Amid a 25-minute media conference in which Cricket Australia Chief Executive Officer Nick Hockley sought to clarify the circumstances leading to Justin Langer’s sudden resignation as men’s team coach, one word echoed louder than all others.
Hockley was at pains to laud Langer’s contribution to rebuilding the team’s reputation and values, and repeatedly emphasised the decision – endorsed by CA’s board on Friday – to offer the coach a cursory six-month extension after four years in the job.
But it was when Hockley expanded on the need to continue an evolution begun in the wake of last year’s T20 series loss to Bangladesh that he revealed a key criterion that seemingly extends beyond simply wins and losses.
“The decision to start a process of transition is what we believe is in the best interest of the men’s team for unity and future success,” he said.
In citing “unity” as a factor in the decision to offer Langer a contract to lead Australia into their T20 World Cup defence on home soil later this year – but pointedly, no further – Hockley gave voice to whispers that had simmered in the background over the past six months.
Concerns about the relationship between coach and players became an issue when the men’s team returned from Bangladesh last August, and meetings were held between Langer and leaders of the playing group to settle disquiet that had found its way into the public domain.
At the time, Hockley released a statement voicing appreciation for the job Langer had performed in “raising the culture, values and behaviours of the Australian men’s team” and pointed out the coach was contracted until the middle of 2022.
However, behind the scenes discussions were being held that would ultimately ensure Langer’s term in charge would fall far shorter than the full four-year renewal he visualised.
“In the middle of (last) year we did have some challenging conversations, and some issues,” Hockley said today.
“It was well documented that we had some pretty robust conversations after coming back from Bangladesh, which was actually a really constructive process that led to role clarity.”
“We recognised the team has evolved and the requirements and needs of the head coach have also evolved.”
That initial evaluation led to a revision of roles for the T20 World Cup in the UAE (which Australia won) and the subsequent Vodafone Ashes defence (achieved 4-0), whereby Langer stepped back from his hands-on role with the team and ceded more control to assistant coaches Andrew McDonald, Michael Di Venuto and Jeff Vaughan.
It proved to be something of a no-win scenario for Langer, whose future was to be decided by a more thorough process conducted by CA once the Ashes campaign was completed in mid-January.
Had the devolution of responsibility to his assistants not yielded success in those two crucial campaigns, then Langer’s hopes of a contract renewal would have sunk accordingly.
But if the rejigging of roles delivered success – as became the case – he had therefore effectively shown the ship was making rapid progress without his firm hand on the tiller, and he was therefore essentially surplus to the new leadership model.
“A feature of this summer has been, when people are given an opportunity, they step up,” Hockley said today.
“We’ve seen specialist batting, bowling and fielding coaches really step up and own their departments.”
“(They) owned their space, have been accountable and performed superbly.”
‘We’re now evolving to the next phase of a more shared leadership model.”
As a result, CA decided in the wake of their post-Ashes deliberation that Langer’s request for a long-term contract extension would not be met and instead he would be offered the chance to lead the team into their T20 World Cup defence before the transition plan moved fully to its next phase.
Hockley said while captains Pat Cummins (Test) and Aaron Finch (limited-overs) were among the individuals canvassed as part of that evaluation process, the discussion was also broadened to include other members of team staff as well as selectors.
“We felt it was really important to do a thorough process, and we felt it was really important to do that post the Ashes so there were no distractions for that really, really important series,” Hockley said in explaining the time taken to reach yesterday’s decision.
“When we sat down and looked at the needs of the team going forward, we felt the team had evolved, the team’s needs and the requirements of the head coach had evolved so we were very clear we were looking at a short-term extension (of Langer’s contract).”
“We were pretty clear with Justin that it was for a period of transition.”
“We wanted to be clear and respectful to him.”
“It was a very lengthy discussion at the board but ultimately there was consensus this was the right way forward.”
“Also, the board was unanimous in endorsing the approach (to Langer on Friday night).”
“We really would have loved JL (Langer) to stay on and defend that T20 World Cup at home, but the thinking was now is the time to look forward to the next phase.”
“We very much felt Justin had earned the right to defend the T20 World Cup on home soil, and that worked in with our period of transition … but obviously that now will need to be accelerated to transition to a new phase.”
“We are disappointed Justin chose not to accept this extension and, instead, resign effective immediately but we understand and respect his decision.”
“He has been an outstanding coach (and) his impact has been fundamental in restoring trust and respect in the team.”
In taking on the national men’s team coach role in the aftermath of the 2018 ball tampering scandal in South Africa, Langer made it clear he considered the pinnacle of his ambition was to lead Australia to a Test series win in India, a feat that has eluded them since his playing days in 2004.
Given Australia are not expected to face that opportunity until 2023 at the earliest, the same year they hope to win their first Ashes series on UK soil since 2001 and compete for the ICC World Cup in India, Langer was never going to countenance a contract that did not take in those major challenges.
Consequently, having been informed of CA’s decision last night and prior to flying home to Perth and a reunion with his family who he’s not seen since September last year, Langer announced his decision to resign effectively immediately through his Melbourne-based management group.
The announcement was met by a stream of criticism aimed at CA’s handling of the process, most notably from a number of former Australia Test greats including Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh and Matthew Hayden who were teammates and remain close friends of the former opener.
Christina Matthews, chief executive of Western Australia Cricket where Langer was a hugely successful coach before taking on the national role when Darren Lehmann resigned, was also savage in her assessment of how the process had played out.
“I’m really pleased for JL that he’s resigned and that he’s made a decision, but I’m just really disappointed how he’s been treated,” Matthews said in Perth today, after the WACA arranged for Langer’s safe passage from airport to home where he began 14 days of isolation.”
“From our point of view, they (CA) haven’t shown him any respect or treated him with any compassion around the way it’s been handled.”
“Whoever coaches the Australian team, that’s Cricket Australia’s job but we spend a lot of time talking about people and how important people are.”
“And I think it’s a disgraceful way to treat one of the greatest cricketers that’s ever represented Australia.”
“I would have thought common sense would tell you he wouldn’t accept a six-month extension, I would have thought if there was an extension it would have been two years and then who knows if he would have accepted that.”
“But I think that six months was probably very insulting to Justin.”
Hockley said he understood the vehemence of the reaction to Langer’s decision, but stood by the reasons for offering the coach a short-term deal that would not have taken to him to next summer’s scheduled Test series against South Africa.
“We respect the views of the greats of the game, but we really feel the process we’ve undertaken we’ve done thoroughly, and we’ve done in the best interests of Australian cricket,” he said today.
“These decisions are not straightforward and not always going to be popular.”
“These decisions are never easy and I understand, especially given how admired and respected Justin is as an absolute legend of the game, that many people will be disappointed by the decision to only offer him a short-term contract.”
It also means the Test squad Cummins takes to Pakistan later this month, a place Australia teams have not visited since 1998, will be overseen by interim coach McDonald and without Langer who would have been the only member of the coaching staff with playing experience in Pakistan.
The national selection panel – of which Langer was a member prior to today alongside George Bailey (chair) and Tony Dodemaide – is expected to announce the Pakistan touring party in a matter of days.
But while the examination of roles within the men’s team structure has shown the benefit in coaching leadership being devolved and shared, there are no immediate plans to dispense with an overall men’s team head coach in the immediate future.
As a result, CA will look to appoint a replacement for Langer while there is also a likelihood a greater sharing of responsibilities will take place for individual series such as McDonald’s overseeing of the coming Dettol T20 campaign against Sri Lanka (which was planned prior to Langer’s resignation).
“The current plan is to look to appoint a permanent successor to Justin, but we will continue to take a very project-focused approach to each of the series because it’s worked so well over the course of this summer,” Hockley said.
“Something that we’ll also consider going forward is who takes on a leading role on particular campaigns, or particular series.”
“That’s something we’ve been talking about, but certainly we think it’s really important to have an over-arching head coach.”
“And we think it’s really important to have a level of continuity and connection between the different formats.”
“We have a good number of all-format players so having a really integrated, over-arching coaching set-up, albeit as a project-by-project focus we think is really important.”