For all the statistical measures of Australia’s batting decline, nothing has spoken as loudly as the philosophical shift in focus suggested by Australia’s coach Justin Langer at the conclusion of his first Test series in charge. Talking technique may not sound like a big deal for the head coach of the national team, but coming from Langer it was a marked departure from much of what he is known for.
Over comfortably more than a decade, Langer has been synonymous with the phrase “character over cover drives”. So much so that it could easily be the title of one of his books. His achievements as a batsman and as a coach of Australia’s domestic sides have appeared to go hand in hand with a philosophy grounded in personal discipline and growth, as much if not more so than the MCC coaching manual.
But since his appointment as the national coach in May, Langer has seemed to be wrestling with the loss of plenty of former certainties as the sheer complexity of his task has become clearer. In the aftermath of Australia’s 373-run hiding in Abu Dhabi to lose the UAE series to Pakistan, he made a significant departure from that “character over cover drives” mantra, homing in on issues of batting technique as the key to arresting Australia’s wretched recent history of collapses.
In assessing how the touring team’s two first innings in Dubai and Abu Dhabi essentially cost them any chance of winning the series, Langer pointed out that in the concurrent Sheffield Shield round, a host of other batting collapses had also taken place, and recalled a conversation with the former professional golfer Lyndsay Stephen about mental skills being subservient to technical limitations. “If you look at this round of Sheffield Shield cricket, I know a number of the states have also had some big batting collapses as well,” Langer said in Abu Dhabi. “I’ve been in the State system for a long time and I’ve watched this and I think what I’m really intrigued about is you’re not allowed to use the word technique anymore.
“Lyndsay Stephen, the golfer, I remember having dinner with him and everyone says it’s all mental, it’s all mental. It’s all about the mental side of the game and I thought that’s interesting, yeah that’s what everyone says. But Lyndsay Stephen told me, ‘I’d rather have a guy with a good technique who is a bit softer mentally, than a guy who is really mentally tough with a really bad technique’. This is in golf. I said ‘what do you mean?’
“He said, ‘If you’ve got a good technique, you’ll hit most balls down the middle of the fairway and over time you’ll develop some confidence and you can learn concentration and that’s how you get mental toughness. If you’ve got a bad technique and you’re hitting the ball behind the trees or in the rough, it doesn’t matter how mentally tough you are, eventually you’re not going to be able to hitting it into the hole that often’.”
Turning his focus from golf to cricket, Langer indicated that it was now necessary for many Australia batsmen to look more closely at the technical underpinnings of their approach to batting, in a manner that would allow them to retain the skills that would keep them in the middle for long periods against a moving ball. In this, Langer essentially suggested that many players in the current system were playing for their state and country without the basic fundamentals that were once self-evident.
“I was brought up in Australian cricket where we did a lot of bowling machine work and we did a lot of talk on technique,” he said. “Technique to me is about footwork patterns and playing forward when it’s full, and [playing] back when it’s back. So they’re just really basics of the game particularly in footwork patterns and you talk about the great Australian players [how] they moved their feet like boxers, every one of them. They had footwork patterns and then from there you have the skill of run-scoring. And it’s a really important thing.
“The technique is really important and I think now there’s a lot of talk because of white-ball cricket that you just have wide stances and you just stand and deliver. Well that’s okay, but even in T20 cricket or one-day cricket and most certainly first-class cricket and Test cricket when the ball starts moving around, if you don’t move your feet, then you’re going to come unstuck. And that’s something we all have to do in Australian cricket. There wouldn’t be a state coach out there who would be saying it’s all rainbows and butterflies out there after this weekend’s cricket, because of the collapses.”
In charting a path forward, Langer argued that all players needed to learn to become better problem-solvers, aware of the intricacies of their own methods and able to tinker with them whenever problems arose. “After day two, I was up until about midnight watching batting videos, looking at ways we can get better,” he said. “What I know about Test cricket, I’ve been through all this before in a sense as an individual player. You come in, it’s really hard, and the only way you work it out is by problem-solving, and working hard.
“That was my formula as a player, and all the great players, the great players I’ve been lucky to play with, they’re just really good problem-solvers, they work it out, they work really hard, and they’re brilliant at concentration, so if I can take the lessons I learnt as a player into problem-solving of making the team better, then hopefully we’ll go okay.
“There’s certainly some focus we have to have. As we see just this week. We’ve got to work out, we’ve got a Test match here, first-class cricket, some T20s coming up. Then there’re some one-dayers. So the schedule is what it is. But the great players are able to adapt and most of them have got a good batting technique and the skill of scoring runs, so we can’t sugarcoat it any longer. If I’m a young batsman in Australia, it’s a pretty exciting time. If you work really hard on your basic game and you learn how to make runs, then there will be a huge opportunities in the Australian cricket team.”
Assessing the performances of Australia’s batsmen, Langer was warm in his praise of Aaron Finch, Marnus Labuschagne and Usman Khawaja in particular. We’re in a much different stage of Australian cricket history, aren’t we,” Langer said. “You guys have heard me say it before, it’s usually harder to get out of the side than it is to get into the side. It used to be a beautiful thing, if you were the hunter, it used to be a shocking thing when you were playing. If you were the hunted, well that’s sort of good, but you knew there were hunters coming at you all the time. There was always pressure.
“And in this instance, I thought Finchy played pretty well, he did really well, and he’ll learn a lot from this series. I was really impressed with Finchy. I thought Marnus played particularly well in this innings. He had a brainfade in the first innings. You’ve never seen anything like it. Two in two days. I’ve seen some stuff on the cricket field, but I’ve never seen that ever.
“And Marnus knows, so I’m not burning him, it was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my life until what happened yesterday. I thought Marnus played well, and his leg-spin was a real revelation for us. As a young leg-spinner, there’s huge upside to that. Obviously Uzzy played really well, and he’ll have his knee operated on, hopefully sooner rather than later, so hopefully he’ll be right for the first Test match [against India in December].”
When he reached Travis Head, one of three Australian debutants in Dubai, Langer returned to his technical theme, by noting how much he could see the young South Australian evolving in his first Test series. “What I liked about Travis Head is his development – he’s working hard on his game,” Langer said. “The way everyone used to say he can’t play spin, well he has worked hard on that. He played a cut shot today. I’m getting a bit technical here, but we’re talking batting here, which I love.
“I love batting, that’s why it’s killing me at the moment. But he usually plays his cut shot from leg stump, today he played a beautiful cut shot, [like] Sir Donald Bradman, he got right across, he played that late cut for four. And obviously Shaun [Marsh] and Mitch [Marsh] haven’t had their best series, but we also know they’re good cricketers who have had a tough time. So there are opportunities for guys in the team, and there are opportunities for guys who are good blokes and make a lot of runs.”