Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo
In May 2020 Australia were ranked No.1 in Tests and T20Is. The Test team had retained the Ashes away and won seven consecutive Tests at home. They had also won four consecutive T20I series including away victories in India and South Africa. Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit they have lost five consecutive T20I series and a home Test series to India with reports of tensions between coach Justin Langer and the players running rampant in the media. Here's how it unfolded.
Australia toured England for three T20Is and three ODIs with a full-strength squad, their first assignment since Covid-19 halted world cricket. In the first T20I they needed 39 runs from 39 balls with nine wickets in hand and lost. Australia also dropped the second game to lose the series but won the dead rubber. They then won the opening ODI before succumbing to another batting collapse from a winning position in game two. Langer gave the group a verbal lashing post-match for not learning from their mistakes in the opening T20I. It secured the desired response in the decider with Australia pulling off a stunning chase off the back of twin centuries from Glenn Maxwell and Alex Carey to win the series, which the coach described as one of the best series wins he's been involved in.
Australia thumped India in the first two ODIs of the home summer thanks to two masterclasses from Steve Smith to win the ODI series with a game to spare.
December 2020-January 2021
Injuries and the need to rest players from the biosecure bubbles saw Australia lose the T20I series with Aaron Finch, David Warner, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Kane Richardson, and Marcus Stoinis missing matches. Australia were back to full strength for the Test series and won the first match in Adelaide when they bowled India out for 36. But they lost the series from there against a second-string India side with Virat Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ravindra Jadeja, and R Ashwin all missing the decider at the Gabba. Australia's batters failed twice in Melbourne, they dropped critical catches on the final day in Sydney to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory, before the bowlers ran out of gas at the Gabba with Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant engineering a famous chase to claim the series.
Reports emerged in the Nine papers in Australia of tensions boiling over between the players and the coach during the Gabba Test match suggesting players were concerned about the team environment. Langer was shocked by the media reports but said it was "a wake-up call".
Australia then had to select two squads for simultaneous Test and T20I tours in South Africa and New Zealand respectively. Langer was to take charge of the Test squad while senior assistant Andrew McDonald was tasked with leading the T20I squad. A first-choice Test squad was chosen but the tour of South Africa was abandoned due to Cricket Australia's concerns over South Africa's biosecurity protocols. Australia lost the opening two games in New Zealand before Finch and Maxwell stood tall to level the series at 2-2. But the batting failed to fire in the decider and they lost the series 3-2.
Langer joined the contracted players at a pre-tour camp on the Gold Coast ahead of back-to-back limited-overs tours of the Caribbean and Bangladesh. The findings of an internal review into Australia's performance against India, conducted by leadership consultant Tim Ford, were presented to the group. Langer addressed the findings with the players, something Finch described as "confronting" for the coach but Finch the meeting was successful and the group was "behind him 100 percent".
Australia toured the West Indies for five T20Is and three ODIs minus, Warner, Cummins, Smith, Maxwell, Stoinis, Kane Richardson, Jhye Richardson, and Daniel Sams who all withdraw due to bio-bubble fatigue or injury following the postponement of the IPL. Australia's selectors opted to leave Marnus Labuschagne in England and Cameron Green at home and a host of others with international experience weren't selected. The T20I team again disintegrated from a winning position in the first game of the tour and loses the series 4-1. Finch suffered a knee injury and was forced to withdraw from the ODI series. Carey was promoted to captain one of the most inexperienced ODI teams Australia has ever fielded and they claim a series win 2-1 despite the series being interrupted due to a Covid-19 scare.
Australia traveled to Bangladesh without Finch who headed home to have knee surgery. Matthew Wade took over as captain but the side capitulated on difficult batting surfaces to lose the series 4-1. They would have lost 5-0 save for an onslaught from Dan Christian in the third game and were bowled out for 62 in the last match.
Two days after Australia arrived home, with the players and staff in hotel quarantine, the Age published a report of an incident that took place in Australia's team hotel during the Bangladesh tour. Australia team manager Gavin Dovey was involved in a heated exchange with Cricket Australia's digital journalist who was inside the Australian team's bio-bubble as part of the touring party. Dovey was upset that a video had been posted on Cricket Australia's website of Bangladesh celebrating their first-ever series win over Australia. Langer, a close confidant of Dovey's, spoke briefly but firmly to the journalist in the immediate aftermath before the pair cleared the air the following day.
The report sparked a flurry of media speculation about Langer's coaching style and of tensions between the coach and the players resurfaced. Finch said the leaks from the dressing room were "disappointing" and "not a good look."
It led Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley to issue a statement supporting Langer and confirming he would continue on through the T20 World Cup and the Ashes. Hockley and CA chairman Earl Eddings held an emergency zoom call with Australia's three playing leaders Tim Paine, Finch, and Cummins to discuss the tensions with the coach.
Paine spoke on his SEN podcast two days later vowing that the players would work with Langer for the summer ahead.