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Cricket news - Under Langer's gaze
Justin Langer was the most intense cricketer of his generation. He still remains a very intense man. With some cricketers, intensity is a by-product of what is loosely termed in sport as white-line fever, an unintentional consequence of playing a sport and possessing a drive to be good at it. And in most cases, it wears off once the curtains are drawn and the boots have been hung up. That's when you see their milder, even mellow, side come through. Look at Ricky Ponting or even Steve Waugh.
Not for Langer though. His intensity has always been his being. And he's as intense now as he ever was. If anything, Langer the coach can at times come across much more intense than Langer the player, if that's even possible. You can see it in his eyes. It's a gaze that at times you feel can burn a hole in you, especially if you've asked a question that hasn't been received too well by the former Australian opener. And they're eyes that always tell you a story.
Like when Langer stood glum-faced and said, "My gosh, you have no idea how much that hurts, you have no idea," you simply wanted to get out of his way. Like when he said, "I wasn't sure whether to cry my eyes out or smash my hotel room," you knew his hotel room had been in serious danger. And when he told a packed media room at Old Trafford on Monday (September 2) that he felt like, "the Ashes was stolen" from his team the other day at Leeds, you could look into Langer's eyes and see that he was willing to do anything he can to bring it back- the urn and England beware.
National team coaches are the faux diplomats of the cricket world. The ones who you will usually hear underplay issues or the impact of say a defeat while there are also some who prefer to deflect matters concerning their players towards themselves. Then you have Langer.
At times during press conferences, you can often forget that it wasn't him out there in the middle either when Ben Stokes was snatching the Ashes away from his team or when Steve Smith was engaged in fierce battle against Jofra Archer. It's just how passionately he talks about it. And Langer to his credit looks fit enough too, like he could still pad up and get out there. It's obvious too when you have a deal with your players that if you miss nicking the ball while providing slip catching practice, you'll do push-ups in the middle of the ground and easily pull off some three dozen.
Those around him talk about how Langer the coach lives every ball. You should have seen him on the balcony at Headingley during the last half-hour or so on the final day. There he was sat on the edge of the balcony, all by himself, his chair leaning forward, his face a mix of concern and anguish - perhaps not so much about what was happening but about not being out there.
So it's no surprise then that with his team having to recover from the shock dealt by Stokes, Langer's gone back to what had helped him in these scenarios as a player. And over the last 10 days or so, in Derby and in Manchester, it's all been about camaraderie, mateship and sticking together for the Australians.
"After what happened in the last Test match, it was important for us to stick together. And we've done it really well. I'm very proud of how the boys have gone about their preparation this week. They're up and about. You can see the energy again," he said on Monday.
Tim Paine would later disagree that his teammates had put any "extra effort" into their bonding sessions before practice. But whether it was their high-octane game of touch footy in Derby or the boisterous fielding drills at Old Trafford, it's been about creating noise as a team, and to be heard making noise as a team, even if like Paine said the bonhomie hasn't seemed "manufactured" or inorganic.
The touch football that they indulged in at the Derby county ground, two days post the Stokes attack, was all about letting their competitive juices flow on overdrive, with no player seemingly prepared to give a quarter to his teammate. The only consensus across both teams was sledging and getting verbally stuck into Marnus Labuschagne, every time the ball was anywhere near him, with Paine leading the "mental disintegration". Monday's fielding session at Old Trafford, meanwhile, was all about egging each other on to catch balls, put in dives and hit the stumps. If in one corner the four big fast bowlers were getting into a huddle before the drill, closer to the pavilion it was Steve Smith leading the encouragement while stopping and catching balls himself and providing non-stop commentary even for this.
"Ohh Heady's almost pulled off the biggest turnaround in Manchester," Smith shouted when Travis Head slipped and then got up to nearly hit the single stump at the bowler's end. "Ohh Wadeos has taken a blinder," he screamed when Matthew Wade hung on to a loopy straightforward chance that a third-grader would snaffle with great comfort. Meanwhile, Langer stood in the middle of it all, yelling out orders and ends for his fielders to throw at. Not far away from him was Steve Waugh doing the same. The session ended with Mitchell Starc getting hit in the nether regions and going down, leading to all his teammates walking up to him and giving him a cuddle with great glee as he squatted in pain.
"Nathan Lyon said this is the tightest team he has played in. The fact we don't have to manufacture that is a great sign. If anything, I think coming out of Headingley, everyone had re-affirmed to them that everyone has got their back in this dressing room and that fills them with confidence," Paine would say soon after.
He also would insist that Lyon didn't need any rallying around despite his crucial fumble and the talk that the English might go after him on the field. "Good luck if they do. Nathan is a big boy, he has been around the block a few times and his record speaks for itself. I don't think we are going to judge Nathan on a missed run out, when he wins Test matches for us regularly. If we can score enough runs this test he will potentially win us another."
England better brace up for an equally "together" and certainly louder Aussie outfit when they get on to the field on Wednesday (September 4) for the fourth Ashes Test. And they'll know up in the balcony, Langer will be poised as ever watching on with those peering eyes and living every ball like he's out there.
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