 2006 he topped the T20 aggregates with 464 runs at a strike rate of 161 for Somerset.
Whilst always perceived as a grafter and accumulator, when required Langer could destroy an attack as well as most, purloining runs with ease from a fulminatory blade. His pairing with Hayden, a fellow left-hander, provided the perfect conflation at the top of the order.
Tall and broad, Hayden batted well out of his crease and thundered drives down the ground, while the far shorter Langer collected the majority of his boundaries square on the off-side, although both were ferocious on the pull shot.
The bond they built was clearly evident when either reached a milestone – their midfield embraces often the fodder of jokes for their teammates.
When Langer finally left the Test scene he continued in first-class ranks until the end of the 2009 English season. He retired as Australia’s most prolific first-class batsmen, having surpassed Don Bradman’s previous Australian record of 28,067 runs shortly before the end of his last county stint. His 86 first-class centuries are bettered only in number by ‘The Don’, who casually peeled off 117.
By the end of his career, through dint of self-belief and a work ethic that surpassed most, Langer had finally turned doubters to admirers by dint of his efficacy. He may not have been the game’s most attractive or technically pleasing batsman, but no man has ever possessed more inward drive to succeed.
And succeed he certainly did!
Suggested reading: Sarah C. Robinson also wrote a My Favourite Cricketer tribute to Justin Langer.