Justin Langer describing Marnus Labuschagne as among the most “coachable” players he has been involved with does not sound particularly special unless it is placed in the context of the vexed role for coaches over cricket’s long history.
Unlike the football codes or numerous other sports, coaches have never quite held the same rarified place as the final decision-maker or mentor for many cricketers. They have instead served as an adjutant to the captain, meaning that most times members of a team take their cues from how their playing leader deals with the coach himself.
When Langer first debuted for Australia, Bob Simpson was a powerful figure. Between 1987 and 1994, Simpson also held the role of a selector, a dual position that was dismantled at the request of the next captain, Mark Taylor.
Under Taylor, Simpson and his successor Geoff Marsh held a much more subordinate role, and the teams of Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke were more or less definitively run from the captain’s chair until Clarke’s authority was diluted by Darren Lehmann in 2013.
Since then the coaches have held more authority, and Langer is now arguably more powerful even than Simpson was. So his description of Labuschagne is a key to understand the kinds of players who will find favour in Australia’s’ teams in 2019 and beyond.
“We talk about coaching players, there are no more coachable players than him,” Langer said of Labuschagne. “Probably the most heartening thing is his relationship with Steven Smith, the best player in the world. They spend time, they talk cricket. They love it. Literally all they do is talk cricket. They eat together, they have breakfast and lunch together. They have coffee together. They have dinner together talking cricket.
“On the first day of our Ashes camp, Steve Waugh came over and asked ‘who are those two guys there’. I said ‘that’s Marnus Labuschagne and Cameron Bancroft’. One look and he said ‘that’s the future of Australian cricket, isn’t it”
Langer recounts a chat with Waugh before the Ashes
“Neil D’Costa has been a huge influence, he does work with Matthew Maynard. He does great work with Queensland Cricket. That’s another part of being a modern day cricketer, you’re all over the place. You don’t just have one port of call. But they have all been good influences on him, there is no doubt about. But equally, their relationship. They bat No.3 and No.4 together. To bat with him in the middle and spend time with the best player in the world and an ex-captain. You could not have a better education than he is getting at the moment.
“He’s had a chance to go and play at Glamorgan and play county cricket and in that time he scored four or five hundreds and played a lot of cricket, it’s something we always had the luxury of doing as young Australian cricketers – playing county cricket – even playing club cricket in England during the winter. The best practice is playing games of cricket, the more you can play, the more you learn and hopefully the better you get. He is playing a lot of cricket. He loves the game so I see benefit in that as well.”
The other cricketer who has demonstrably moved ahead of contemporaries by being more willing to listen and learn than they are is Cameron Bancroft, some might argue too much so in the case of his role in the Newlands scandal. Langer recalled how Steve Waugh, in his role as a team mentor during the Ashes this year, first observed Labuschagne and Bancroft at training in Southampton, where neither were any certainty to make the final squad.
“When Steve Waugh came to the Ashes and we had that first training session at Hampshire and he’d been out of the cricket loop for some time, straight after the first session he said ‘who are those couple of guys over there’,” Langer said. “I said ‘that’s Marnus Labuschagne and Cameron Bancroft’, he got this look on his face and said ‘that’s the future of Australian cricket, isn’t it’.
“He could see it within watching three hours of his first training session for a long time. The point is you have to use everything. You use the data, use the numbers, use the analogies of what people are like and use what you see as well. People like Marnus, you see someone with incredible work ethic, incredible hunger to get better, very coachable and incredible energy. He brings so much to the team, not just batting and bowling, you have got to weigh up all those sorts of things. Sometimes you get it right sometimes you don’t.”
Labuschagne has made a quantum leap in 2019 by finding a way to smooth over the final rough edges of his batting technique, giving him the tools to make the most of an insatiable appetite for runs and time in the middle. It is a step that Bancroft, despite a better record at first-class level, is yet to make in Tests, despite clearly know that he needs to be better at bring his bat down straight down the line of the ball, avoiding too much of a movement across his crease and a susceptibility to lbw.
“It’s confidence. He went to Durham and scored a lot of runs there. That’s why he was selected for the Ashes basically,” Langer said. “Not only did he have a good game in the Australia v Australia A Hampshire, but he also had a very good lead up. If you have a look at his numbers for Durham leading up to it, that’s why he was selected. And he’s got out some freaky ways this year. He has got out a leg slip three times in a row in Shield cricket. I haven’t seen guys get out like that three times in 25 years, let alone three in a row.
“That is probably weighing on him. All I can go on is what I have seen in the nets and see what he’s been doing with Hicky. He has played some beautiful straight drives, some cover drives in the Australia A game. We’re all a work-in-progress. Every player is. The day you retire, it is a relief because you’re not a work-in-progress anymore. He will keep chipping in. like Marnus he brings so much energy to the game and to the group. That’s why he is in the squad.”
Simpson, of course, jettisoned plenty of cavalier cricketers in favour of agreeable roundheads in the late 1980s: Greg Ritchie, Tim Zoehrer and Wayne Phillips to name three. Langer has also shaved down his squad over his first 18 months as coach, and will be giving his preferred choices plenty of time to prove themselves worthy. Labuschagne already has, and for Bancroft it is a matter of time until he gets another chance to do so.