06 February 2022

Justin Langer: The Man Who Loved Cricket

Unlike the various footballs, the coach has never been a central figure in cricket. The most important job in Australia after the prime minister, in the words of the former prime minister, is not the coach, but the captain of the (men’s) Australian cricket team. The rationale has usually been that a fast moving all-in game like football benefits from a cool head on the sidelines who can see things that the captain can’t while playing. Cricket on the other hand has an in-built observer occupying that role in the form of the captain.

These days, the extra analysing pair of eyes which sees something the captain cannot is not another person but a computer. Data analysis is an essential off-field tool in the modern professional game. Other essential off-field tools are a large contingent of technical specialists and professionals – specific coaches for batting, bowling and fielding, physiotherapists, dietitians, psychologists…

What does the coach add to this mix? There was no coach of the men’s Australian cricket team before 1986, when Bob Simpson was appointed to smooth over the cracks in the post-World Series Cricket era, and he saw himself as a temporary measure. The coach of the most recent Golden Age of Australian cricket was John Buchanan, who on the one hand was a data nerd and on the other a daggy camp activity coordinator (“There was everything from fly-fishing to wrestling to poetry. I took the players on a trip to an albatross rookery in Dunedin”).

I had to look up who the coach was between John Buchanan and Mickey Arthur (it was Tim Nielsen and that’s all I’ve got). Mickey Arthur will go down in history as the instigator of Homeworkgate and a symbol of insane unAustralian schoolmarmishness. Then, from the unAustralian ridiculous to the Australian sublime: enter the laconic, mesmerising Darren Lehmann. Lehmann seemed to be specifically chosen as a personification of calm, no-bullshit Australian blokiness. A good sport, but one that could stop you in your tracks with a look. The human pub test.

It seems to me that this represented a first in cricket. The coach-as-charismatic-personality has a long history in the various footballs, but star power has (or had) never been a defining characteristic of the cricket coach. The coach is not supposed to draw focus, but after Lehmann was appointed there seemed to shift in the direction of televised play: any significant moment on the field prompted a “cross” to Lehmann in the box for a reaction shot. I called it Boofcam. I don’t remember this happening before his tenure.

One gate closes, another one opens. With Sandpaper gate, the Lehmann cult of blokiness was hoist on its own petard. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the actual catalyst for Mickey Arthur’s departure was not Homeworkgate, but David Warner punching Joe Root in a pub. According to Arthur, he expressed his frustration at this behaviour to James Sutherland and was replaced by Lehmann not long after. That went well.

So, Justin Langer. Justin Langer may or may not have represented the culture change he was supposed to in comparison to Darren Lehman, but he was certainly no departure from the cult of coaching personality. On the contrary. If The Test documentary is and will be the story of Justin Langer in many ways, one of them is the way it places the coach at the centre of the narrative of the Australian cricket team - literally. That cover image with the players huddled in the dressing room around an intensely gesticulating Langer - can you imagine this kind of shot being staged with any other Australian cricket coach? I sat through the first episode of The Test with a stopwatch, and 46% of the screen time – 19 mins 25 seconds out of 42 – is about Justin Langer: he is either the subject of the shot, talking or being talked about. This is the man with a philosophy of “we over me”.

Around Justin Langer are the data analysts, the batting, bowling and fielding coaches, the technical specialists and professionals. What does Justin Langer add to this mix? His self-appointed role seems to be the Man Who Loves Cricket. He philosophises, speechifies, and harangues. He stares, sulks and storms out of rooms. He throws a lot of “fuckens” into his speeches, so you know he really means it. He is completely suffocating and this becomes part of the “character-driven” narrative of the documentary. Drama behind the scenes, ho, ho ho.

Cricket and good labour relations have never been an easy fit – just ask World Series Cricket. The fact that elite athletes are professionals is more or less fully accepted these days, but the fact that this implies a mundane set of workplace entitlements seems to encounter resistance. I think this because part of the definition of athleticism is the ability to not complain in the face of adversity – heat, pain, injury, exhaustion, failure. This definition is now testing its limits in the case of things like concussions, but only now, and what next?

It seems strange in this day and age to defend men who create uncomfortable work environments on the grounds that they are legendary figures who get results, but there we go - the tradition of doing so clearly outweighs the recent revolt. On top of that tradition is the sporting code mentioned above, as though beneath the protests of those defending the legendary Langer is an implicit question to the players – “Isn’t it your job to put up with shit?

The thing is, Langer has failed on his own terms. You can go on about all the wins that happened on his watch as much as you like, but as far as he is concerned, “at the end of my coaching career, I’ll judge myself not on how many titles I win, but how many wedding and christening invitations I get because it means that I’ve had an effect on a player’s life; they know I care for them. Obviously, our business is winning games of cricket, but if I get wedding and christening invitations, I know it’s more than just winning and losing games of cricket.” Justin set the KRAs, and apparently did not meet them. Hoist on his own petard.

09 September 2019

All hail the Marriageables

Andrew Wu in the Herald today suggested this Australian team needed its own name in the style of the Invincibles and proposed the Unflinchables. I’d like to submit a counter-proposal of the Marriageables, as a nod to the alleged selection policy of Great Leader Justin Langer and—more to the point—to the fact that the entire world badly wants to marry Pat Cummins, whose dreaminess is of such magnitude that it bathes the whole team in its gentle glow.

That’s no endorsement of Justin Langer’s cheesy patriarchal paternalism. It is in fact vexing that all this is happening on his snaky watch. After the “good enough to allow them to marry my daughters” line, and his “These are like my sons” during the Lords Test (making him a father who would put his kid on a bike without a helmet even though he thinks they’re maybe-probably-haven’t-really-checked “mandatory”), he just needs to drop the “as a father of daughters…” chestnut to score the trifecta of enraging expressions that need to be consigned to the rhetorical garbage bin.

It seems inevitable though that in the light of the Ashes victory, the narrative of this team’s success will be that after the nadir of Australian mongrelism that was Capetown, it was born again as bunch of fresh-faced plucky contenders, many of whom, yes, you’d say were the sorts of bloke you’d be comfortable taking home to meet Mum, were it not for the fact that if you took Pat Cummins home to Mum she would whip him out from under your nose as soon as look at him (“Can you give me a hand in the kitchen, Pat?”), with Dad hot on her heels.

The fact that this victory was achieved with very little input from the doghouse duo of Warner and Bancroft will only cement that narrative. The fact that this victory was almost entirely reliant on the input of Capetown Captain Steve Smith… let’s not dwell. He’s nothing if not a Special Case. A captain again? People talked about Steve Smith as one of those batsman for whom captaincy only improved his batting, but maybe it was actually holding him back and we just couldn’t tell because we didn’t know how much more he was capable of. He looks comfortable. The great mystery of Tim Paine is that he has the look of the character in the Gallipoli film who dies with a letter from his Sweetheart in his top pocket, but who against all odds has ended up squadron leader at the end of the film, and he looks comfortable too.

The English team looked like hollow men walking out onto the field yesterday evening to shake the hands of the Australian team and like it would take a superhuman effort to even turn up on Thursday. There has to be another brilliant chapter in this series though, doesn’t there? It’s really the height of ingratitude to be banging cutlery on the table after everything that’s been served up so far, but there you go. Take this woman’s hand.

02 September 2019

Eyes Wide Shut, or the Horrours of Headingley

I believe we were talking about how amazing matches go beyond the possible and comprehensible. To which we can now add the tolerable, palatable, and digestible. I guess we know now who has stepped into the Messianic Ashes All Rounder shoes of Andrew Flintoff. Spinning 73 runs out of that 11th-wicket partnership was certainly a loaves and fishes-worthy trick. I for one look forward to the day when Ben Stokes presents whatever Australian Ninja Warrior has become in 10 years time or has a bucket of hissing cockroaches thrown over him in a ditch in the South African jungle.

The quandary for me all week has been reconciling the fact that this was a “great” match that I am “glad” to have watched with the fact that it was a “horrendous” match that I felt “sick” watching. At the start of the final over it was all I could do to squeak “Patty” from under a blanket like an expiring consumptive. Don’t tell me it has something to do with Cricket being the real winner. I’ll believe that when you find me an English person who believes that anyone or anything but England was the real winner of that game.

It was like a reverse sublime, where the impossibility of conceiving what was happening kept getting slapped around by the reality of it, quite literally toward the end. Wake up, wake up. Eyes wide open and shut at the same time. You could say that the Australian team’s ability to comprehend took too long to adjust to the reality, but it should never have had to in the first place. You can believe something is impossible, you can even know something is impossible, but the rule in sport is that you have to act as if it were possible. Ben Stokes certainly did. The problem isn’t about brains coping with the reality, but actions reflecting the possibility. Who cares what anyone thinks? I’ve always found Pascal’s wager distinctly unconvincing when it comes to believing in God, but it really works for sport. Act as though an England win is possible and you lose nothing if it turns out you’re wrong. Act as though an England win is impossible and boy will you suffer eternal damnation when you’re corrected.

There’s a lot less at stake for the spectator—nothing, really, when it comes down to it—so the tingling suspense between fear and hope with each dice throw of the ball can be felt as a kind of horrible pleasure (cf. the excellent analysis of King Cricket). Kant (and after Pascal, why not Kant?) thought pain was part of any really good pleasure because it’s the pain that makes you feel alive. Kant was a little bit of a bondage and discipline type, but I think the argument works. At some stage the experience tips into the sublime, the pleasure “mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair.” Yes.

The Man from Victoria

Moving from an aesthetic to a tactical quandary: who and where is the Great Australian All Rounder? There’s a satisfying combination of dash and heft in an all rounder, a combination Shane Watson tried and failed to achieve his whole career, and we seem to have trouble coming up with them. If you Google “great Australian all-rounders”, the first page throws up this fantastic bunch of non-sequiturs:

If you click on the link, you get a top ten that’s a bit shaky: Mitchell Johnson, Steve Waugh, and Shane Warne are the only players from the last 30 years (that’s again Shane Watson you hear howling in the distance). The judgement of the list’s compiler, Kovvali Teja, might leave something to be desired, but his SEO skills are really outstanding.

The Great Australian All Rounder of our times is Ellyse Perry of course, which isn’t much use to the team playing at Old Trafford in a couple of days. Meanwhile, it seems we must await the coming of the mysterious, and hugely gifted, Man from Victoria.

20 August 2019

Steve Smith Feels Great, or the Follies of Lords

There were all sorts of problems with the headlines lauding the brave and valiant Steve Smith, many of them to do with the valorisation of toughness over brain tissue, but for me the glaring one was not that it’s the wrong message, but that it’s the wrong descriptor. “Brave” is when you don’t want to do something but do it anyway. Steve Smith wanted to do something very badly and was intolerant of anything and anyone who tried to stop him. I wouldn’t call him brave any more than I would call a Terminator “brave”.

Usually when a players is injured, you see two pains on their face: the physical pain and then the pain of realising that they might have to go off. When Steve Smith was hit on the arm, there was the physical pain, and then seven stages of annoyance: that he made the error, that he wouldn’t be able to play as well as he wanted to, that time was being wasted, that he wouldn’t be able to play as well as he wanted to, that people would pester him about going off, that he wouldn’t be able to play as well as he wanted to, and then maybe, just maybe, a tiny flicker of annoyance around the edge or back of his mind at the fact that he may “have to” go off. Because he must on some level know that’s a thing, right? Because it kind of looked like he didn’t.

And then he gets knocked off his feet by a ball hitting his neck at over 140 km/hr and the routine starts up again, a routine that is fuelled by a delusion: that if you will it hard enough, you can make it so that nothing has happened. And then, beneath the delusion, a kind of psychosis: a belief that what has happened has, in fact, not happened. “I Feel Great”, says the man with a head injury and what looks like a broken arm. A bit later, there was a moment where he seemed to believe that maybe, just maybe, being given out LBW when you were out LBW was not a “have to” go off situation. That maybe what happened had not, in fact, happened.

It was madness, and I feel like the core terror and fascination of this day, and the reason it will go down as the day that cemented his greatness as a Figure of the game and not just a Champion is because it was the day on which we beheld the naked face of the personal madness of Steve Smith. “Madness” isn’t really a thing, in any scientific sense. I don’t mean mental illness or concussion. We know now he was concussed when he was hit on the head, however delayed the symptoms, and lord knows any of us can have various degrees of mental illness and maybe sportspeople especially so, but above or beyond or beside any of that—and it was there before he was hit on the head—was something so personal and peculiar and powerful, and so removed from the real and the rational, that I can’t think of a better word than madness.

Some might say that “mad” is Smith’s brand. The fidgets and rituals, the unorthodox style, the time in the nets that goes beyond obsession to something like fixation. When people talk about Steve Smith as a “freak”, they are referring to things that anyone could see from the numbers on the page without knowing the person, but the word does double duty as a reference to his personal freakishness, because greatness is never just about the results on the page, but the presence of the person who gets them and the way they get them. Anything you can refer to as a brand though is far too manageable to be madness. This was a glimpse of a monster both appalling and touching, because what was the face of that monster, sitting in the stands? A stony-faced boy at the dinner table who has been made to come in from play.

There was a shift in the perception of Smith after the first test, where the edges of his personhood started to blur around the edges into something more and less than human in an attempt represent something that went beyond extraordinary. Steve Waugh compared him to a computer—“It’s like he analyses every ball, and it’s like a computer: he spits out the answer.” Commentators didn’t talk about personal and technical flaws when addressing the question of “how to get Steve Smith out” but arranged data into various clusters of points to try to crack that code and get inside the matrix. To say that Archer’s answer to the “how to get Steve Smith out” question came as a jolt back to reality is an understatement. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object? It makes a horrible sound.

At the end of that day of the Lords test it was like everyone was dazed from a series of blows and wired on adrenaline, but the difference between the rest of us and Steve Smith was that we knew something had very much happened, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what. We absorbed all of the reality and gravity that Smith could not seem to see or accept. After every extraordinary match you ask yourself: what have I just seen, what just happened? It’s like they stretch the bounds of what is possible and comprehensible and this time it went beyond the physical to the two great Beyonds themselves flashing before our eyes: Death and Madness.
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06 August 2019

Ashes 2019 - Test 1, Edgebaston


Booing I
I feel like it is only by a supreme effort of will that I myself don’t boo English players loudly and at every opportunity: walking onto the field, scoring, not scoring, reviewing, ‘milestoning’, walking off the field. If I had the chance to do so without destroying the illusion that I am a grown-up spectator of a genteel game, under the cover of righteousness… well, maybe, maybe not. I honestly think it is more tasteful and honourable to boo gratuitously out of sheer partisan spite than from moral zealotry. The way kiddies at the rugby league leap out of their seats and run to the sideline to boo opposition players trying to convert a try, the most petty and unsporting gesture imaginable, well, it warms the cockles of your heart. Not even kidding.

Booing II
The people booed most at the football are of course the referees and, well, would we... could we? I reckon it would be an implosion of cricket’s self image on the scale of a Bodyline or World Series cricket if the crowd booed the umpires.* Completely inconceivable a week ago, surely still impossible, and yet you can feel the patience wearing dangerously thin. Just as well there is plenty of time to drink restoring cups of tea to soothe the nerves before the next match. And that Joel Wilson won’t take to the field. Wilson's pauses were nothing like the Slow Finger of Doom of a Steve Bucknor or Rudi Koertzen where the decision was quick but the arm raised at the inexorable pace of a 19th-century bridge. This was just "...... maybe?"

*Also if we adopted the verb “to milestone”.

Redemption I
A redemption narrative is where someone makes up for a wrong with a right. They are supposed however to be the same kind of wrong and right. A moral wrong (like, say… cheating and lying) isn’t ‘redeemed’ by a technical right (like, say… making lots of runs). But moral wrongs like cheating and lying displease crowds and making lots of runs please crowds and therein lies a miasma of good and bad switching places and creating a redemption narrative for Steve Smith. To be honest, I think people fundamentally like Steve Smith and wanted a reason not to boo him any more, just as they probably always wanted a reason to boo David Warner. We’ll see how much technical virtue erases moral stains when he or Bancroft make a century.

Redemption II
Speaking of slow doom, I never saw anything as depressed, as depressing, or as slow, as Peter Siddle walking off the SCG field after being given out on the fifth day of the fifth test in the 2010-2011 Ashes, a series that England won 3-1. Siddle, Smith and (briefly) Khawaja are the only players in the current team who endured that horror season. Nothing would make me (and probably him) happier than if he saw out his Ashes career out with an away win. Hat-trick optional, but most desirable.

04 November 2018

Bat like nobody's watching, play like you've never been hurt

My least favourite interior decorating trend of the last decade is WORDS as wall decorations. In the kitchen: FOOD. In the bedroom: SLEEP. Jumping out at random: LIVE, LAUGH, LOVE. And who can forget those old favourites SMILE and DREAM?

Cricket Australia has not. It has really upped the ante in this game:

As Mr Batsy remarked to me this morning, “elite honesty” is like being “a lot pregnant”. You are honest or you’re not. Once you start qualifying things, it’s a very short step to “it’s complicated”.

And of all the qualifiers... “elite”?

When I saw the “elite mateship” and “like an exclusive nightclub” quotes being thrown around when Langer was appointed coach, I assumed it was dirt people had dug out of his memoirs to show how inappropriate his appointment was. That interpretation seemed so obvious to me that it was not until NOW, when I saw this infernal word “elite” again, that I realised my mistake.

The general feeling when the tampering crisis broke was that one of the problems was the way the Australian dressing room had become a sort of isolated bubble leading to a disconnect between players and the broader Australian public. A bit like, I don’t know, they felt they were an elite group inside an exclusive nightclub.

I also thought we were living in a time when the word “elite” is not usually a term of praise. Aren’t “elites” those book-learnin’ latte-sippers? There’s a lot of innocence in Langer’s use of the term. I suspect he was actually trying to come up with an arresting turn of phrase, trying to avoid the clichés he knows he is fond of (“The man in the mirror is almost a cliché…”), and landed on “elite” as fresh take on “gentlemanly” and a fancy way of saying “really good.” He certainly got the arresting turn of phrase bit right.

Clichés and abstract nouns have been the stock in trade of coach and player speak since forever. They are an expected and disposable element of any press conference, almost an in-joke. To see them plastered on a dressing-room wall almost divests them of the tiny grain of meaning they may have still held. If you are trying to internalise a value, the last thing you need is to have it constantly in your face. You stop seeing things you see all the time.

It’s again a kind of innocence. The public denounced the loss of pride, integrity and respect for the game. Cricket Australia’s response: no worries, we are going to make the players say those words lots of times, and just wait until you see how big we can write those words on the wall!

30 March 2018

Sentimental education

Illustration for Tom Brown's Schooldays by Arthur Hughes

Last night, I saw the Steve Smith press conference from across an RSL dining room and it was quite close enough to get the message.

On Wednesday, I spoke to my counsellor about some free-floating anxiety. It’s everything and nothing anxiety that gets hoovered up out of the ether, and it can be useful to spread the contents of the vacuum bag out on the floor and see exactly how ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’ it is and just in case there is, I don’t know, a lost earring in there.

Part of the everything-nothing was the ball-tampering crisis, and my counsellor said she knew quite a few people who were going through a bit of an identity crisis about themselves and being an Australian because of the scandal, and… I’m going to have to interrupt you there. There is nothing about this incident that challenges my sense of who I am or what being an Australian means. I have no idea how that even works. The sum total of my personal ball-tampering-related anxiety is a) feeling really sorry for Steve Smith, and b) a pathological conviction that any mess whatsoever is ultimately my fault and I have a responsibility to fix it.

What is crucially missing from my own existential make up in this equation is the experience of cricket through the eyes of a cricket-playing child. I have never idolised a cricketer, fantasised about being a cricketer, attempted to emulate a cricketer’s action. I have never had the experience of me being small and them being big. I have never bonded (or dis-bonded) with a parent, teacher or any other kind of authority through cricket. I have never gone through any complicated formative experiences to do with friendship, enemies, teamwork, or peer pressure through cricket. There is no Bildungsroman in my experience of cricket.

Some good articles have been written about the connection between cricket and the national Bildungsroman in order to explain the level of response to this incident. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Either way, it’s a narrative that leaves me cold or rather at room temperature, because I’m not trying to claim any moral or intellectual high ground from this fact, it just is what it is.

I am in awe of our cricketers in the sense that I am in awe of their extreme physical and mental discipline, their extreme personal sacrifice and above all their tolerance of extreme psychological exposure and pressure to perform. Early on in this saga, someone drew a parallel between Steve Smith’s “I’m embarrassed to be here, quite frankly” press conference of Hobart 2016 and his “I’m embarrassed to be here, quite frankly” of Capetown 2018. Their point was that “embarrassment” didn’t cut it, quite frankly, and Smith was going to have to do better to avoid embarrassment being the symbol of his weakness as a captain.

There’s something else to be drawn from this parallel. When do the actions of our national cricket team launch a thousand headlines and letters to the paper? When does public contempt rain down on them like hailstones? When they misbehave, yes, but also when they lose. Where do you think they get the message you must win at all costs from? People try to annex moral ground in these situations by making out that in both cases it is about playing the game properly and players showing appropriate respect for their position. Batsmen are losing their wickets out of some lack of character, not because of technical error or lapse of judgement. 

Somehow the amount of the money they are paid is invoked as both the reason they do not perform properly (what can you expect from mercenaries?) and the reason they must perform properly (I demand my money’s worth!). And the eternal, eternal refrain of “there are hundreds of others ready to replace you in a heartbeat, mate, so you’d better shape up quick smart.” Um, this kind of argument is why unions were invented. 

There is a moral dignity we expect from our cricketers because of the complicated ideology attached to sport in general, which is very much bound up with its relationship to children - the child we were ourselves, the children we see watching now, the adulthood training that sport is supposed to represent. Sport is inseparable from this dynamic, and the morality of players is important relative to this dynamic.

We are also all adults however, us and the cricket players and, as adults, not particularly big or small, or big and small in different ways and at different times. Good people do bad things. As adults in the ordinary world, there is a moral dignity we need to afford to cricketers, as we do other human-sized adults. However big your own existential angst in response to this situation is, I'm sure it is dwarfed by Steve Smith's.