Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Justin Langer, by Sarah C Robinson

In continuing our series "My Favourite Cricketer", Sarah C Robinson of the excellent Slowly Learning the Offside Rule writes about Australia's most contradictory opener, Justin Langer.

As an England cricket fan, there is one rule: Thou shall not support an Aussie.

And so, this is my confession. I have sinned. My favourite cricketer is an Australian batsman. It is the often underappreciated Justin Langer.

For me, nothing summarises Langer’s career better than Telemachus Brown’s song ‘(Wrong About) Justin Langer’ in which a couple argue about his career. The singer says “All I argued was Langer wasn’t my favourite player... The way you looked at me like we were gonna end. It’s all my fault, it was my very own clanger. I’ll admit I was wrong about Justin Langer.”

It was the 2nd April 2006, and Justin Langer was playing in his 100th Test match. For a man who has always spoken about how much wearing the Baggy Green cap means to him, it was one of the greatest honours to have played for Australia that many times. His parents had flown from Perth to Johannesburg to watch.

A Ntini bouncer hit him on his right earpiece, and he immediately collapsed to the ground. He was led offthe pitch bleeding and taken to hospital. The injury was described as a ‘significant concussion’ and he was warned he should not take the field again, in case a ball hit his head a second time. Another blow could be life-threatening.

Langer was all too aware of the danger, and he himself knew he was in no condition to bat. He was vomiting, his head was throbbing and he had spent most of the game in his room.  Nevertheless, on the last day he dragged himself from his bed and headed to the Wanderers.

As Australian wickets tumbled in the second innings, captain Ricky Ponting suddenly became aware of the fact that he’d lost Langer. "I started looking for him, and found him with his whites on, and his pads, his arm guard, his helmet," Ponting said. "He was running laps in the change room, trying to convince himself that he was suddenly OK.” Ponting told Langer that he could not bat under any circumstances even if that meant Australia losing. Langer said the chance of him being hit on the head again was slim and that he would bat if needed.

In the end, Australia won by two wickets and Ponting never had to make the decision to end the match before Langer could take himself out to the field. Langer is convinced that he would have batted if needed. Ponting argues he would not have let him do it.

This story, more than any other, reminds me of the passion and determination Justin Langer has. He didn’t just want to play for his country. He was obsessed with playing for his country – and winning.

Justin Langer is often underappreciated. He played alongside some of the greatest players the world has seen, including Waugh and Warne, and he perhaps will never be remembered as a true great of the game. But his role in the side was vital. He was a stable figure at the top of the innings, not always the most aesthetically pleasing, but stubborn and determined nonetheless. He played in 105 Test matches for Australia at an average of 45.27 with twenty-three 100s and thirty 50s.

After making his Test debut, he only played eight Tests in six years. For some, this would be enough reason to give up on the dream of playing international cricket, but Langer battled through, batting consistently for Western Australia. He eventually formed the second best opening partnership in Test match history with Matthew Hayden, scoring 5,655 runs between them in 113 innings (second only to Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes). 

From 2006-2009, he also played county cricket in England for Somerset, and gained the respect of his teammates and spectators alike. He captained the side for two years, and helped them to secure a place in the Twenty20 Champions League in 2009.

During this period, I had the honour of meeting him three times. On every occasion, he was generous with his time, likable and friendly. On the first occasion, after he had signed my scorecard, I asked him for a photograph. He obliged, but while signing some more autographs, he turned to me again and asked if I would like a second photograph, this time without him wearing his sunglasses. Somehow, I managed to say yes and so have two photos with him from that day. They always say you should never meet your heroes, but it was an absolute pleasure to meet him. If possible, I admired him even more.

Courtesy: The Age
Langer is a man of contradictions. He likes the quiet of meditation and yoga, and enjoys gardening. And yet he also has a passion for boxing and used to train with an ex-SAS soldier. His book Seeing the Sunrise, published in 2008, is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. It is full of motivational stories from his playing career and a very fascinating read.

When he finally retired in 2007, after helping to win the Ashes 5-0, he was emotional. "The reason it's so hard is that I don't want to let it go,” he said. “I don't want to stop playing for Australia. It's emotional, I feel sad about it but I know in my heart it's the right thing to do. To me, it's not just a game. It's been the vehicle that I've learned how to handle success, how to handle criticism, how to handle failure, how to fight back from adversity. I've learned about mateship, I've learned about leadership - it's never been just a game for me.”

It is likely many people in Australia never thought Langer would make it as a consistent Test match player, and definitely not that he would play in over 100 Tests. As it turned out, his playing career is full of fantastic knocks and he proved to be a vital member of the Australian cricket team. He is one of the most determined cricketers to have played cricket. Representing his country was the ultimate accolade, and he worked as hard as he possibly could to achieve it.

Langer, to me, is more than just a cricketer. He is a reminder that you can achieve anything you want if you work really hard. Not only that, he is one of the nicest men involved in cricket.

I’m certain a lot of people admit that they were wrong about Justin Langer.

Sarah C Robinson writes at Slowly Learning the Offside Rule and tweets at @SarahCRobinson

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