Little Big Man

I had planned to do this article many times over the past three years or so. The only difference is that it was to be called Pick On The Little Guy. The article was to start this way: “There are four great Australian batsmen in the current test team, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and … Justin Langer.”

This I considered would be a provocative enough opening since I could be sure that at any given time there would be some so called cricket expert baying for Langer’s blood. As a cricket follower of some 40 years, I can think of no player not just so undervalued by the media of his country, but openly undermined by it.

As I write this, Langer has just been dismissed for 191 against Pakistan and is being lauded by those who so recently would have cut his cricketing throat. It has only been since the New Zealand series and Langer’s dual achievements of twenty test centuries and his rise to the top of calendar year test run-scorers that questions about his deservedness to a Test spot seem to have finally halted. Had the Indian tour not seen fellow tourists Hayden, Lehmann and Ponting struggle, there is little doubt the anti-Langer faction would have been blatant. As it was, the criticism was more implicit. In a wrap up of the series, Trevor Marshallsea of the SMH for example drew attention that Langer had averaged 28 in the tests.

There was no further comment, just the figures. No other player had their average mentioned and it was not pointed out that Langer scored his runs when they were most needed. It was not pointed out that Langer’s solidity in contrast to the Indian openers’ fragility was one of the very great differences between the teams. And that is just typical of what Langer has had to put up with. For example, one would be forgiven for thinking that Australia’s marvellous fourth inning victory at Hobart over Pakistan in 99/00 was purely down to Adam Gilchrist. Yes, Gilchrist’s 149 not out off 163 balls was awesome but would he have been able to make that score had Langer not batted for seven hours and seen off nearly three hundred balls in his 127? No, he would not.

Throughout Langer’s career, only Bill Lawry, himself a gritty left-hander, seems to have given Langer his due. Even now as Langer piles on the runs forcing these so called experts to give him due for his achievements, we are seeing them rewrite history rather than admit their errors. According to the revisionist line now being put about, Langer was a dour, inadequate player until given a second chance opening the innings in the Oval Test of 2001. Somehow he transformed himself. Let’s stop this rubbish right here. Prior to that Oval match Langer had proven himself to be a resilient number three with the potential to be the great player he has since proven but there was a push by the likes of Ian Chappell to have Ricky Ponting bat at three and Langer was soon shoved out of the Test team. Chappell was a great underminer of Langer, consistently claiming that Langer was not adventurous enough for the critical number 3 position. Maybe if Chappell and others had not publicly bullied him, maybe if he had been given the same sort of support by selectors as the New South Wales cadre of Slater, the Waughs and Mark Taylor, then Langer would have been a lot more adventurous. In Langer’s twenty test innings prior to his being dropped from the team after the Indian tour of 2000/2001 Langer had scored 875 runs at 46.05 in the traditional cricket average calculation.

I want to get back to the traditional cricket average later. In his previous 20 innings Mark Waugh had scored 710 at 41.76 and Ponting 831 at 51.9. How could one justify dropping Langer on this basis? The fact is, it was not justifiable. Which leads me to the tenet of this article. What was it, or is it about Justin Langer that finds him so cheated. I believe there are four reasons why Langer has been undervalued. Firstly, until after that Oval century he did not seem to possess a cover drive. Australian media have for far too long put store in flashy drivers of the ball.

Paul Sheahan and Peter Thoohey are obvious examples of players who were lauded well above their ability, simply because they played that shot well. Mark Waugh is a classic example of a player rated more for the fluency of his batting than its achievements. Langer on the other hand was a cutter, puller and deflector. However, and this is the main point, who is to say he wouldn’t have shown us earlier what he had, had he not been terrified of losing his place in the team? Langer’s second handicap is that coming from Western Australia he had no parochial voice on the Channel 9 commentary team to talk him up. Similarly in the print media he had no SMH or Age to get behind him and push. His third problem was sheer bad luck, although I believe if we look deeper we might find that there is more to “luck” than meets the eye.

Unlike Michael Slater who got to make his debut against some Pommy trundlers on a flat piece of pie, Langer’s early innings were often against the pace of the West Indies and Pakistan. This meant that he started behind the eight-ball with his batting average. Compounding matters, Langer was run out 4 times in his first 40 test innings. This is a huge percentage and costs a player dearly in batting average. Was Langer a poor runner? More likely, it was because as a youngster in the team he responded to bad calls made by senior players. Steve Waugh and Mark Waugh were his partners in his first two run outs. Even the umpires seemed to have it in for Langer. Most batsmen get the benefit of the doubt, not Langer. Struggling for his place in the team Langer was given out caught behind when he played and missed by a foot, out lbw when he edged a ball onto his pads, out lbw when balls clearly pitched outside the leg stump and even out to a ball that replays showed was clearly a no-ball. Now that his career has extended, things have evened up a little. However, and this is clearly subjective, I still believe Langer has been victim to more bad calls than any other batsman in recent memory.

Maybe the most important reason for Langer’s undervaluation is the actual way cricket averages are calculated. The traditional way as every schoolkid knows is number of runs scored divided by times out. But this statistic provides a lie, with a far too hefty weighting for the “not out” it inflates late-middle order batsmen’s stats and deflates those batting one to three. The true average is simply the amount of runs scored divided by innings. This tells us what a player is likely to have made by the time he comes back to the pavilion, out or not. I believe it is a much more accurate statistic than the traditional average in determining a player’s worth.

Let’s face it, few openers carry their bats through an innings, so for an opener to have a not out it will most likely come chasing a small score in the second innings of a game, usually an innings which doesn’t count much. Langer has had only 6 not outs in his entire Test career. In the current match when Langer’s score reached 150 and Channel 9 shot up a graphic showing Langer high on the list of all time Australian run scorers, Tony Greig immediately requested the table showing batting averages as he believed this is a truer reflection of batting ability.

That table is of course based on “traditional” average calculation and many of us are familiar with it. It shows Bradman at 99.94, Hayden 54.99, Ponting 53.91, Greg Chappell 53.86, Steve Waugh 51.06, Gilchrist 51.06, Border 50.56. Langer at 46.28 seems just a little off the pace. But if one looks at the true average of players one gets a very different picture. If we forget the not outs and simply divide runs by innings then we get this: Bradman 87.45 Hayden 50.84 Ponting 47.21 G Chappell 47.08 Harvey 44.88 R Cowper 44.8 L Hassett 44.53 Langer 44.25 R Simpson 43.86 Walters 42.86 Woodfull 42.59 Lawry 42.55 Border 42.16 Steve Waugh 42.02 K Wessels 41.92.

On the true average, Langer jumps ahead of Steve Waugh and Border. Rarely mentioned players like Bob Cowper and Kepler Wessels, who both batted at the top of the order, can be appreciated more as can Neil Harvey. Another indicative statistic is the median score, that is, the score which players will exceed in 50% of their innings. This is a better mark of consistency than “average”. By median score Hayden is well clear of the current crop of players at 32 but Langer comes in at 28 ahead of such acknowledge greats as Harvey (26.5) Ponting and Boon (26) Morris (25) and Ponsford (23). When you look at all these figures, when you consider the run-outs and the bad decisions he has faced, Justin Langer clearly stamps himself as one of the all time greats.

Isn’t it about time that the so called experts ate some crow? Isn’t it about time that they admitted they were prejudiced and wrong about Langer in the first place? Instead of claiming that Langer has worked hard at eradicating faults in his game, wouldn’t we all be better served, and Langer in particular, if they eradicated the faults in theirs and admitted Langer always had it in him, he just needed a chance to show it?

Article copyright © Dave Warner, 2005