Justin Langer’s not-so-dodgy dossier

The former Aussie batsman was right in his assessment of England’s cricketers: they don't like it up 'em.

Duleep Allirajah

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‘English players rarely believe in themselves.’

Thus spake former Aussie batsman Justin Langer in his leaked dossier on the England Ashes team. Ouch! If the dossier had been published after the second or third Test, both of which England dominated, we’d have just laughed it off as Aussie bravado, another loudmouth convict giving it large. But after England’s calamitous collapse at Headingley, the Langer dossier rings painfully true. Just when we thought we had one hand on the Ashes, our boys bottled it. How typically British!

Langer didn’t explicitly brand the England team ‘losers’ or ‘chokers’, but he did highlight the psychological frailty and collective lack of self-belief which revealed itself to the horror of English cricket fans in Leeds. The two batting collapses brought back terrible memories of the dark years of the 1990s when English cricket became a global laughing stock.

Langer wrote that England were ‘great front runners…who will be up when things are going well’, but that they ‘taper off’ when put under pressure. ‘They like being friendly and “matey” because it makes them feel comfortable…In essence this is maybe the key to the whole English psyche – they love being comfortable’, he added. ‘Take them out of their comfort zone and they don’t like it for one second’ (1). In other words, as Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones used to say, the England players ‘don’t like it up ’em’.

Langer’s memo was apparently given to the Australia squad on the eve of the first Test at Cardiff. The Daily Telegraph, which published the document last week, claimed that it would ‘shock cricket followers in this country’ (2). Personally, I haven’t met anyone in shock after reading the dossier. It simply expresses what many England fans already knew and feared: that the typically British trait of choking hasn’t been excised from our cricketing psyche. Former England skipper Michael Vaughan thought that Langer’s assessment was fair dinkum. ‘If I had been asked to write a dossier on English cricket, I would have come up with many of the same points’, said Vaughan. ‘The most worrying aspect flicking through the three pages is that I found myself agreeing with much of it.’ (3)

The Langer dossier and England’s abject surrender at Headingley has thrown the spotlight on the hugely significant role that myth and self-belief plays in sport. Andrew Strauss ruffled a few Aussie feathers when he claimed that the Australian team had lost their ‘aura’ of invincibility. ‘I don’t think this Australian side has got an aura about it’, said Strauss. ‘Prior to this Test series we didn’t feel they had an aura about them and that’s not disrespectful to them because they have a lot of very good players.’ Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting was quick to reject Strauss’s claims. ‘It’s okay for him to say that now, I’m not sure if he was saying that after Cardiff’, he retorted.

Geoff Boycott thought it was ‘silly’ for Strauss to start baiting the Aussies. ‘Statements like that will motivate the opposition’, he wrote in the Telegraph. ‘He will look a real Charlie if England produce another let-down like the first four days in Cardiff,’ (4) Boycott’s worst fears were realised.

But even though Strauss’ words might have been ill-advised, I still think he was talking common sense. The Australian team no longer possesses the fearsome aura that used to surround its all-conquering team. As Strauss said, the retirement of Australia’s big guns has made a difference. ‘The aura came from guys like Warne, McGrath, Hayden and Gilchrist’, said Strauss. ‘We certainly felt that in 2006-07. Even when we had good days, we were thinking what is going to happen now? Is Gilchrist going to blast a hundred or Warne take five wickets from nowhere?’ In other words, even if the Aussies were underperforming, the opposition still didn’t believe they could win. We saw that time again in the 2005 Ashes series. England had Australia on the ropes on several occasions, but struggled to kill them off. Why? It was largely to do with the aura thing. The Australians refused to accept defeat. The English were still haunted by self-doubt.

Self-belief, or the lack of it, is not a genetic trait. Self-belief is a by-product of sporting excellence. If you’ve got talented players, you’ll win cricket matches. The more you win, the more you believe in yourselves. The more you dominate, the more the opposition fears you. It’s a virtuous circle. As Strauss put it, the winning aura ‘only comes with a consistent level of performance for a long period of time’. Similarly, the inferiority complex that seemingly plagues our national cricket team is a product of years of underachievement. We have, in short, become rather accustomed to defeat.

The winning aura doesn’t just apply to teams, but to individuals as well. Ricky Ponting still possesses an aura. That’s why the England fans boo him. He is the player they fear the most. Get him out cheaply and you start to believe you can knock over the rest of the batting order. Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff are England’s two ‘aura’ players. The loss of both men to injury has been a huge blow to England’s Ashes campaign. These are more than mere cricketers. They are talismans, players who inspire belief and fear.

At Lord’s, we saw the Flintoff Effect in practice. Freddie had an impact on the psyche of both teams. His England teammates were inspired and lifted by his example. The Australian batsmen were clearly rattled by his ferocious fast bowling. As a leader in The Times put it: ‘Cricket is shaped by psychology as much as by skill. Andrew Flintoff is like the lion who, when he saunters across the savannah, makes every other animal taut with trepidation.’ (5) Of course, I haven’t got a belief-o-meter to prove it, but I’d wager that Flintoff’s absence from the team sheet at Headingley dented England’s self-belief and eased Australian fears.

The series now depends on the fifth and final Test at the Oval. All the talk has been about change at the top of England’s batting order. That’s all very well, but can you imagine that Aussies will be quivering in their boots at the prospect of having to bowl to Mark Ramprakash, Jonathan Trott or Robert Key? Of course not. There’s only one man who can alter the psychological balance of the series. Freddie Flintoff must play at the Oval or that little Ashes urn is a goner.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) In full: Justin Langer dossier, Telegraph

(2) The Ashes: leaked dossier shows what Australia really think of England team, Telegraph, 8 August 2009

(5) Ashen Faces, The Times, 10 August 2009

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