Langer: 'Batsmen who say they like facing fast bowlers are common liars'
Sunday 24 July 2005
The next moment, as Langer might also have reflected since then, it rams into the bone above his right elbow with the force of a rhinoceros head-butting a tree. Langer loves animal imagery. It is one of his idiosyncrasies (only one, because, paradoxically, he is a singular man).
His lexicon is studded with zoological references. Fast bowlers stalk a batsman like a tiger after its prey, fielders lollop after the ball like monkeys swinging through the trees. Only two days before this new ball, as red and threatening as a baboon's tongue, had thudded into his arm, he had talked about the man who bowled it, Stephen Harmison, and the first time he had come across him.
"I saw this big youngster like a big, baby giraffe, warming up, jumping around, shaking his arms round the place. David Boon, who I knew very well from Australia and who was Durham's captain, had told me to expect something special, and when we walked out, Melvyn Betts bowled quickly. But then Harmison came on and I saw Boony winking at me." Like Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, he might have added.
At Lord's, Langer hit the next ball he received from Harmison for three, but he was out not long afterwards, a misconceived hook going high to square leg. He was bitterly disappointed, despite becoming the 46th Australian to score 1,000 Test runs against England when he reached 39.
Like all overseas cricketers, certainly like all Australians, Langer had waited a lifetime for this. A Test debut at Lord's. He had rolled the prospect round his tongue three days earlier and clearly liked the taste. Unlike his batting, which is artisan and prosaic - but gee whizz, to use another of his favourite phrases, does it do the job - his speech and his outlook on life are romantic and poetic.
"It's a Cinderella story, playing at Lord's, and I've waited all this time," he said. "But when I get to the top of the stairs to walk out to bat on Thursday morning or whenever, it's no Cinderella story, there aren't any glass slippers. This isn't a fairytale, it's action time, and Harmison and Hoggard are waiting for me." So they were, and all Langer's worst fears were realised when he took the mighty blow so early.
He had talked with brutal honesty about facing the new ball. Maybe this is because of his nature, the refusal to hide behind excuses, maybe it is because he came to opening the batting relatively late, so there is really no point in pretence. He trains for it by boxing, a sport whose science entrances him.
"Any top-order batsmen who say they like facing fast bowlers, they're common liars," he said. "Nobody likes it, and when you face it there's always apprehension because of the degree of physical courage you require. When you're in bed the night before, or you're waiting to pad up to bat, you know that the ultimate aim is to get a hundred or a lot of runs, but you also know you're going to take plenty of punishment along the way.
"But it's a great contest, it's what gets your adrenalin pumping, and I can't tell you how excited I am about this series, facing Harmison, Flintoff, Jones. My toes are tingling just thinking about it, I am so looking forward to it."
In the event, he came through the Long Room and said to his partner and friend, Matthew Hayden: "Whoa, come on. This is it, let's do it Matty." Langer is a batsman who has made the most of his talent, which is considerable. There was a time when he might not have been so diligent, and he would certainly not have played so many Tests had it not been for an Englishman. He relishes telling the story of the summer he spent as a teenager staying with a man called Nigel Wray, the millionaire businessman who now owns Saracens Rugby Club.
How Wray eventually told him a few home truths about his approach, how Langer, in his diary, called Wray a bastard, how Wray said that if the young man ever pulled himself together sufficiently to play Test cricket for Australia, Wray would be there to see it. And how, years later, Langer was given 24 hours' notice of his call-up to the team for his first Test in Adelaide.
How he walked into the hotel lobby for breakfast on the second morning of the match and there was Wray checking in after dropping everything in London. How Wray then told him that he was aware Langer thought him a bastard, since the page on which the offending item appeared had been left open on Langer's bed when Wray's wife went in to tidy the room.
All of this, Langer recounted. "We were driving down a country lane in Sussex in his red Porsche, going to play cricket when he pulled over," he said. "On and on he went, it hit me like a brick wall. It's interesting when I look back over my life, the people who have given me the straight and honest answers are the people who have made the real difference to me. Sometimes they hurt, you don't want to be told, but I was and he has become one of my great mentors."
Langer has also forged a special relationship with England supporters, especially the Barmy Army. They got his goat in Melbourne three years ago when they spent an entire day casting doubt on the legitimacy of Brett Lee's bowling action.
"I'm as loyal as a man's dog," said Langer, "and to me it was quite personal that they were calling Brett Lee for chucking." The upshot was that in a press conference in which he should have been dwelling solely on his magnificent double hundred, Langer had a pop at the Barmies, referring to their indolence and their beer bellies.
They hit back quickly, making up a song about him. Langer prostrated himself before them by way of contrition. "It was stupid, but you live and learn, don't you. I had just made 250, I was feeling pretty happy and cocky. You make one comment and next day I'm a two-foot tall pigmy. Yes, I regret saying it, but this summer I'm going to laugh and smile at them as much as I can."
Langer's earnest but engaging personality probably makes it a dead cert that he will have the odd confrontation. It was not only the Barmy Army he fell out with, it was also the England captain Michael Vaughan. In the innings which saw Vaughan launch his miraculous tour of Australia three winters ago, he appeared to be caught by Langer at cover. The third umpire decided it was not clear. The pair exchanged barbs for the rest of the day; Vaughan later had a go at Langer in his book A Year In The Sun. (Among other things he refers to Langer as a bit of a tit, though it is Vaughan's version of events which still galls.)
"I was really disappointed he came out with these comments. I think what people have to respect is that there are two sides to every story. I was really upset that day and the reason was that I thought he had questioned my integrity. To me, integrity is everything. I don't want to get involved in a slanging match. There's no festering, it'll be sweet."
But the feeling is that Langer will not be slow in coming forward to the England captain in this series and that he will write a book of his own one day. He will not forget. Like an elephant, he might have said.
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