During the team meeting, Langer critiqued Tim Paine’s captaincy, especially how he allowed Stokes to pinch singles off the final ball of the over to keep control of the strike. “Hard to watch, hard to watch but it is what it is,” Langer tells Paine in front of the side. “The question is, when we’re under that pressure, we know that we were really clear on what the plan was.”
The meeting ends with Langer imploring his side: “We’re going to stay together, we’re going to stick together, we’re going to work hard together, we’re going to get ready together to be ready for Old Trafford together to win the fourth Test match.” They would do exactly that.
Of course, there are limits about what can be gleaned from a documentary in which the line between fly-on-the-wall and public relations is not exactly clear. But the glimpses of Langer in The Test align with the impression of him throughout his playing and coaching career: as a man unstinting in his determination to win.
Around 2000, Australia had perhaps the strongest, and deepest, array of batting talent that any Test team has ever known. Australia thought they had little need for Langer, ostensibly a limited, workmanlike player: he was dropped three times in his first eight Tests, and played only 12 Tests before turning 28. And yet Langer transformed from dour top-order batsman to dashing opener; only seven Australians have scored more than his 7,696 Test runs.
Langer’s ability to extract every iota of his cricketing talents even inspired Telemachus Brown, an Australian band, to write ‘(Wrong about) Justin Langer’, a song apologising for doubting him. His exacting standards were a feature of his time in county cricket with Middlesex – where he had a corner of the dressing room to himself until he was joined there by a young Andrew Strauss – and then Somerset.
“You’d always see him do more after training – runs, throw downs, everything. He’d always be the last to leave,” recalls Angus Fraser, the former England fast bowler and Middlesex captain. “He was always looking to be better and improve all the time.”
Just as it was then, zest for self-improvement remains an essential Langer hallmark. “He had an unbelievably hard work ethic – very demanding of himself and he expected everyone else to show the same desire and determination,” Fraser says. “He’s a really nice man – very caring away from cricket but very intense during it. He could be a bit combustible at times when things didn’t quite go according to plan.”
That side of Langer’s character has often caused difficulties with Australia. In ‘The Test’, Usman Khawaja tells Langer that players are “intimidated” by him and “walking on egg shells”; last year, Langer even reprimanded an employee at Cricket Australia’s website for posting a video of Bangladesh singing their team song when celebrating a T20 victory over Australia last year. In recent months, critical feedback from players led Langer to adapt his style, using assistant coaches more, resolving to be less abrasive. But the failure of Australia’s senior players to provide public backing for his contract – which had been due to expire in June – to be renewed suggests that the players did not feel that the changes had gone far enough.
And yet Langer the head coach has adapted in other ways. As Perth Scorchers T20 coach, winning three Big Bash titles, he adopted a bowler-heavy strategy; when Australia won the T20 World Cup in November, they embraced a batting-heavy approach. Indeed, while the appeal of Langer to replace Chris Silverwood, who lost his job as England head coach this week, is rooted in his Test pedigree, he also has greater credentials in the T20 format if England wanted to persist with one coach to do the job in all-formats.
The image of Langer haranguing his players should not obscure that he is a deep thinker about coaching and cricket alike. His office brims with books on leadership. Langer uses data – which he calls “golden nuggets” – selectivity to strengthen strategy. In England in 2019, insights from Dene Hills, Australia’s analyst, fed through Langer led the side bowled a notably shorter length than in 2015, to keep England’s run rate down, and identified that Joe Root was most vulnerable pressing forward on a full length early on; as in the 2021/22 Ashes, Root did not score a century.
Every coaching appointment is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reaction to the one to precede it. And while the caricature of Silverwood as allowing his players too much rope and Langer allowing his players too little is overstated, in many ways Langer could be considered the antithesis of Silverwood.
Even if Langer’s more didactic style had neared the end of its use with a well-oiled Australia side – it is hard to credit him too much with the Ashes triumph, given the quality of Australia’s opponents – it might be altogether better-suited to the current stage of England’s development. His technical expertise and understanding of the tempo of Test match batting would be particularly useful for England’s coterie of batsmen long on potential but short on Test runs: Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope, Dan Lawrence and Haseeb Hameed.
In a sense, the Ashes was perfect preparation for Langer taking over as England head coach. Few people, we can be sure, are as well-acquainted with England’s weaknesses.