May 18, 2011

'Mental toughness is being fully focused on the next ball'

Last year's Ashes revealed cracks in Australia's batting. Justin Langer has the job of mending them

Justin Langer played 105 Tests for Australia and has spent the past 18 months with the squad as a Test batting consultant. Last Friday, Langer was appointed the full-time assistant coach under Tim Nielsen, and he spoke to ESPNcricinfo about what he hopes to bring to the role.

How does your role change now that you're the assistant coach?
For me, in a lot of ways now it's a whole different ball game. My involvement over the last 18 months has been basically in a batting consultancy role, coming in and out for Test matches. In a lot of ways that's difficult, because you have a little bit of time with the guys and then you're away again, and there are big gaps in between. The role I'm taking on is a full-time assistant's role, which means I'll be with the team the whole time, in one-day, Twenty20 and Test cricket. Hopefully I'll be able to form some really good relationships with the players. My experience as a player is that the best coaching came when I was able to develop good relationships.

Is it more important to work with the players on the technical side of things or the mental side?
It's an interesting question when you're coaching at this level. There are obviously some small adaptations that can be made, and everyone can always improve, but in my opinion at Test level the biggest improvements come mentally, with the mindset and the way the guys approach the game, and also recognising the responsibilities of being a good person on and off the field. It's a big responsibility, playing for Australia.

Do you agree that during the Ashes that there were some technical faults among the batsmen, especially edging balls they could have left?
Everyone can keep developing their technique, but my experience would tell me that if you're edging balls or getting bowled a lot, it tends to be that you're not watching the ball as closely as you should be. And if you're not watching the ball closely, it's generally that you're down on a bit of confidence or you're distracted. That's what mental toughness is about, having 100% attention on the next ball bowled to you. That process is critical. If you get the processes right, I'd suggest that most of those guys, with the techniques they have got, wouldn't be nicking them. They wouldn't be getting bowled or lbw because if they have got a really strong and positive mindset, they'll move quicker, they'll pick up the ball earlier, their feet will move quicker into position, and they'll invariably be hitting the ball more in the middle of the bat. There's always that question - is that technical or is that mental? I would suggest, at that level it often looks like it might be technical, but with these guys who have made a lot of runs before, it's usually that they're not quite clear in their minds.

Australia's batting in the Ashes didn't go to plan. What can be done to turn that around?
The whole Ashes series was extremely disappointing. You could never dream that Punter and Michael Clarke would have the series they had. We've got such high expectations in Australian cricket, which is great, but I think there's got to be some patience - not so much with those senior players, at the end of the day they're the ones who win you games in the short term - but with the younger kids.

If you go back over history, Ricky has been dropped three times from Test cricket, so he had to learn from a young age and go away and get better. Michael Clarke has been dropped a couple of times, Matthew Hayden was dropped a couple of times, Damien Martyn was dropped a couple of times, Steve Waugh was dropped, even the great McGrath and Warne were dropped. The point is that the young guys coming through - Usman Khawaja, Phillip Hughes, Callum Ferguson, Shaun Marsh, Steve Smith, whoever the next guys are coming through - you've got to be patient with them. At the time they came in, it was just unfortunate that our captain and vice-captain didn't have great series. That had an impact. We lost Simon Katich after the second Test, and while Mike Hussey had a great series, our senior batsmen probably didn't have the series we'd been hoping for. That hasn't happened very often.

"It's hard to take a bowling-machine technique into a first-class game or a Test match, because on a bowling machine you can survive in first gear. In a Test match or a first-class game, you've got to be in fourth or fifth gear every single ball"

Ricky Ponting said earlier this year he's concerned about some of the young batsmen in domestic cricket having poor techniques. Do you share that view?
I would. You can spend some time with the bowling machine or having throwdowns, and that's good to forge some muscle memory. And if you use them well, they're excellent to use, but ultimately you've got to marry that with spending a lot of time facing bowlers in the nets, and under pressure. Because if you don't put yourself under pressure in practice situations, it's going to be very hard to handle the pressure when you're out in the middle.

In this day and age, bowlers don't tend to bowl so much. You don't often see a lot of the state players or senior players playing at club level, so you get two ten-minute hits on a Tuesday and Thursday night against bowlers. Then at state level, a lot of the coaches in the set-up don't like their bowlers bowling too much in the nets because they want to keep them fresh for the contest. So you don't get to face high-quality bowling in the nets enough. If that's the case, it's hard to take a bowling-machine technique into a first-class game or a Test match, because on a bowling machine you can survive in first gear. In a Test match or a first-class game, you've got to be in fourth or fifth gear every single ball.

What's the answer to that problem? Do bowlers just need to bowl more in the nets?
It's a really hard discussion, because if you ask the sports scientists, there are strong arguments that they've got it right, that they should be bowling a certain amount of balls. If you talk to some other coaches - I know Mickey Arthur came out and said recently that they should be bowling more. You've almost got to break them down and then they'll come back stronger and keep coming back.

It's like players being patient - you've got to get dropped, like Phil Hughes was, then go away and get better, then come back and that's the progress of becoming a great or a very good player. To keep working, working, working, and if you do break down you've got to go away and get better. We all know that this is a long-standing argument around Australia. Should they be bowling more? In an ideal world for batsmen, absolutely, it would be great to be able to face bowlers more on different wickets, so you can bat under pressure. The other argument is that if you do that, you won't have them to bowl in the nets. It's a real balancing act at the moment, and I'm sure that's being discussed in all sorts of forums, not only here but around the world.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo