'A difference between banter and abuse' - Justin Langer vows to put 'fun' back into sledging
"Sledging is fun!" says Australia's new coach!
Okay, so Justin Langer was referring specifically to the "banter" (note: definitely NOT abuse ...) that flies across the table when he and his daughters are playing the card game UNO. However, there was a steely message lurking within an otherwise amusing metaphor, as he and Tim Paine, Australia's captain, faced the media at Lord's in their first official engagement of this month's tour of England.
"Everyone talks about this word 'sledging', but there's a difference between banter and abuse," Langer said. "Abuse is no good - it doesn't matter if you're off the field or on the field, there's no room for it ever. But there's plenty of room for banter, or what we call sledging. It's a fun part of the game!
"If I'm playing with my daughter, she wants to beat me big time, so we have a bit of banter, or what we call sledging. She's pretty good at it, all Australians are good at it, we take it so seriously, but that's okay. I never abuse her, and if she abuses me ... there's trouble you know!"
It was all said with a smile on the face, as Langer laid on a charm offensive to diffuse the tension that might have been anticipated - especially in what must surely have been the smallest room laid on for a press conference at Lord's since Michael Atherton faced the music after his own ball-tampering scandal in 1994.
But, after all of the talk of "headbutting the line" when England and Australia last met during the winter (in particular the widely held view that a line was crossed where Jonny Bairstow in particular was concerned), here was Langer's attempt to draw a new line under the issue for Australia's post-apocalyptic world.
His squad, after all, have arrived in England without their best two batsman - Steve Smith and David Warner, banned in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal - and with none of their big three bowlers either; Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are all missing through injury.
Therefore, to take the field at The Oval next week, against the No. 1 ODI team in the world, without recourse to the tongues in their heads would have been an indignity too far, especially for a team that has always prided itself on "playing hard and playing fair", and which is desperate to earn back that reputation after a season defined by some grievous misdeeds.
"We certainly we won't be silent out in the field," Paine said. "We are going to be speaking, we're going to be trying to put pressure on opposition teams and players like we normally do, but there's got to be a respectful element to it.
"We know what's right and what's wrong, so it's pretty simple," he added. "But I'm sure you're going to hear us talking through the stump mic and see us talking on the ground. It's up to me and Justin, and our senior players, to make sure that we start on the side of banter and never go to abuse. While I'm captain and Justin is coach, that is not going to be accepted."
A further Australian grandee will be on hand to help guide a young and inexperienced squad through the rigours of an England tour, with the news that Ricky Ponting, Langer's former captain, has been recruited to the team's support group. Ponting was already due to be in England on commentary duties for the series, but given the huge scrutiny on the tour, not to mention its significance to Australia's defence of their World Cup title in England next summer, Langer felt that his "experiences, tactical expertise and leadership" would be invaluable.
Ponting certainly knows a thing or two about dealing with hostile crowds, having become something of a pantomime villain on his two tours as Australia captain in 2005 and 2009. And Paine was under no illusions about the flak that was about to fly the way of his players.
"We've spoken about this," he said. "We think it's going to be pretty full-on, we expect that when we come to England. All the time we cop a little bit of a ribbing and, this time, we come with a bit more reason for them to do it. But it's one of the challenges of international cricket, and sides get it when they come to Australia, so it's part and parcel of the game."
And yet, for all the focus on the merits, or otherwise, of sledging, it was another and far more damning word - "cheating" - that caused Australia's behaviour to hit the headlines in South Africa. And with that in mind, Paine admitted that his team had arrived in England with a reputation to restore.
"There's no doubt our reputation as a cricketing nation took a bit of a battering from South Africa," Paine said. "It was difficult for the players to come to terms with what happened and what we'd done, but certainly coming to England and having a few new faces, a new coach, and getting back into cricket is a great opportunity to move on and show the world that we have made changes."
But Langer, a hard-nosed veteran from Australia's old school of world-beaters, was unapologetic about what was about to come to pass. And once again, though he spoke with a smile on his face, his subtext was unmissable.
"Even if we are so nice, everyone is still going to think we are still a bunch of rough-edged Australians," he said. "That's just how it's going to be, mate. So whatever, we can go about our business really well, behave well on the field and off the field, but we'll still be called sledging Australians. It's been happening the last 30 years. We'll work with that.
"We have written down our values and our expectations, and that's really important," he added. "But the truth is, and I've said this for 25 years, we can put all the fanciest mission statements and values together, and put the fanciest posters up on the wall, but if you don't live them, they are like toilet paper. The words are irrelevant. It's how we live them all the time that is going to be important."