Justin Langer's baptism by fire
Hello, Test Cricket!
“Since Dennis Lillee in 1981 [when I was 11 years old] bowled Viv Richards on the last ball of the Boxing Day test match and my fellows High-Fiving all around, I wanted to play Test Cricket.”
Justin Lee Langer epitomizes the gritty nature of Test Cricket. Straight in the line of fire against some of the all-time best attacks, he was always up for the challenge. A dedicated player and a team person, he let his bat do the talking for a long time at the top of the order.
In hindsight, it is hard to imagine Langer batting at any position other than the opener slot. But the southpaw walked in at number three in his debut Test match.
Times are different now, the seemingly benevolent Ian Bishop that we hear in the commentary box these days was hardly so in his playing days. He was young, he was feisty, he was breathing fire, he wanted to extend the legendary lineage of pace bowlers of the Caribbean and he wanted the world at his feet. He is perhaps the greatest pacer that the West Indies never had.
Every cricketer who has played Test Cricket will tell you that it is perhaps “THE” most aptly named sport in the world. There are no shortcuts, no freebies and nothing comes easy. The greats of the game have withstood the test of time several times during their career. Test Cricket not only crushes the bones of batsman but it can, at times, crush their soul.
At 22, you have barely figured out the world. Especially when you are thrusted into the Australian national side, against the fiery pace of West Indies on the lively pitches of Australia. The baggy green cap is an articulate seductress but you do remember all your Gods when you are forced to smell the “Paarfume” ball.
No man in his right frame of mind would like to be in the general vicinity of a fast bowler hunting for blood. Especially in an era where the West Indies still had the charm of yore and wanted to negate the 1-0 advantage that Australia had gained in the four-Test Series at Melbourne of The Frank Worrell Trophy, 1992/93.
But such is the nature of sports, you got to beat the man in order to be the man.
Man of the moment
The man of the moment, Justin Langer did not receive a warm welcome to Test Cricket, you had to be foolish to assume otherwise from the pace battery of the Windies. The southpaw marked his international debut against West Indies on January 23, 1993, in the fourth Test of the Frank-Worrell Trophy at Adelaide.
Looking to supersede the total of 252 set by the Windies, Australia did not have the start they hoped. Mark Taylor made the long walk back to the pavilion after contributing only one run and there was a tricky situation with the failing light that Langer and Boon were expected to evade.
The curtain draws away, the drum rolls stops, the spotlight is on the 22-year-old, this is the moment Justin Lee Langer has been waiting for his whole.
As Langer puts it just one day before his debut,
“ In my head, I am smacking Ambrose back over his head for a six”
But reality is stranger than fiction. Time for real action, the dream is now the reality, time to be an Aussie hero. Chop Chop.
Bishop steams in, greets Langer with the perfect bouncer, just where it had to be. The world is drawing to a close as far as Langer is concerned, the eyes shut away as a reflex. He chickens away to the first ever ball he faced in Test Cricket. The ball thuds onto the helmet of Langer as he takes evasive action.
As Michael Holding in the commentary box puts it,
“Not a good blow at all. Took his eyes of the ball, turned his back on it. Not really the correct way to play the short pitch ball”
Bishop later recollected
“I remember running in to bowl to him just before he got hit, and it was so dark and gloomy and obviously you want to test out the new boy in Test cricket, With Justin at the crease I thought to myself, there’s an opening here. He got a good clatter – it was full on the helmet and I was a little bit worried for a while. It was unfortunate. It wasn’t my wish to clatter him on the helmet … but helmets do get in the way sometimes.”
David Boon, the senior pro, walks in to calm the nerves of JL and wraps his big fat arms around the kid.
“Hey, JL! No heroes in Test Cricket son. Retire hurt.”
But you know for better that I wouldn’t be sitting out here and writing this piece on JL had he chosen to retire. JL is not going to be retired hurt on his debut. There is an air of expectation, something has got to give in the gloom at Adelaide. The Adelaide crowd booes but that is hardly going to deter Ian Bishop who was pumped. Is this a sign of things to come?
Yes, it sure is. The going doesn’t get easy for the hosts.
Bishop follows suit with the second ball, bangs in short again, Langer is quick to learn this time, gets out of harm’s way. Hit on the helmet, hit on the ribs – JL looked stubborn and he, along with David Boon, managed to last the evening session without losing a wicket.
A full circle
“Next morning, very early on, Ambrose runs in to bowl and hits Boon straight on the end of elbow and he is really hurt.
"Not only am I tough and a very good player but I am also an opportunist. So I walk down and put my arms around Mr. Boon and say – Hey Mr. Boon! No heroes in Test Cricket son. Retire Hurt!”
Mr. Boon took his advice and decided to call it a day as far as his stay in the middle was concerned. Boon later lend his sweater to JL and told him to hang in there as Test Cricket was never going to get any harder than this. And right he was.
Langer scored 20 but eventually fell to Kenny Benjamin. He came out hard in the second innings and top scored in the Australian innings with a fighting 54 before falling to Ian Bishop.
Though Australia lost the game by a narrow margin, JL went to become one of the most respected opening batsmen in Test and formed a lethal partnership with another southpaw – a big broad guy, a certain Matthew Hayden.
JL, thank you for one of the most memorable debuts and congratulations on a glittering career.