Former opening batsman Justin Langer has the best job at the worst time.
Officially starting yesterday as coach of Australia’s cricket team, Langer took time out of his hectic schedule to share with guests at the Sports Chaplaincy Australia Champions Dinner in Melbourne last week. Revealing how a chaplain changed his life years ago by suggesting he read the Bible, the batting partner of Matthew Hayden also acknowledged the scope of his new role in cricketing life.
“I’m truly honoured to be appointed as coach. I love Australian cricket,” summed up the lean, direct West Australian who had dreamed of donning the baggy green since childhood. “I think it is important to our community – we’ve seen that over the last few months by the disaster of South Africa and the reaction of the public, so it’s a huge responsibility and I’m looking forward to it.”
Although we tend to forget even the major news events after a few days, the “disaster of South Africa” won’t soon fade from Australia’s collective recall. The ball-tampering scandal that led to playing bans on captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and opener Cameron Bancroft is one of Australian sports’ darkest moments. And the shock, offence and disappointment remain raw and real, only two months on.
“One of the things I’ve learned about Australians is we love to win, but we don’t love to win by too much; we like a contest and being the underdogs. But we don’t like to cheat – that’s part of the fabric of our society.”
“My faith is my life, really. He just reminded me of just how important it is.” – Justin Langer
A key part of the fabric of straight-bat Langer is, clearly, passion for his game. He steadily gestured with fondness to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which, appropriately, was outside the function room where he was speaking. But for a household name who knocked up a career high score of 250 against England on that MCG pitch, Langer rated an off-field moment as a defining highlight.
“Sports chaplain Andrew Vallance changed my life, to be honest,” said Langer about a longstanding WA cricket chaplain. “I was brought up as a Catholic and he had a huge impact on me, [so that] my faith is my life, really. He just reminded me of just how important it is.”
Attended by 400 guests, the annual SCA dinner was a reminder of the role played by about 750 chaplains across Australia, in elite and grassroots sporting communities. Langer’s tribute to the potency of chaplaincy was echoed by other sporting stars, including Commonwealth Games bronze-medal-winning high jumper Nicola McDermott, runner Eloise Wellings and hockey player Meg Pearce.
“I’m meant to be living the dream … but there’s this deep hole; I can’t work it out.” – Justin Langer
During a panel discussion about their highs and lows and what sustains them, McDermott, Wellings and Pearce often mentioned the support and understanding of chaplain Hannah Johnson. Her example with elite athletes brought to life SCA’s aim of “bringing the grace and mercy of Jesus in sporting communities,” but this event didn’t just focus on the AFL, NRL or other professional athletes who were present. The local level was steadily trumpeted.
While Langer easily captivated with a colourful, amusing and detailed account of facing his first ball in test cricket as a 22-year-old in 1993, the revelation that SCA has a backlog of about 8000 requests for chaplains across Australia was striking. Awards on the night further identified the spread and influence of these pastoral carers in our local communities, so it was fitting that down-to-earth batsman Langer saluted all of them by revealing Vallance’s impact upon him.
In 1998, Langer returned from a tough tour of Sri Lanka, “as close to depression” as he had been. The best bowler Langer ever faced, Muttiah Muralitharan, brought him to the point of tears. Langer had had only minimal contact with Vallance before, but he confessed to the chaplain that “there’s something wrong.”
“I’m meant to be living the dream,” Langer told Vallance. “I’m playing cricket for Australia. I drive a fancy car. I’ve got a beautiful family. I’ve got plenty of cash but there’s this deep hole; I can’t work it out.
“He said, ‘Have you read the Bible lately?’ I said, ‘No, [but] I was brought up as a Catholic and it’s been an important part of my life.’ He said, ‘Oh, maybe give reading the Bible a crack.’”
What happened next was “an act of kindness” Langer cannot forget. The following morning. Vallance and his three children waited for Langer at the airport. Really, really early in the morning. They had a Bible for him, marked with different Scriptures. Being a bloke, Langer sheepishly stuffed the Bible in his shirt but did start to read it on the flight to Tasmania. One verse stood out – Philippians 4:13 – and Langer said “it basically says God gives me the strength to achieve anything.”
“Every ball I’d look down and there’s the cross.” – Justin Langer
Langer credited the discovery of strength in God as “the secret” to the career-best form he reached in Tasmania. One memorable Hobart Test, as he faced every ball, Langer recited as a mantra what he had taken from Philippians 4:13.
Fast-forward to 2003 and another part of Langer’s faith became key to an Ashes Test at the MCG against England. “For the three months or so before, I had been meditating every day on the cross. So I’m here, scratching the crease in front of 90,000 people.” Unable to mark a clear line in the wicket with his bat, Langer began to drag across the crease with his shoe. “When I looked down, there’s a perfect cross. So I went down the other end … and [marked] a perfect cross.”
“When I was at about 170, Richie Benaud says in the commentary, ‘This is extraordinary. It looks like he’s in a meditative state.’ If only he knew. Every ball I’d look down and there’s the cross.”
Having left the crease and taken on the leadership role of coaching, Langer is on the front foot about how he’s going to help rebuild Australian cricket culture. “We’re not going to just encourage great cricketers; we’re going to encourage great people,” explained Langer, taking a philosophy he’s deployed in coaching Western Australia for the past six years.
“The thing about developing great people is you make good choices. All culture is, is good behaviour. If you behave well, you’ve got a good culture. If you behave poorly, you’ve got a bad or poor culture.”
“And that’s the tough thing about leadership. You’ve got to be on it all the time. If someone behaves well, you say ‘Well done, that’s how we do it around here.’
We will play good cricket but we will be really good people.” – Justin Langer
“I still get nervous pulling people up because we all want to be popular and a good bloke. But you can be respectful; you don’t have to be confrontational.”
As a leader, Langer realised “we can all talk a good game but we’ve got to walk a good game.” Langer wants to do that in ways such as listening, not preaching, or his blunt stance against sledging: “There’s banter and there’s abuse. Everyone knows the difference. You don’t abuse people on the street, let alone on the cricket field.”
Excited about taking over the Australian cricket team, Langer wants to fulfil the hope fans have for its reinvigoration. Key to winning back respect is not just winning on the wicket, according to Langer. It’s about shaping cricketers into being the best people they can be.
“If we build these [younger players], we will the Australian public really proud of us again. We will play good cricket but we will be really good people.”