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Not everybody can be the ‘fun uncle’ – but it’s still important for every team to have one

Justin Langer led Australian cricket from the humiliation of sandpaper-gate to World Cup and Ashes triumphs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the right man to lead for the next four years, writes Michael Blucher

Feb 10, 2022, updated Feb 11, 2022
Australia's Coach Justin Langer during a nets session at The Gabba, Brisbane: (Jason O'Brien/PA Wire).

Australia's Coach Justin Langer during a nets session at The Gabba, Brisbane: (Jason O'Brien/PA Wire).

Gee, this whole JL coaching thing has become a little unwieldy hasn’t it? Getting messier by the day.

Punter and Tugger are incensed, Gilly says it’s garbage, Haydos has slog-swept all the current lot over the fence, Mitch has zeroed in on Pat, calling him gutless, Pup gone into bat for Pat, suggesting Mitch is bowling beamers, Ussie has told Pat to speak up, and through all of it, Warnie’s starting to sound wise.

That’s when we should all be really worried.

Yes, it’s been an ugly exit stage left for the otherwise celebrated national coaching incumbent. Some poor reviews, key critics not happy, a push in the back, and down he goes, tumbling and stumbling into the cold darkness of cricket’s back alley, in amongst the rats and overturned garbage cans.

Should we really be that surprised? After all, ever since the introduction of of the national coach (the one in charge, as distinct from those Warnie reminds us drive the team to the ground), they’ve fallen in similar fashion.

Simpson, Marsh, Tim Nielsen, Mickey Arthur, Buch, Boof – no ticker-tape parade for any of them, no black tie function with a gallery of the game’s greats up on stage, patting them on the back, reminiscing fondly. Just “pack up your cones and kit bag and move on”. Like the tub of vanilla yoghurt at the back of the fridge, you’ve passed your use by date. Out you go.

The purpose of these ponderances is not to bat back and forth the merits of an extended stay at the coaching crease for Justin Langer. As they say on Survivor, another of our most watched reality TV shows, “the tribe has spoken”.

What might be more valuable – examining the inner sanctum of high performance – what works, and what doesn’t. And if it does work, for how long? And at what cost?

Despite the predictable protestations of the old guard – “these blokes are soft, they’re sissies, they can’t cop criticism, they want everything their own way” – I’ll put it you that the current mob are not that different from eras gone by.

What ever the changing nuance and focus of leadership theory, the players are human. In that sense, they are driven by the same neurological needs of their predecessors.

If these needs are met, they are likely to be calm, optimistic, open-minded and self assured. If they’re not, they start to worry, they become narrow minded, they panic, they make rash generalisations, they feel threatened.

David Rock’s “SCARF” model (Google it) It provides valuable insight into the workings of the human brain.

As a lot of elite level coaches will concede, “coaching is coaching”. At the highest level, there’s nothing particularly mysterious about a cover drive or off-cutter. It’s the communicating of the message, the sense of connection, that drives the best outcomes.

One of the key tasks of any leader of course is to keep their charges in that “state of reward”, where they are freed up to perform at their best.

Nobody, outside the immediate playing group, knows exactly what has been going on in that Australian cricket dressing shed – what was missing, what was too much, what was not enough.

But after talking to some mates who’ve been in that environment, one theory worth exploring is the potential absence of a resident “fun uncle”.

Tell me every team environment doesn’t need one – sport, professional, theatrical, somebody in authority, a leader, a senior figure, an assistant coach, even a team manager, to lighten the mood and keep things on an even keel, particularly in pressure situations where self interest and self preservation among highly competitive individuals is most likely to surface.

 

Broncos legend Allan Langer makes a sideline celebration during a Queensland State of Origin victory. (Photo: Wide World of sport)

Why do you think Alfie Langer (no relation, mind you) has lasted at the Broncos for as long as he has? Because he fills the water bottles without spillage? No. It’s because he’s fun Uncle Alf.

 

Wayne Bennett was dour, serious, earnest. Alf is – and always has been – the polar opposite. He’s the vibe guy – that’s the role he plays – as well as being excellent with the water.

The professional world, not just sport, is full of intense, highly strung leaders, working endless hours, willing their charges to be better.

Rugby Union for instance has Eddie Jones. Ten seasons into retirement, some players are still undergoing therapy, on account of being eviscerated by Eddie. “The best coach and the worst coach I ever had,” was how former Wallaby skipper Nathan Sharpe once described Jones – bloody good at getting results, but so intense, he just eventually wore everybody out.

And that’s where a fun uncle can come into play, if (and that’s important) they’re what’s required to provide the necessary counter balance.

Four years ago, within the Australian cricket team, there was probably too much fun-uncling and not enough big-sticking, a perfect environment for somebody like Langer, a self appraised hard task master. He was the change agent. He stepped into the fold and restored pride and standards.

But now that he’s done that, is he the right bloke to lead the charge for the next four years? The tribe at Cricket Australia say no, and that makes sense. Change agents are rarely around for the long haul.

Their biggest error to date was the wishy-washy, face-saving “we’ll give you another six months” offer they made to Langer as they were pushing him out the door. Talk about half pregnant.

In sport as in business, you’re either in or you’re out. You don’t break up with you girlfriend on Wednesday and then ask her to the movies on Saturday night without sending mixed messages. That was feeble, as well as poorly conceived – Langer had every right to be incensed.

Yes, you suspect there’s still a bit to play out with this one. Still a lot of the game greats were haven’t heard from, current players, too.

Aaron Finch, for instance, the captain of the Australian One Day and T-20 teams. Where’s he been through all this? Cummins has gone from Perfect Pat to Poisonous Pat within a week, Finchy’s stock price hasn’t moved. Crickets. Interesting.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to speculate, to offer our views on who’s wrong, who’s right, and who’s been hardly done by.

Where does the truth lie? Probably where it always lies.

Somewhere in the middle. Right beside the fun uncle.

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