'The first six months I didn't enjoy the job much, it was very hard'

Will need mental toughness to get through the Ashes - Langer (1:43)

Australia head coach Justin Langer insists his players are ready of Test cricket and expects Steve Smith and David Warner to not be fazed by an Ashes crowd. (1:43)

In the middle of the 2009 Ashes series, a few months before he retired from playing and began a decade in coaching for Australia, Western Australia and Perth Scorchers, Justin Langer inadvertently told the world he thought James Anderson could be "a bit of a pussy if he is worn down".

The comment was part of a personal email to Australia's then coach Tim Nielsen by way of advice on how to tackle England in that year's five-Test contest. After it was leaked, Langer was the subject of a major story in the Sunday Telegraph, published just as the tourists were trying to recover from a first Test match defeat at Lord's in 75 years.

Looking back on the episode as he reflected on a decade in coaching, Langer says, sitting in the lobby of the Australian team hotel in Birmingham, that it was an early part of his education in public scrutiny - an area in which he has faced unrelenting examination over his first year as Australia's coach.

"One of the boys left the email Tim had printed in the change room at Glamorgan there. It got passed to Steve James, who had been a player at Glamorgan for a long time, who then decided to keep it until it suited him or his newspaper, which was in the [third] Test. And you just learn very quickly that: one, it's an industry, two, people will twist and turn it however they want, and three, people have got no real concern for who the person is who's got feelings - they'll just use it however they want. Good grounding, I guess.

"Tim Nielsen said I'd played a lot of cricket in England, I'd played against some of the players, and did I have any thoughts? So it was a pretty innocent question and I just wrote a few words to Tim as a mate and a guy who'd been an assistant coach when I'd been there. It was a personal letter that then got called a dossier. It was a bit like when we took our shoes off at Edgbaston [during the World Cup], all of a sudden they're calling it 'earthing' and all that, all this psychobabble, it was just taking our shoes off because it's a nice thing to do at a cricket ground."

Much was made of the Anderson comment, but Langer regards it as a measure of both the Englishman and his own evolution as a coach that the same word would not be used again.

"Now that was my way of just talking about his body language. When we played against James Anderson as a young man, we felt that if we got on top of him, hit anything loose he bowled, because his body language would drop a little bit. I'd take back the word I used. That wouldn't be my style now, that's for sure, but it was two Aussie blokes talking to each other about someone's body language.

"Do I think that now about James Anderson? Absolutely not, and I hope you write this in the article: James Anderson has turned into a brilliant, great English fast bowler. He will be the person we talk about most when we go through our plans for winning this Ashes. When he was a young man he was different, and that happens with most. When I was a young batsman, I was dour, I couldn't hit the ball off the square, I probably didn't smile much.

"That was my interpretation of him, having played against him. I didn't know him at all. That was our experience of his body language as a young player. Would I say that now? No way in the world. He is a great bowler and we respect him enormously, I personally respect him for his longevity, for his skill. The greatest compliment we can give James Anderson now - the same person who wrote that ten years ago, [not] expecting it to get into public hands, certainly wouldn't say that about him now."

Learning from rejection

Trial and error, setbacks and achievements have all been a part of Langer's coaching story, for he has been denied as many coaching roles as he has won. "A lot of people don't know this: when Mickey Arthur got the job as head coach of Western Australia [in 2010], I applied for that job as well and that was literally straight out of the game," he says. "I thought, 'Oh yeah, I've got good leadership, I know the game, no worries.' But then Mickey got the job and I'm glad he did because I had to find some grounding somewhere else, and that was three years working with the Australian team, and I learned a lot of lessons then.

"When Mickey got the Australian job, I also applied for that, and I wasn't ready for that, but I still applied because people kept saying, 'You've got leadership and you know the game, so you should apply for it.' It was a a really tough experience going through that process. I'm glad I went through it, and I'm also glad I didn't get the job then, because then I had six years at Western Australia. There's no way I could've done the job I've done for 14 months without having that six years' experience.

"It couldn't have been better grounding. It was all the same issues, all the same problems, just with less scrutiny. I've learned how to deal with it and I feel confident to deal with people, game situations, game plans, cricket. But what I had to learn was the scrutiny of the job, and that's just another part of my evolution as a coach.

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"You're always evolving and learning, and that's one of the great things about the job. If you don't, you might as well give up. I'm certainly doing it. The first six months of my job was so hard - I didn't enjoy the job much."

From detailed deliberations about how to reintegrate Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft to the team after their bans for ball-tampering in Cape Town last year, indifferent results for the ODI and Test teams in their absence, to the many and varied requirements of a new broadcast rights deal that reaped Cricket Australia A$1.18 billion but left the team with many more obligations than previously, Langer was in up to his neck. He was working, too, with a largely inherited support staff, under contract until the end of this year's Ashes series. But the team's smiling visage, he insists, was genuine.

"I've said forever, my whole playing career and my whole coaching career: if they're relaxed and smiling and enjoying it, they're going to play better anyway," he says. "I think they go hand in hand actually.

"We'd got smashed and it took great courage, but it was a new group of guys who came in, and they were loving the fact they were playing for their country. You don't fake it. We had to improve our behaviours a bit, on and off the field, and that was okay, but we were just doing what we thought was the right thing to do."

Emotional strain

In the wake of a sapping Test series against India, where the Australians did well to be 1-1 going into Boxing Day but then saw things unravel quickly over the final two Tests, Langer was not always pleasant to be around. This was no surprise to those who had seen him grumpy with WA and Scorchers, but the depths to which he was falling with increasing frequency were somewhat oblivious to Langer until he was confronted by the sight of his wife, Sue, in tears over breakfast.

"We got to day three or day four of the last Test in Sydney and my family had been over for Boxing Day and for the SCG Test match," Langer says. "I've known my wife since I was 14 years old, so she knows everything about me, and they were leaving. I had to get in the team car to go to the ground at 8.15am. They were leaving that day, and we were at breakfast at 8 o'clock, and my wife started crying at the breakfast table in front of my daughters.

"I said, 'What's going on?' I never see my wife cry - we know everything about each other. She said, 'I just don't like what's happening here. I don't like what it's doing to you, I don't like what it's doing to us. People are so mean - what people are saying about you and the team and Australian cricket'. That was a real eye-opener for me, that it was affecting my family."

Others saw signs too. Among them was Malcolm Conn, formerly an award-winning cricket journalist and now the communications manager for Cricket New South Wales, who saw Langer's testy back and forth with the Sydney Morning Herald's Tom Decent over the issue of Glenn Maxwell and how he had been given undertakings regarding CA's plans for him in the winter of 2018, which turned out to be unfounded.

"I got, I'd say, two-out-of-ten grumpy with the journalist in Sydney, and I was also amazed at the backlash of that as well," Langer says. "I apologised straight after the event, but I realised [from] the way people said, 'He's getting angry, he's losing it.' I didn't feel that but my wife was getting upset - that was a real moment.

"I've said privately and publicly a few times if I look back to my career: 1993 when I got dropped for the first time - really tough time, but pivotal in my life. I got dropped in 2001 - really, really tough time, but pivotal in my life. I look to January 2019 in Sydney - really tough time, but I've got no doubt it'll be a massive part of my evolution as a coach. I got a really nice email from Malcolm Conn, just after that press conference. He gave me some really good advice. He knows what it was, but when I'm getting that sort of feedback from my wife, that sort of feedback from the team, I knew I had to find ways to get better, and hopefully I've done that."

Respect for Trevor Bayliss

Langer takes inspiration from, among others, England's coach Trevor Bayliss. Famed for his ability to keep calm at even the moments of greatest strain for the teams he has coached, Bayliss left a vivid memory in Langer's mind when they crossed paths in Dubai in 2009. Langer was on his way to England; Bayliss, coach of Sri Lanka at the time, was on his way back home from Lahore, where the Sri Lanka and ICC officials team buses were machine-gunned in a terrorist attack.

"I just remember his calmness. I've got a lot of respect for him. He's just won the World Cup, he's done some really good things in cricket.

"It's great to see someone like him, who's gone right through the ranks to now be a World Cup-winning coach, I think that's brilliant. He's a great, shining light for coaching. We always get along very well, and I really like the journey he's taken. [The World Cup win is] a feather in his cap and a reward for the hard work he's done over many years, and it helps to elevate coaching. I think coaching in cricket is really immature, if you think about the other codes."

Just how far Langer's own coaching has been elevated with time will be demonstrated by how Australia tackle the task of winning an Ashes series in England for the first time since 2001. Ask him to ruminate on how the team led by Mark Taylor was able to overcome a 0-1 deficit and the captain's own form slump to win 3-2 in 1997, but the 2005 team could not, despite its bevy of great players, and it is patently clear the result still grates.

"Our team then was a great team and no one can ever deny that. But some things happened, didn't they?" he says. "Glenn stepped on the ball. I'll say it until I die - you take the best players out of your team in any sport, it's going to have an impact, and it did. McGrath's on top of his game - he got his 500th wicket the game before - he's bowling beautifully to Marcus Trescothick. You take him out, a few of the players for the first time are struggling a little bit with form.

"It was a great series, a real arm-wrestle. The same team fought back two years later and won 5-0. It was an unusual tour that, 2005, and we'll take stuff from it this year. But we're certainly not the team we were in 2005. That was literally a great cricket team, probably seven or eight all-time greats, a couple of very good players. I was a good player and we had some all-time great players.

"This is different. We've got a couple of great players this time, we've got a couple of aspiring great players, some very good players, and we've got some kids learning the ropes. Very different to compare this team to 2005, 1997, 1993 or 1989."

Secret to Ashes success?

In an Ashes squad of 17, Langer and the selection chairman Trevor Hohns have assembled a group with more than a few players who offer gritty, fighting qualities, but also plenty of experience playing the game in this part of the world.

"The vision early on to have us playing some Australia A cricket and those three red-ball games, hopefully that will give us a kick-start into the Ashes," Langer says. "The fact we kept players like Marnus Labuschagne, Cameron Bancroft and Peter Siddle playing county cricket - so, as many Australian players playing red-ball cricket as possible - that was all part of the planning for it.

"Equally England will have some players who have played some red-ball cricket as well. We've got eight guys, I think, who've just been solely focused on red-ball cricket for the last few months, and plus the one game the other day."

One of the most intriguing choices was Bancroft, who comes back into the fold at the same time as Smith and Warner. Langer and Bancroft have enjoyed a close relationship as batsman and mentor for years in WA, but Langer is adamant that sentiment had nothing at all to do with the 26-year-old's presence in the squad. Indeed, he points out that Bancroft's county stint with Durham was perhaps even more valuable than most.

"Selection is about performance isn't it? He, like David and Steve Smith, they've paid a very heavy penalty," Langer says. "He came to Durham and he's got to bat first on a really tough Durham wicket, because there's no tosses over here. I remember talking to Marcus North weeks ago about it, and he said, it's a very tough wicket up there, and he's averaged 40-odd, got a couple of hundreds.

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"Then he batted in a two-and-a-half-day game, and you'd have to say he was the standout batsman, just with true grit. I think to win over here we're going to need batters who are really mentally strong, who've got a sound technique, who make runs. What he does is if he gets in, he usually gets hundreds. He likes to bat, to wear them down. He's also a brilliant fieldsman - if he plays he'll be a very good bat-pad to Nathan Lyon. He is a great slips fielder, which is important in English conditions, just a really good package.

"He's earned it on performance - a bloke who averages 56 in Shield cricket and averages 40-odd opening the batting in tough conditions in Durham and then plays like that [in Southampton]. He's been selected on performance. When he came out of it he was the leading run scorer [for Australia] in South Africa in that [2018] Test series, so he can obviously play as well. There's no sentiment there. We thought there were some tough selections, no doubt about that, but we felt he is in good form and he warrants selection through his performances."

How will Langer's Australia respond to the question he once posed of James Anderson? For they are not only going to be facing a concerted challenge from England on the pitch but a strident campaign of criticism, abuse and booing from beyond the boundary. They know, more or less, what to expect, but they still need to cope with the challenge of fronting up to it day upon day for 25 days across five Tests. Resilience will be required - by the bucketload.

"We've had a pretty good snapshot of what to expect from the crowds here in England," Langer says. "We respect if that's how they want to react, that's fine - there's nothing we can do about it. Our boys were brilliant throughout the World Cup, and I expect them to be brilliant dealing with it throughout the Ashes as well. I know it's going to be tough on them. We'll just get on with the job and play the best cricket we can.

"That's why it's called Test cricket. It's tough. That's why we love the game so much. Physically, mentally, technically, you've got to be really strong. We talk about mental toughness, having a great technique. Bowlers have to have the physical endurance, batsmen have to have concentration. It's a game of resilience, it's like a marathon, and our blokes will be up for it. It's the toughest part of the game."