Ashes 2019: Australia return home with the trophy they cherish most – so what next?
Four days after Ben Stokes’ Headingley Miracle, which kept the Ashes alive, Justin Langer sat in an empty commentary box as Australia started their three-day game at Derbyshire. He hadn’t been on deck when the tourists visited Worcestershire after the successful First Test but he had a job here during this otherwise cruisy fixture. But it had nothing to do with either the shock of what had happened at Leeds, nor anything that related to that ongoing task. Rather, he spent the day taking meetings with senior players about next October’s T20 World Cup.
Such is the existence of a full-time international coach. Cricket has never been a particularly good game for finish lines and with three formats to consider, not least when the person in charge is away from their own bed upwards of 300 nights per year. In this relentless world, teams do the best they can when it comes to planning. They squeeze it in when they can.
It is England who are now the gold standard for long-term vision, in limited-overs cricket, on the basis of their World Cup win. It was a trophy they had never won until this year, administrators immediately turning their attention to 2019 when they were bundled out in 2015. They were mindful, too, that the tournament was being played on home soil. It’s much the same for Australia in 2020, hosting the short-form spectacular for the first time, the one white-ball trophy that they have failed to secure.
Due to the vagaries of how he assumed his current position following Darren Lehmann’s abrupt resignation, Langer did not get the chance to do an awful lot about their World Cup tilt this year. Their thrashing in the semi-final to England stung, but on the basis of that relatively modest lead time – and dreadful form in 50-over cricket since 2015 - it was a conclusion they could accept and move on from. This was an Ashes summer, after all.
That Australia had not got the job done in England since 2001 in the traditional form of the game steered their focus too, Pat Howard, the former high-performance tsar, credited with putting a series of building blocks in place for this trip two years earlier. Both teams have been rewarded for their spadework, leaving this marathon season with the prizes that meant relatively more to them due to earlier failings.
But here’s the trick for Langer. Yes, winning the T20 title at the MCG in front of 100,000 people would be a considerable achievement for Australian cricket. But if that comes at the expense of a still-fragile Test team, as it so palpably did this year for England, then will it be worth it? Cue the spinning plates of a tricky home season ahead, starting barely moments after the players disembark with the start of the domestic 50-over competition.
As Langer explained in his post-Ashes debrief, he knows the short-form focus is integral. Equally, he sees the bigger picture about the team-at-large having to grow as senior players so to even out volatility in their performances. “That probably comes with the maturity of the group,” he explained. “To fight back from a tough loss is admirable but also over the last couple of years, we haven’t necessarily performed at our best after a win. Really good teams do that. We didn’t do that too well after the first Test at Lord’s. We didn’t do it after Manchester.”
Langer observed the “hollow” feeling they leave England with after tour months having not stuck the landing at The Oval in the Fifth Test, but still appreciates the success of the overall mission when considering the base they were coming off at the start of 2019. Then, they had been thrashed by India on home soil for the first time ever in a Test series. Now, they have a bowling machine to die for. Crucially, it has been recalibrated in a way that has focused on keeping as many of the bowling staff at full fitness through rotation rather than bowling them until they break down.
If finding room in the team for a slew of superb bowlers is a good problem to have, a less happy poser is how to put together a top six that can bat with Steve Smith for long enough. There is no papering over the fact that there were three changes to Australia’s top six during the series or that by the end of it, Usman Khawaja and vice-captain Travis Head were on the bench. Even Marnus Labuschagne, who Langer is thrilled with the progress of, might not have won an opportunity until deep into the series if not for Jofra Archer knocking out Smith. Matthew Wade did, however, pay off. Two Ashes tons are two Ashes tons, the classy hands surely enough to guarantee a full summer on friendly, home surfaces.
Which brought Langer to David Warner. “He thought way too much about it,” the coach said of his beleaguered opener, dismissed a record seven times in ten hits by Stuart Broad, tallying just 95 runs along the way – a hideous set of numbers by any measure. “He’ll be very relieved he gets on the Qantas flight and doesn’t have to face Stuart Broad for a while I reckon.”
Australia return Down Under with the trophy they cherish the most (PA)
But that shouldn’t be mistaken for the ground being laid for Warner’s dumping – anything but. Langer was quick to issue a reminder about his earlier prolific run-scoring in 2019 before the Ashes. After all, this is a player who clocked 20 Test tons in quicker time than Viv Richards. The last time he had a true stinker of a tour in 2017 in India, floundering against spin, he returned to the subcontinent later in the same year to score two of the Test centuries he is most proud of in Dhaka and Chittagong.
“I’ve learned over a long period you never write off champion players,” Langer put it. “He’s had a tough series, no doubt about that, but he’s also a champion player so usually with champion players they get a bit more time to come good. He had this series, it didn’t go to plan, but he’s seen how successful he’s been and the impact he can have on Australian cricket teams winning so I’m confident he’ll come good."
So, some 123 days after their arrival, the Australians depart with the trophy they cherish most and a measured spring in their step. Perhaps just as importantly, the sandpaper drama now really has been put behind them. They may be a long way from dominating as they did for a generation from the mid-1990s, but they are, at last, back in business. Now for the next bit.