Summer sneaked up on Perth in 1999, intruding the glorious evenings of spring. On such a stinker of a dripping evening, WACA pastor Andrew Vallance heard a nervous voice creak behind him when he was locking his room: “Andrew, I want to talk to you.” He turned around to see Justin Langer, in Test whites and sweating profusely. Vallance, sensing the gravity on Langer’s face, took him to his room, offered him a glass of water and apologised for the rickety fan.
Langer, without fidgeting, told him: “Andrew, I feel hollow. I have everything but I’m missing something. I cannot describe it, yet I know something is not right somewhere. Can you help me through it?”
Vallance, a keen cricket watcher, knew Langer wasn’t among the runs, was psyched out by Muttiah Muralitharan and Co in Sri Lanka a month ago, the scrutiny on him was getting intense at a time when there was lengthy queue waiting to knock him down, when the country’s production line of high-quality batsmen was brimful. But more than the drought of runs, something more intangible was hurting him. “I observed him for a few minutes, he hardly looked into my eyes, and I let him open up his mind, so that he could unburden all the mental luggage. But he said he didn’t have anything to confess, and kept referring to the hollowness. I thought he was a little overworked, but I didn’t how to cure his depressed mental state.”
Vallance asked him when had he last read the Bible. He knew Langer’s background—a devout Catholic who seldom skips the Sunday masses at the St Joseph’s Church in Subiaco whenever he’s in town. He has a magnet of St Christopher, the patron saint of his family, gifted by his grandmother on the fridge, and has an enviable collection of rosary beads. “But then I thought, cricketers with their busy schedules might not get much time for spiritual endeavours as going to the church or reading the Bible. Justin said he had read the book a few times… picked and read verses, but not serious reading. So I told him to start reading the Bible again,” he recollects.
The next week, Vallance was at the airport with his family to see off Langer to Brisbane, where they were playing against Pakistan. “I gifted him a fresh copy of the Bible. He thanked me and left with a beaming smile and a good-luck symbol,” he says.
Two weeks later, he rattled out his career-changing hundred in Hobart against Pakistan. The next Test was in Perth — by that time Australia had already won the series and were baying for a whitewash. When the team bus arrived at the WACA, Vallance was waiting to congratulate Langer, who rushed in and hugged him. “He recited a verse from Philippians 4:13, which goes like: ‘I can do all this through Him who gives me strength’. He told that he mumbled the line before every delivery he faced.”
Maybe it was the big runs that actually cleansed his mind, but it’s spirituality that he clutches on to, in both good and bad times. As fate would have it, he found an equally spiritual friend in Matthew Hayden, who used to draw the cross after completing milestones. The first time they met was during an U-19 match in Queensland, and in Hayden’s words, “they just got off like that.” He dusts up their first meeting: “He thought I was a groundsman or something and asked me about the pitch. I told him something vaguely and the next day he was surprised to see me open the innings. He was quite short, so I started calling him the little fella. And we became good friends for life,” Hayden says.
Several things bound them together — both forayed into international cricket around the same time, both had a prolonged period of wilderness, before both returned to Tests together. Spirituality was another, and they habitually drew a cross on the crease before every innings.
It was a ritual they stumbled during the Boxing Day Test against England in 2002, where Langer registered his highest Test score (250). “He was trying to take a middle stump guard, but as the surface was new and a little moist, the bat kept slipping. So he used his spikes to draw the line and when I looked at it I told him, ‘Wow, that’s a perfect cross.’ It filled us with a lot of positive energy, both of us got hundreds and we stuck onto that ritual until the last time we batted together,” Hayden says.
They also went on to become Australia’s most prolific opening pair, 5665 runs in113 innings, enjoying each and every run they made, which manifested in the way they celebrated milestones. Hayden seemed to bear-clutch the little fella, but Hayden says Langer was better muscled than him. “He’s a very strong guy, maybe it’s got to do with all the martial arts stuff he’d done,” he says. Martial arts, spirituality and cricket — three seemingly antithetical but indispensable worlds for Langer. Without one, he feels hollow inside. His world crumbles.
If spirituality was ingrained in him by the environment he grew up — the Western Australians are staunch Catholics, evidenced by a splatter of churches in and around the city — his martial arts tryst was coincidental. When Langer was around 14, his father Colin joined a mixed martial arts centre in Perth. But after a week, he woke up with a stiff back and decided to stop his adventure altogether. But since he had already subscribed to an annual membership, he just nudged Langer: “Langy, do you fancy taking some blows on your face?” To his surprise, he responded with a convincing yes.
The next day, he was at Justin Boylan’s MMA academy in Perth. Boylan first thought he was too young for the rigours of the sport. “He was a kid, just under five feet and quite thin. So I just wondered how he would take all the blows as most of us here were in our mid-30 or 40s. So training and sparring with him seemed dangerous. But Justin was cool and very keen on practising it.”
From then on, he trained thrice a week in the morning for three hours with older men, and Boylan was surprised at his commitment and how rapidly he nuanced the different moves of the difficult genre, Zen Do Kai, which blends different techniques of muay thai, karate and jiu-jutsu. In four years, he attained the black jiu, a rung below the black belt in karate. “Quick learner,” he says.
But what impressed Boylan the most was his guts. “There was a boxer called John Andrews, who was ruthless, he must have been in his late 30s then and showed no sympathy for his age. He would punch him down, kick him out, but Justin never gave up,” he remembers. “He pushed his physical and mental limits,” says Boylan. The descriptions rings true for the brand of cricket he embodied and endorsed. Allan Border, his first captain, realised it on Langer’s debut, when he was shellacked on helmet by an Ian Bishop bouncer. “He was down on the ground and I saw Boon running from the other end. The West Indies bowlers had all converged around him. I think I asked Mark Waugh (the No 4) to be ready, but then Justin was up and signalled he was fine. I told him later than he showed the true Australian grit,” he remembers. He was just 22.
In fact, Boon tried to persuade him to retire. But Langer wouldn’t flinch. He told Boon: “Retire hurt? What are you talking about? I’m playing for Australia. Mum and dad have flown over from Perth. These guys think I’m scared. Not happening.” He battled the fiery Caribbean bowling for nearly 100 minutes, and it was his senior partner who retired after developing cramps.
Hayden recalls another incident in Johannesburg where Langer, after getting smashed up by a Makhaya Ntini bouncer in the first innings and ruled out of the Test, bitterly argued with his teammates to let him bat. “It was quite a scene out there. We were losing wickets in a tricky chase and when we lost the fifth or the sixth wicket, he came in padded up. Ponting (then captain) said even if we were to lose we wouldn’t risk his health. The manager instructed the security guys to not let him into the ground. But Langy wouldn’t listen and finally it was agreed that he would be the last man. Fortunately, we won by four wickets and he didn’t bat. But the incident revealed his character,” he says.
It’s the character that Australia desperately needs at this hour of crisis.
For all his steadfastness to faith and unflagging discipline, Langer is not puritanical. When he took the reins of Western Australia, the team was in shambles. The culture had shrunken back to the old days when the players were lazy and notorious for one drink too many. Langer realised it was not the lack of rules that induced chaos but too many stifling rules. Thus he wrote in a column for a Perth-based newspaper: “When I arrived there were all these rules — a drug policy, an alcohol policy, a policy for this and a policy for that. It was like the kids were handcuffed. It’s not a criticism. They obviously thought they had to do something to try and stop the rot, but the more rules they introduced, the worse it got.”
He changed the rules and introduced new diktats — what he calls three rules and five pillars. The three rules were — use common sense; keep things simple; and no mobile phones at training. His five pillars were — hard work; speak honestly with each other; celebrate success; respect the past; and earn respect back. It was printed and pasted in bold in the dressing room, at the nets and in hotel rooms when they travelled. “The boys were told not to worry about the results, but focus hard on training. Discipline was the pillar of his game and he tried to impart the same virtues into our team. He always used to tell them to be better people first and great cricketers next,” says Christina Mathews, the chief executive of the WACA.
He was also brave enough to convey to some of the players that their time was up. Like the left-arm wrist-spinner Brad Hogg. A spate of young players were inducted into the team, and persisted for a while to prove their potential at the first-class stage. “He always backed those he felt were talented and more importantly those he thought were willing to work hard,” she says.
A revitalised Western Australia claimed the Big Bash and the Matador Cup one-day series twice under him, besides heartening performances in the Sheffield Shield. “When you look at his tenure, almost every player began to improve. He brought in his fitness-friends and boxing experts to enhance their physical prowess. He restored our pride,” she says.
The Australian cricket team also expects much the same — both in terms of results and cultural purgation. Langer began in as much as the same way as he had when taking over his domestic side, with an emphasis on culture and discipline. “Cultures are just behaviours, so we’ve got to make sure our behaviours are really good on and off the field. If you’ve got good behaviours then you’ve got good cultures, and an environment for all our young blokes to thrive and become as good players and as a good people as they can become,” he said in his first press conference.
It shone in Australia’s victory in Perth—when his players seldom crossed the line of banter, even though there was ample scope for that. “It was a victory of Justin Langer’s ideals,” reckons Ricky Ponting. A first step towards restoring the shattered Aussie pride.
The Scarborough sports centre is on Deanmore Road, an eastern suburb of Perth, near the pristine white beaches. Its cricket centre is nothing more than a pristine-green ground, a double-storey pavilion with a large collection of old photographs. The room is locked, and the players and coaches have driven down to the Optus Stadium, leaving Sam Lockland, the guardsman alone. He grumbles: “They’ve gone to see Langy’s Test win. But I have to look after the pitch and see no one’s walking through the squares.”
These days, Langer occasionally visits the club, but the fondness for him and his family is overflowing. “Not just Justin, his father Colin and uncle Robert have been involved with the club for a long time. There’s an inter-club tournament named after Colin and Robert was the guy who inspired him to take up the game,” Lockland says. Robert’s Shield career plateaued after a few seasons, but he ensured that he passed on the passion to Langer.
The junior Langer, though, remains the inspiration of the cricketers cutting across generations, with every player in the team wanting to model themselves on Langer. “Maybe, it’s the reason we have so many left-handed batsmen in our team,” he says, laughing.
One of them is fledgling opener Marcus Harris, who is often likened to Langer. “I actually get nervous when people compare me to JL. In fact, we were coached by the Neil Holder, maybe that’s how I developed a similar batting style. But to match his contributions to the Australian cricket team would be fabulous,” he says. In fact, before he switched loyalties from Western Australia to Victoria, he had a long chat with Langer in a cafe. “He didn’t want me to leave, but he realised the position I was in and understood me. Before we parted he told me what I should do and could always ping him for advice. He’s a great listener,” he recollects.
It’s a trait of Langer that Hayden admires. “He can keep listening for hours on end without getting distracted. He’s always unflustered, so cool that it rubs onto you. Whether it’s in the dressing room or in the middle, he absorbs all the pressure.” So much so that he left a vacuum in the dressing when he retired. “It was tough without him, but we always kept in touch. He always gave the right advice, especially when I was nearing retirement.” Lockland, into his 60s, says he too gets retirement advice from Langer. “I think the reason he doesn’t come here often is that we talk a little too much. I’m much older than him, but I get a lot of relief when I tell him about my problems,” he says.
Like Hayden, Harris and Lockland, Australian cricket too would feel much the same, that they can leave their burden with him and feel unburdened. The man who could usher in a symbolic season of spring for Australian cricket.