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Cricket Australia chief defends embattled Justin Langer as pressure mounts

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MELBOURNE: Cricket Australia chief Nick Hockley defended the embattled Justin Langer on Wednesday after mounting concern over his management style sparked uncertainty around his position heading into the Twenty20 World Cup and a home Ashes series.

The Australian head coach was forced to address negative feedback earlier this year when discontent surfaced about his ‘headmaster-like’ leadership and shifting moods.

He took the criticism on board and admitted he had been “grumpy and intense” most of his life.

Langer faced controversy again last week after reports of a heated argument with a Cricket Australia journalist following a poor white-ball tour of the West Indies and Bangladesh, where they suffered their first-ever series defeat in any format.

Australia’s team manager Gavin Dovey and Langer took turns to admonish the journalist for posting a video of Bangladesh singing their team song on the website after securing the series win, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The confrontations played out at the team hotel in full view of players, some of whom were taken aback by them, it said.

“In hindsight, it was one of those instances which should have taken place in private. I take full ownership of that,” Dovey told the paper.

The confrontation is said to have taken place in the team hotel, with players and staff watching, leading to feverish media speculation over his future.

Hockley praised the ‘incredible job’ Langer had done in rebuilding the culture of Australian cricket since being hired in the aftermath of the notorious ‘Sandpaper-gate’ ball-tampering tour of South Africa in 2018.

“His efforts have restored public faith in the national team, which is a side all Australians can be incredibly proud of,” Hockley said in a statement.

Hockley didn’t directly address Langer’s management style but noted it had been an ‘extremely disruptive and challenging 18 months’ during the pandemic with border closures and cricketers living in bio-secure bubbles.

“Despite those challenges the side has had great success in one-day, Test and T20 cricket, when all players were available,” he said. “Justin, his coaching staff and the leaders within the team have an equally important part to play in ensuring a successful summer ahead for the Australian cricket team.”

Earlier this week, Langer’s friend and former team-mate Adam Gilchrist said growing speculation around his position could ‘derail the summer’, while urging Cricket Australia to stamp out leaks to the media.

“The bigger issue… is the fact these journalists have a direct line of contact with people within the inner sanctum there, and the people in that inner sanctum are happy to let it get out,” he said.

White-ball skipper Aaron Finch said he believed Australia’s recent poor form had amplified tension related to Langer, but it wasn’t ‘a great look’ that team-mates were leaking details.

“There’s always tension when results don’t go your way,” he told SEN commercial radio Wednesday. “It’s disappointing that things are coming to the front the way that they are.”

While Langer has been widely praised for restoring the culture of the Australian team, rumours of dressing-room friction have never been far away.

Rumours of dressing room friction were confirmed last month by Finch, who said players had given Langer ‘confronting’ feedback about his management style in a team review, and the coach had tackled it head-on during a camp on the Gold Coast.

Malcolm Conn, who was media manager for the Australian team during their 2019 Ashes tour of England, said he respected Langer but quickly learned to stay out of his way.

“You were never certain whether your question was going to be met with an answer or an explosion,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Conn detailed players walking on egg shells around Langer and his ‘sudden obsession with things that… didn’t seem to matter’.

“Like many of these minor incidents, Langer’s latest blow-up at a Cricket Australia digital journalist during the recent tour of Bangladesh is nothing in isolation, but contributes to a pattern of erratic behaviour,” he added.

In the modern era of Australian cricket, coaching changes have not gone smoothly.

Langer’s predecessor Darren Lehmann resigned in the wake of the Newlands scandal, having taken much of the blame for the team’s brash and aggressive conduct on field.

Lehmann had taken over from Mickey Arthur shortly before the 2013 Ashes in England, after the South African oversaw the disastrous ‘Homework-gate’ tour of India where four players were suspended for failing to complete a written assignment.

As a batsman, Langer had to reinvent himself to win back his place in the all-conquering Australian teams around the turn of the century.

He ended up forming one of the nation’s most dominant opening partnerships with Matthew Hayden before bowing out on his own terms at the end of a long and decorated career.

Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2021

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