January 05, 2007

Justin Langer – Prof at the University of Hard Knocks

H Natarajan

There are shades of Mohinder Amarnath when one carefully examines the career of Justin Langer. Like Amarnath, the initial phase of Langer’s career was mediocre; both of them took over five years to establish themselves in the Test side. Like Amarnath, Langer took far too many blows to his head from fast bowlers the world over – Ian Bishop, Andy Caddick, Makhaya Ntini, Steve Harmison, etc. But like Amarnath, Langer proved that he is an exemplary student from the University of Hard Knocks. Langer’s guts and grit saw him emerge as a world class batsman who played a pivotal role for his team. And if Amarnath played second fiddle to the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath, then Langer was dwarfed by superstars like Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden in the Australian team.

Even in retirement, the focus was not on the tenacious Langer as the two great icons of Australian cricket, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, had already announced that they were playing their farewell Test at Sydney.

Langer’s place in history is, however, assured. When they talk of the great opening pairs in Test cricket, the combo of Langer and Hayden will be up there with the best – if not the best. And that’s saying a lot when you consider that Australia have produced many fine opening partnerships like Mark Taylor-Michael Slater, Bobby Simpson-Bill Lawry, David Boon-Geoff Marsh and many more from other nations like Jack Hobbs-Herbert Sutcliffe, Len Hutton-Cyril Washbrook and Sunil Gavaskar-Chetan Chauhan.

The Langer-Hayden duo averaged 50.99 – the highest for any opening partnership playing over 100 Test innings. Of course, only two other pairs lasted that distance – the Gordon Greenidge-Desmond Haynes combine and the Sanath Jayasuriya-Maravan Atapattu partnership. The 5609 Langer and Hayden tallied as a partnership is the second highest after Greenidge-Haynes’ 6482 runs. But it must be remembered that the West Indians played 36 more innings in an association lasting 13 years. The Langer-Hayden duo has achieved all what they have in a partnership that is just five years old giving left-handed compliments to the best of bowlers the world over.

The job of opening the innings with Hayden was thrust upon Langer in the final Test of the 2001 Ashes series in England. The pair became an instant hit. They added 158 in their first outing at the Oval that contributed significantly to Australia’s victory by an innings. In their second outing - at Brisbane against New Zealand - they added 224 runs and made it a hat-trick of hundred partnerships by stringing together 223 runs at Bellerive Oval. Langer, who scored 102, 104 and 123, in the three huge partnerships was to feature in four more double hundred stands with Hayden.

The importance of getting a good start can never be underestimated. But the role of the opening batsman is arguably one of the most difficult. They have to open the innings when the wicket is lively, the ball is new and the fast bowlers are fresh. Unlike batsmen following in the order, they do not have the luxury of assessing the conditions or get their thoughts together. A good foundation from them is very essential for their team’s success. And Langer and Hayden have been simply awesome in that respect. On six occasions they have both scored a century in the same innings to give Australia the kind of solidity that most teams only dream of.

Like New Zealand’s Glenn Turner, Langer metamorphosed from a grafter to a free-stroking batsman of high quality. Yet, Langer got no more than eight opportunities to play in ODIs in which his strike rate was an impressive 88.85. Compare that with another opener of his times – Michael Slater – who played 42 ODIs, averaged 24.07 at a strike-rate of 60.40 and had a highest score of 73. Even as recent as the last English county season, Langer showed emphatically that he is worthy of overs-limit cricket when he scored 464 runs at an average of 66.28 and strike-rate of 161.11 in eight Twenty20 games.

One of the moments Langer will be incredibly proud of was when he helped add 238 for the sixth wicket with Gilchrist to rescue Australia from 126 for five to take within five runs of the 369 target set by Pakistan. Langer’s 127 against the might of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar in that unforgettable Test at Hobart in 1999 won him the Man of the Match award.

Langer was very disciplined, very determined and a scrapper who thrived on fighting the odds and succeeding. That mental toughness may probably have had much to do with training in martial arts. He was incredibly proud to be an Australian cricketer and the baggy green was his soul. Nothing exemplifies better than Langer’s 100th Test where he suffered severe concussion after hit on the head by Ntini and was advised by doctors to avoid going out in the middle.
Langer recalled those moments recently: "There was all that conjecture whether I should bat or not in the second innings. The thing that struck me most was that everyone, my family, friends, I'd say 98% of people, said: 'You can't bat. It's just a game'. "You know what? It's not just a game to me. The baggy green cap ... I have had the same one for 13 years. It is not just a game for me. It has been the vehicle for me to learn how to handle success, failure, criticism, how to fight back from adversity. I have learned about mateship, about leadership. So many things. I have hopefully forged a strong character, and it is all because of the baggy green cap."

Did the battered baggy green cap remind you something about Steve Waugh? Well, “Tugga” (Steve’s popular name) is Langer’s role model and mentor and a man who had a huge influence on his career. Indeed, Langer came to be known as “Mini-Tugga” by Steve who, at one point of time, called him the diminutive opener the batsman in the world.

That blow to his head by Ntini earlier this year did shake up Langer to momentarily contemplate retirement. But to quit ingloriously with the Ashes series defeat in England (where his average of 43 plus was the second best for either side, after Kevin Pietersen) and the blow to his skull and reputation was a bit too much for the proud Aussie. He turned out for Somerset in the English season that followed where he hit a career-best 342 in the county championship against Surrey. The icing on the cake was his fantastic showing in the Twenty20 games.

But the likes of Dennis Lillee were not happy and expressed concerned for an ageing Australian top-order led by the 36 year old Langer. Before the start of the Ashes series, Lillee wrote in his column: “Over a period of time, as a fast bowler, you get to learn that a batsman's reflexes definitely get slower as he gets older. Mark my word, the England pace attack, mentally buoyed and on faster Australian wickets, will this summer be at their absolute peak age-wise."

Lillee’s words did not go well with the Australia team. Damien Martyn, for one, did not mince words when he shot back: "I think Dennis Lillee should keep quiet as president of the WACA [Western Australia Cricket Association]. It’s disappointing. The team is disappointed in Dennis' several comments over the last six months, which don't need to be said. ... you just lose respect."
Unlike his Western Australian colleague, Langer answered in the best way possible – 82 and 100 not out in the opening Test of the series at Brisbane and was there at the end, fittingly with Hayden, when Australia completed the 5-0 rout at Sydney.

What next for Justin Lee Langer? Maybe, a professorial job at the University of Hard Knocks University!