It was a stunning comeback!
The down-in-the-dumps Australians had not only outplayed India in the T20 series but they had also managed to win the five-match one-day international (ODI) series after losing the first two games narrowly. And as Marcus Stoinis clean bowled Kuldeep Yadav with the final ball of the series, it was mission partially accomplished for coach, Justin Langer.
Langer isn’t one to make a show of his emotions. As the Australian players did the high-fives and hugged each other in glee, after the ODI series win, he sat glued to his seat, his arms raised in triumph, sporting a huge grin. He knew that his initiatives to get the team back on track were now bearing fruit.
The Indians, under Virat Kohli, have been riding a wave. As of March 2019, they are the number one Test team in the world, while being ranked second in both ODIs and T20s. India is, of course, touted to win the World Cup of 2019, carrying with it the expectations of over a billion fans. The Australians, on the other hand, are ranked fourth in Tests, a lowly fifth in ODIs and only third in T20s. Yet, with their recent wins, Aaron Finch’s boys too are now contenders for the World Cup.
After the ball-tampering incident that involved Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith and David Warner during a Test match in South Africa last March, Australian cricket was looking down a deep abyss. The government was angry, sponsors threatened to walk off, administrators had to step down and coach Darren Lehmann, who wasn’t directly involved with the scandal, chose to resign. Even the hardy Australian cricket structure was then being questioned. It was under these circumstances that Langer took over as coach; a man who had seen both triumph and disaster during a long playing career.
In the last year or so, in ODIs, the Australians had lost 0-5 to England, in England and 1-2 to the South Africans, at home. This was followed by the 1-2 loss to the itinerant Indians in January this year. The turnaround for the Australian team seems to have been the Test series against Sri Lanka for the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy, which it won. That triumph, followed by the T20 and ODI successes in India, bodes well for Australia as the much maligned squad readies itself for the ICC World Cup of 2019.
Finch, the Australian skipper, who has found runs hard to come by over the last few months, seems to have rediscovered his touch on the Indian tour. Speaking to the media after one of the wins, he said that the team was enjoying the challenge of playing in India and that its self-belief had been restored somewhat. He also mentioned the fact that the Australians were working on a plan for the World Cup and were moving towards it confidently.
The man who has been working behind the scenes to get the team mentally and technically primed for the big event, Langer writes in his book, The Power of Passion, “Sometimes you have to reach rock bottom before you start climbing back up the mountain. We learn many of life’s most valuable lessons at times of adversity and disappointment.” The Australians kept losing and learning their lessons. They had a coach who knew that there would be a turnaround very soon. The Test wins against Sri Lanka and the white-ball conquest of the strong Indians have proved him right.
Steve Waugh, the former Australian skipper wrote about Langer in the foreword to the above-mentioned book: “Treating people with compassion, knowing the difference between being right and wrong, being a leader, setting the right example to younger people and taking time for other’s needs are just some of the qualities I see in Justin.” He adds, “Lang’s greatest strength is his resilience and inner strength. Coming back from being dropped as the number 3 batsman on the 2001 Ashes tour to become a record-breaking opening batsman is one of modern day’s great sporting stories.”
Langer is a stickler for discipline but he believes that players need to enjoy what they are doing. If youngsters like Peter Handscomb and Ashton Turner are to be believed, the present Australian dressing room is a happy place to be in. There is team bonding and unity among the boys; there is also a dream that all of them dream together … while having fun.
The coach believes that the Australian teams of the past thrived on the three Ps – Pressure, Patience and Partnerships. This, I believe, he would have inculcated in the present lot. Creating pressure for the opposition with aggressive batting, bowling and fielding, being patient and biding time where required and confronting the opposition as a unit.
The Australian team that lost the ODI series to India, in Australia, earlier this year, was almost the same as the one that played in the recent series in India. The addition of Pat Cummins and Turner may have made a difference but most of the other players were persisted with. As a result, Usman Khawaja out-performed even Kohli and Handscomb’s batting in the middle-order helped the Aussies put up big scores. Adam Zampa was a revelation and on the Kotla track, Nathan Lyon outshone Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja in their own backyard.
Langer has even invited Smith and Warner to join the Australian team during its sojourn in the UAE, to play ODIs against Pakistan, so that they could bond with the present bunch of players. Both of them will almost certainly make the World Cup squad. That is what vision is all about.
On the other hand, India lost an excellent opportunity to play their first 11, in all five ODIs, despite knowing the fact that this was a dress rehearsal for the World Cup matches commencing in June. Kohli often spoke about giving opportunities to those who hadn’t secured a place in the team but never really mentioned who they were. When asked after the series loss, if India’s World Cup team had been finalised, he said it was. Could Ajinkya Rahane and Mayank Agarwal have been given an opportunity, since KL Rahul and Ambati Rayudu weren’t scoring runs? Is Hardik Pandya sure to be fit for the World Cup matches, and if not, is there a replacement for him? And what happened of pacers like Mavi and Nagarkoti?
Though comparisons are odious, the question that comes to mind after the Australia-India series is: Was Australia’s triumph in both the T20 and the ODI series due to a better thought process at the coach-captain level? Were Shastri and Kohli caught napping? It has been pointed out by experts that without MS Dhoni behind the stumps, to help and guide him, Kohli’s efficiency as skipper goes down!
Kohli is the world’s best batsman at the moment; is he as good a leader of men? Langer says, “If you want to be a leader, ask yourself whether your men will fight with you in the trenches, or run through a wall for you, if you ask them to?” The Australians did just that against India; will Shastri’s and Kohli’s boys do that in the World Cup?
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he now prefers being a back-seat driver.