Australia’s coach Justin Langer insists his team will refuse to allow themselves to be drawn into a battle of fire-and-brimstone pace for the Ashes in the wake of Jofra Archer’s trail of destruction at Lord’s, forcing Steven Smith out of the Headingley Test with concussion and generally shaking up the touring batsmen in ways they had not fully expected prior to the series.
Langer’s words underlined how deeply Australia have committed to a blueprint for winning the urn in England for the first time since 2001, and also suggested that Mitchell Starc‘s fiery spell in the nets at Leeds, clean bowling David Warner and then striking Marnus Labuschagne in the helmet grill after the fashion of Archer on the final day at Lord’s, would not push him ahead of James Pattinson in the queue of fast men to refresh the touring attack.
At the same time it also offered the possibility of retention for Cameron Bancroft as Warner’s partner, with Labuschagne’s fully fledged inclusion the only change to the batting line-up. “We know what our plans are to beat England. What we’re not going to do is get caught up in an emotional battle of who’s going to bowl the quickest bouncers,” Langer said. “We’re here to win the Test match, not to see how many helmets we can hit. And that’s the truth, we are literally here to win the Test match and we have our plans on how we think we can beat England.
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“Mike Atherton said a really interesting thing to me the other day: ‘It seems a really different Australian team, in the past you puff your chests out, you grow your beards and you’re all tough and see if you can bowl as fast as you want. This isn’t as macho as before.’ We’re here to win the Test match, not to see how many bruises we can give, that’s not winning Test matches, trust me, you can’t get out with a bruise on your arm.
“So we’ll pick the team we think will win it, this is a different ground, we think the wicket will be quite slow, it’s not going to be as fast as some of the other wickets we’ve seen, my understanding of everything we’ve been told about playing here. So I’m sure the bouncer will still be part of every bowler’s armoury, if it helps us get batsmen out then we’ll use it, otherwise we’ll keep sticking to the plan.”
One of the hardest things for a touring team to do in an Ashes series is to stay the course of whatever plans had been set, in the face of on-field pressures, internal demons and the unrivalled level of outside “noise” emanating from former players, media and the public. “We keep talking about it … you’ve got to play on skill, not emotion,’ Langer said. “And it’s hard for young players, even senior players.
“You can get caught up in the atmosphere, you can get caught up in the contest. But it’s not an ego game – you’ve got to just keep trusting your skill, keep watching the ball like a hawk. I keep saying simplify as much as possible so we’re winning on skill not emotion. But it is a challenge. That’s the challenge of mental toughness, that’s the challenge of concentration, that’s the challenge of what the champion players do over the good players. The only way you get better at it is by being exposed to it and I’m sure we’ll be exposed to it this series.”
That being said, Langer did concede that Archer’s pace had made a difference to the series in that it now meant Australia’s batsmen in particular would need to, at times, fall back on the lessons learned from playing many matches against fast bowlers on bouncy pitches back home, as opposed to the seam and swing challenges billed before the series as being the touring team’s biggest obstacle to success.
“Our guys play a lot of short-ball cricket in Australia. We tend to play on bouncy wickets. We play on the WACA, we play on the Gabba,” Langer said. “So they’re used to playing off the back foot, and I’m sure they’ll prepare accordingly. England will be the same, I’m sure they’ve got plans how they’ll get our batsmen out, not just knock them out, so they’re working hard on it. We know Jofra’s a very good bowler, we saw what he can do the other day.
“We know Stuart Broad’s a brilliant bowler, we know Chris Woakes is really hard work, we’ve seen how Stokes comes in and runs in with that energy and passion every time he plays, so we know we’re up against it, and we’re really going to be ready for that. We have to be, otherwise we won’t win the series. We’re expecting James Anderson to swing the ball, seam the ball and we’re going to have to be really tight in our defence.
“He [Archer] certainly brings a different dimension to the game and we saw he bowled quick, but also his economy rate was incredible, I think he went for just over one run an over, that is unbelievable bowling, it’s skilful bowling and he bowled some fast bouncers in between. That’s Test cricket, that’s what we love about it, that’s what gets you, you know you’re awake, you know you’re alive when you’re facing fast bowling. That’s what Test cricket’s all about, it’s bloody brilliant.”
The other significant change to the series at Lord’s was the inclusion of Jack Leach as England’s spin bowler, with his resultant combination of economy and wickets allowing Joe Root to turn up the pressure on the Australians to a huge degree. Moeen Ali’s eclipse by Nathan Lyon had given Australia a marked advantage both batting and in the field, but Leach’s Lord’s effort meant that Lyon was outbowled by an England spinner for a rare occasion since the retirement of Graeme Swann.
“He gives them another dimension, England, with a specialist bowler,” Langer said of Leach. “I mentioned before the second Test match I thought the Lord’s wicket looked very dry. I think this will be similar actually. With the footmarks that will come at our left-handers they’re going to have to be on top of their game. Again, like facing Jofra’s bouncers, we’re going to have to have a really good plan of how we’re going to face him bowling out of the rough. That’s all part of the test of playing Test match cricket.”