February 27, 2011

Addiction to intensity

Justin Langer may have oozed security as an Australian opener but off the pitch it was a different story

This is an honest and earnest book. Unfortunately it is not up to date enough to detail Langer's work as Australia's batting coach. But, in the spirit of goodwill, we will ignore Boxing Day at the MCG.

Langer was the grafter of those amazing Australian sides, the roast parsnip among the blazing Christmas puddings. He was also astute and observant and hypercritical. No Australian has scored more first-class runs.

The interest here lies in the meticulous detail, some about what went on inside his own head, some about his opponents, team-mates and life in the baggy green. He, or his ghost, Robert Wainwright, can write. The descriptions are vivid. Diary entries most of us would have burnt and emotional behaviour most of us would rather forget make it into print.

A few more pictures, fewer words and an index would have made it an easier read but Langer has never chosen the simple route in life. Failure on the pitch meant soul-searching off it, which led to heavier weights, longer swims and yet more self-help books.

He conjures up a selection of delightful vignettes: Matthew Hayden taking a coffee machine, toasted sandwich maker, bread maker, camp cooking stove, saucepans, frying pan, tongs and Marks and Spencer's pasta on a tour of India; an eating competition with Mike Gatting involving treacle sponge and hot custard; a hubristic defiling of an England dressing room. He does not much care what people think: how many professional sportsmen have started a chapter with the words, "I love roses"?

There are a few asides by Langer's wife Sue, who seems a lovely woman with a fortitude that enables her to bring up four babies almost single-handedly. Against that an unremitting macho-ness is completely alien, at least to me. Thoughtful pen portraits of team-mates are peppered with lines about fighting: (Ricky Ponting) "There must have been a dozen times after Test match victories when we wrestled like kids in the schoolyard, tearing each other's shirts, kidney punching and pinching the other's triceps muscles until they bled"; (Simon Katich) "I wouldn't like to fight Kato. He is tough as nails"; (Andrew Symonds) "Another one I wouldn't like to fight."

And what is it about sportsmen and nakedness? Among other adventures we read about a late-night singalong at the SCG in nothing but jockstraps and baggy greens and Hayden draped only in the Australian flag on the roof of the cable car as it travelled down Cape Town's Table Mountain.

The intensity and self-doubt that Langer felt about everything, and which almost crippled his ability to play, marked him out as the ideal leader of the song the Australians sing after each Test victory, "Under the Southern Cross I Stand". Langer adored this role above any other and interviews with each of the six other songmasters punctuate the book. He even introduces the concept to Somerset when he becomes captain (the players chose "The Blackbird" by The Wurzels).

It is difficult to imagine what Rodney Marsh would have made of that but Langer is happy to run with it. His belief in the power of song is inextinguishable. Perhaps the hurdy-gurdy is something the current Australian side might consider.

Keeping My Head: A Life in Cricket
by Justin Langer
Allen & Unwin, hb
349pp, £19.99

Tanya Aldred lives in Manchester. She writes occasionally for the Guardian. This review was first published in the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here