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'He'll play': Justin Langer on retaining Harris, Starc's injury concern and whitewash goals

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22nd December, 2021
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Australian coach Justin Langer has backed in under-fire opener Marcus Harris to retain his spot in the team for the Boxing Day Test, saying the Victorian is ‘not far off’ turning the corner at the highest level.

Speaking to media on Thursday, just three days out from day one of the third Test, Langer also explained the reasons behind adding fast bowler Scott Boland to the squad heading into the final three matches of the Ashes series; Marnus Labuschagne’s incredible rise to top of the ICC Test batting rankings; and how missing out on the World Test Championship final has given the Aussies an incentive to complete a third 5-0 whitewash in 15 years.

Here is everything Justin Langer said ahead of the Boxing Day Test.

On Marcus Harris

Despite an excellent recent Sheffield Shield record, Harris is yet to translate that to the Test arena. A poor average of 22.19, which drops to just 10.66 against England, has led to calls for the opener to be dropped for the rest of the series.

However, Langer said on Thursday his confidence in Harris’ ability, and the third Test venue being at his state home ground of the MCG, gives him enough confidence to back the Victorian in for at least one more chance to turn things around.

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“He’ll play in the Test, no worries about that,” Langer said.

“This is his home ground, he’s played a lot at the MCG.

“He hasn’t made the runs he’d like to so far, but he dominates domestic cricket, so he knows how to play.

He’s a fantastic bloke around the squad: he’s got a good sense of humour, he brings good energy to the team, and we know he’s a very good player. For him and for us, we’re hoping he plays well and makes a good partnership with Davey Warner in the Boxing Day Test.”

One of Australia’s unwritten golden rules over the years has been to never change a winning side, and Langer is certainly a disciple of that convention.

“We like to back our players in where we can,” he said.

“It’s nice to know people have got your back. That’s one of the most important things in life. My experience: when Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting or Mark Taylor or Allan Border said you’re in the team, you feel like Superman… like you’re important to the team.

“Marcus Harris is important to the team, he’s an out and out opening batsman.

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“We know how good an opening batsman he is in domestic cricket; he’s showed glimpses of it in Test cricket so far. We’re hopeful that he’ll keep kicking on and keep getting better.

“It’s a tough gig, Test cricket, opening the batting. He’s not far off, I think.”

Marcus Harris of Australia leaves the field after being dismissed by Ollie Robinson of England during day two of the First Test Match in the Ashes series between Australia and England at The Gabba on December 09, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Harris is the latest in a long line of openers to struggle alongside David Warner since the retirement of his last long-term partner, Chris Rogers, in 2015. Since then, Joe Burns, Shaun Marsh, Matt Renshaw, Cameron Bancroft, Aaron Finch, Harris, Will Pucovski and Matthew Wade have all been trialled at the top of the order, with varying degrees of success.

Langer said the lengthy list above was another good reason to back in Harris, and enable him and Warner to develop the essential bond all good opening partnerships need.

“Something we’ve talked publicly about and privately about [is] really cementing, not just for the short term but the long term, our opening partnership. We’ve chopped and changed a lot over the last five or six years,” he said.

“Certainly one of the building blocks of a great team is the opening partnership and the top three, and we’re determined to get that right.”

Langer has a long history with Harris, having mentored him as a young Western Australian hopeful back in his time as Warriors coach, and even beforehand.

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However, the coach rejects any suggestion of favouritism when it comes to the under-fire batter.

“I’ve known Marcus since he was about 14 or 15 years old. We both happento be left hand opening batsmen… but that’s our job as coaches or mentors, to help these young guys find their feet firstly, and then prosper in international cricket,” he said.

“We’re really confident Marcus has got what it takes to be a successful Australian opening batsman. What we see in the nets, what we see in domestic cricket, all adds up to what is potentially a very good Test career.

“Let’s hope he starts that off again on Boxing Day.”

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On Mitchell Starc’s fitness

Having stepped up to lead the Australian attack in Adelaide with aplomb following the withdrawals of star pair Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc now finds himself in doubt for the Boxing Day Test.

The left-armer is reportedly batting a rib injury, but having surged back into form with six wickets and 58 runs in the second Test, Langer is adamant that the gun quick will be right to play on Sunday.

“A lot of the bowlers talk about when they come back to Test cricket: they bowl more overs, they jam down on that rib area,” Langer said of Starc’s injury.

“He should be fine, he is that tough. But if he’s not right, then we’ll look at it. At this stage, there’s no indication that he won’t be playing.”

Langer was full of praise for Starc’s efforts at the Adelaide Oval, where he silenced some vocal critics with a brilliant bowling performance. The coach even said player of the match Marnus Labuschagne might have been lucky to receive the gong over the big fast bowler.

“I honestly thought Mitch Starc was almost the man of the match last game,” Langer said.

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There’s been a lot of talk around Mitch Starc for the last few years, but he keeps turning up. He’s an unbelievable athlete, he’s incredibly fit, he’s another one who’s much loved around the team. He’s unbelievable.

“His resilience to just keep coming up over and over and over again is remarkable, really. His consistency of length and the way he controlled the tempo of the game last game was a great credit to him, particularly with Patty [Cummins] and Josh Hazlwood not playing.

“He became the leader of the group and he did a fantastic job. I’d be very surprised if he didn’t get up for Boxing Day.”

Celebrations after Rory Burns of England bowled Mitchell Starc of Australia during the Second Test Match in the Ashes series between Australia and England at The Adelaide Oval on December 17, 2021 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Peter Mundy/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Photo by Peter Mundy/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

However, Langer is confident that Starc can be replaced even if he succumbs to the injury, with the Aussies having managed to do just that with Cummins and Hazlewood missing in Adelaide.

With Victorian fast bowler Scott Boland added to the squad for the Test, the coach says his charges are well prepared should either Starc or Hazlewood, who continues to battle a side strain, fail to recover in time.

“We’ll just wait and see how they [the bowling unit] pull up – we’ve got back to back [Tests]; it’s a tough series, we know that,” Langer said.

“We’ll manage our bowlers as best we can, and we’ll put our fittest and most ready to perform out on the park in Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test match.”

He’s [Boland] a terrific bowler and has had an awesome domestic couple of years, so if he gets the opportunity like Michael Neser last week he’ll certainly deserve it.”

On England’s response to Adelaide loss

After their defeat in Adelaide, the visitors appear to have taken a page out of Langer’s own book to try and fight their way back into the series.

According to The Guardian, coach Chris Silverwood forced the team to rewatch parts of the defeat, with the batters in particular confronted for ‘failures to leave balls in the channel that didn’t need playing at’.

The move is similar to Langer’s famous reaction to Australia’s devastating loss after the Headingley Test in the 2019 Ashes, where he forced the team to rewatch the entirety of the match-winning final wicket partnership between Ben Stokes and Jack Leach.

However, while Langer believes it was the right rein to pull at the time, he is less certain about whether he’d do it again.

“The process was tough at the time. On reflection, would I do it again? I’m not sure,” he said.

“At the time it seemed the right thing to do and it seemed to get the right effect.

“It was the day after the Test match, what you do as a coach is you work things out at the time. I probably would do it again, who knows?”

Langer also spoke at length about his team’s efforts to curb the influence of under-pressure England captain Joe Root, who has found himself in the firing line for his leadership despite a respectable series with the bat so far.

Root has been blasted by many sections of the UK media, as well as by former Australian skippers Ricky Ponting and Ian Chappell, with his revelation that his bowlers didn’t heed his calls for them to bowl a fuller length in Adelaide raising eyebrows.

From a batting perspective at least, Langer admits Root’s wicket remains the biggest prize at all for the home attack.

“It’s always been a philosophy in the Australian cricket team to put as much pressure on the captain as possible,” he said.

“He’s a brilliant player, no doubt about that, and we spend a lot of our time working out how to get on top of Joe; not only because he’s such a world-class player, but he’s also the captain of the opposition.”

However, Langer believes the external noise, and the agony and indignity suffered in Adelaide following two blows to the groin on day four, won’t stop the England run machine.

“Joe Root’s that tough though; he hasn’t got a really big hundred yet but he’s been an excellent player this series already,” he said.

“We’ll continue to do our homework on him and hope that we can keep having good effect with him.”

In defending Root, Langer also hinted that his English batting teammates’ failures are in turn heaping more pressure on his captaincy. Of the top seven, only Dawid Malan has so far performed at an acceptable Test level, with openers Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed and number six Ollie Pope all facing the axe for Boxing Day.

“What I know about Test cricket is you’ve got to have six or seven people performing, not just putting all your attention on one,” Langer said.

“It’s great to see so many of our guys contributing – we talk about partnerships in our batting, we’ve had a couple of really big ones. We’re ticking what we call our whiteboard marks off in terms of batting.

“When you’ve got David Warner playing well, Steve Smith playing well, Marnus playing well, Travis Head playing well, we’ve got Cameron Green and Marcus Harris who haven’t quite made the runs yet, but jeez they’re looking good.

“There’s contribution from all of our guys at the moment.”

On Marnus Labuschagne’s rise to the top

Two and a half years on from his whirlwind entry into Test cricket as a concussion substitute for Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne is now the number one-ranked Test batter in the world.

Langer says he remains astonished at everything the gun Queenslander has achieved since making the most of his opportunity in 2019, and says the qualities that saw him picked for his Test debut in 2018 despite at that stage middling first-class returns have been the bedrock of his rise to the top.

“He’s got an incredible appetite for cricket. He loves it, he absolutely loves it. He loves practicing, he loves batting, he’s as fit as any athlete in Australia, and he’s just a terrific bloke to have around the team,” Langer said of the number three.

“I also knew he had a very good batting coach in Neil D’Costa, who’s worked with Michael Clarke and Phil Hughes in the past. They’re all the ingredients – people who’ve got that energy and love of the game, who’ve no doubt got some natural talent, you like to take a punt on them.

“He astounds us every time. When I watched him bat at the Gabba, England went really hard at him, but the way he played, he stayed calm, and he just continues to get better and better.

“He’s certainly as hungry as ever, he’s working as hard as ever. Let’s hope he continues on this incredible rise.”

D’Costa believes Labuschagne is good enough to reach 30 Test centuries – he currently has six – which would put him equal with Matthew Hayden and behind only legends Ponting and Steve Waugh in Australian history.

While Langer isn’t locking that in just yet, he says ‘the runs will look after themselves’ if Labuschagne maintains his dedication to his craft.

Marnus Labuschagne celebrates a century

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

“It’s a tough business, but all he can keep doing is keep doing what he’s doing: preparing well, the outcome usually looks after itself,” he said.

“If he keeps playing for a long time and he keeps looking after himself like he does, then the runs will look after themselves, I’m sure.”

On Usman Khawaja’s chances of a recall

Backing in Harris means that Usman Khawaja appears certain to miss out on a Test recall for the summer, having been the reserve batter for the entirety of the Ashes series thus far.

However, Langer said Khawaja’s ability to handle such a setback, along with his versatility and experience at the highest level, were just as important to his selection in the squad than his truckload of domestic runs in recent months.

“The reason ‘Uzzy’ came in is: one, he’s very adaptable player, he can play in all positions,” Langer said.

“He’s opened in the past, he can bat in the middle order. As I’ve said to all our guys for four years, you’ve got to stay ready, you never know when the opportunity’s going to come. Stay ready, stay ready, stay ready.

“‘Uzzy’s’ so experienced, he’s a calm head, he’s fantastic around the group, the boys love having him around. He’s got to stay ready like all the players.

“There’s plenty of talent in Australian cricket; we can only pick 11 at a time, unfortunately. It’s nice to have some real depth and some talent knocking on the door.

“That’ll be the message to ‘Uzzy’, and he gets it.”

On managing Cameron Green

Used only as a last resort on day five in Adelaide as England pushed for a draw, Langer has defended the Aussies’ handling of young all-rounder Cameron Green in the series so far.

At just 22 years old, Green is seen as a future Australian star with both bat and ball, and despite mediocre returns with the bat thus far this series, his bowling has given the Aussie attack an extra dimension.

Langer has admitted that he has been ‘surprised’ to see so much conjecture over captain Steve Smith’s use of Green on the final day.

“He [Green] certainly wasn’t told not to bowl; as a young guy who did extremely well to bowl three days back-to-back, as part of fast-bowling management it seemed to make sense,” the coach said.

“We always had him up our sleeve and he came back beautifully.

“With a young player like him who’s got enormous talent and potential and has had the injuries he’s had, you’ve got to manage him really well. It was as simple as that, really.”

Given Australia’s shaky recent history with fast-bowling prodigies – both Cummins and James Pattinson struggled with injuries for years after winning player of the match honours on debut in 2011 – Langer maintains a cautious approach with Green is the way to go, especially given his almost limitless potential.

Cameron Green celebrates.

Cameron Green celebrates the wicket of Joe Root on day three of the second Test. (Photo by Sarah Reed – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

“What we saw with his bowling was that exciting – he’s had a couple of stress fractures in his back, he’s only 22 years old,” he said.

“If you look at the research on young fast bowlers, you’ve got to look after them. We’ll just manage him through, use common sense and care for our players as much as we possibly can.

“We thought we were in a position [to not bowl him]; England fought valiantly the other day on that last day – it went deeper than we were hoping.

“I wouldn’t be making too much of that, except for the fact that we’re managing and caring for our players, especially our young players, as best we can.”

On Melbourne’s COVID-19 restrictions

Melbourne’s more stringent rules than other states around COVID-19 – plus the sensational loss of Pat Cummins after becoming a close contact on match eve in Adelaide – has left the Aussies walking on eggshells leading into the Boxing Day Test.

Cricket Australia have lifted their biosecurity protocols to Level 4, which essentially forces players to stay in the team bubble in the lead-up to and during the match.

Langer says while the situation isn’t ideal, the carrot of an Ashes Boxing Day Test, and their experience in dealing with quarantine situations around the world, means it can be dealt with.

“We’ve been living this life for some time now, and I think guys will just use some common sense,” Langer said.

“If the Australian cricket captain’s ruled out from a close contact, there’s only 11 spots in the team and all the boys want to be part of those, and a Boxing Day Test against England in an Ashes series… I think they’ll be using their common sense.

“It’s a shame, hopefully one day we’ll get back to what we call ‘normal living’; but at the moment we’re doing our best to stay calm, enjoy the experiences we’ve got, and live within the current climate.”

On a series whitewash

An over-rate penalty in last year’s Boxing Day Test loss to India ended up costing Australia a World Test Championship final berth.

The team that tipped them out, New Zealand, would go on to stun India in the final to claim the crown; Langer says the pain of missing out is fuelling his team to not rest on their laurels even if the Ashes are secured in Melbourne.

“We were envious of New Zealand and India that we weren’t there [in the final] last year; it was a goal that we didn’t achieve, unfortunately,” Langer said.

However, he maintains that the Aussies won’t be getting ahead of themselves, despite difficult upcoming overseas assignments against Pakistan and India in the not-too-distant future.

“Every Test match is important: we know we’re entertaining a lot of people around Australia,” he said.

“I can’t believe how many messages I get from people all around saying how much they’re enjoying the Test series, how much they enjoyed the World Cup in this period of COVID. It’s great for us to be out on the park.

“I hear a lot about what could happen in this series, but also how quickly things can turn around. We’re just going to concentrate on doing as well as we can on Boxing Day, and then we’ll think about Sydney and Hobart after that.

“I know how quickly things can change, and everyone in the squad knows that and respect that. We respect that Test cricket’s tough, we respect that England have got a number of very, very good players in their team.

“The mission was to win the Ashes in Australia: we’ve won two Test matches, we’ve got one to go.

“Hopefully from our point of view, that happens this Test match.”

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