Who will be the next Australian cricket coach — Justin Langer, Jason Gillespie or Ricky Ponting?
By Steve Wilson
Justin Langer has emerged as the leading contender to replace Darren Lehmann as Australia’s head coach. (AAP: Tony McDonough)
The head coach’s seat in the Australian cricket team dugout is currently vacant. The fallout from the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa and the sight of three of his players in tears over it convinced Darren Lehmann to call stumps a year ahead of schedule.
As Cricket Australia begins its search for the man to lead the national team out of the wreckage of Cape Town, who are the candidates in line to replace Lehmann. And what are their chances of being handed the role?
Langer has long been viewed as the natural successor to Darren Lehmann coaching the men’s national team, having already led the side in 2016 for an ODI tour of the West Indies when Lehmann took a break.
A no-nonsense coach of high principles and an uncompromising leadership style, he is viewed in many quarters as the kind of hard task master needed to bring order back to a dressing room. One that was allowed in many observers’ eyes — with disastrous consequences after initial success in terms of results — to become too relaxed and chummy under Lehmann.
The forthcoming appointment is about more than cricket, as Australia looks inwards and considers fundamental issues of behaviour and team culture.
Stories abound of Langer’s firm hand with players. Most recently Darcy Short credits some tough love from Langer — who demanded the talented but unfocused batsman lose weight and get serious or ship out — as turning his career around.
Langer, a devoted Christian, is known to value ethics and respect as highly as he does technique.
Justin Langer has had success as a coach, leading the Perth Scorchers to three Big Bash titles and the Western Warriors to two Shield finals. (ABC News)
The counter argument raised, however, is that with links back to an era when Australia played hard and won more often than not, Langer may not be quite as free from that toxic culture as his advocates might like to believe.
His ruthless commitment to winning, evidenced as an uncompromising opening bat, may, in the current climate, perversely count against him.
His coaching credentials, however, are certainly compelling. The head coach of both the Perth Scorchers and Western Australia since 2012, Langer has led the Twenty20 side to three Big Bash League titles, with WA twice Sheffield Shield runners up under his watch.
As a player Langer was noted for making a stellar international career from talents perhaps less vaunted than some of his world class peers. Those traits of hard work and discipline he showed as a player sit well with the brief of leading the side out of one of its darkest moments.
A gritty, hard-nosed opener, Langer hit 23 centuries with 7,696 runs to his name in total. That and his coaching record would give him instant respect in the change room.
While Gillespie shared a dressing room with Langer during the period of Australian dominance in the 1990s, he has always been viewed as a different kind of character to those around him during his playing days.
And that is something that may appeal to selectors as they seek to forge a new identity for the Baggy Green in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal.
A good-natured, thoughtful man, Gillespie is respected across all cricket cultures, both domestically and internationally.
The brief of shifting the culture would sit comfortably with a man who, while a fierce competitor with ball in hand, has proved a progressive, inclusive figure since retirement.
His coaching CV is also strong. He picked up an underperforming Yorkshire side in England’s County Championship and turned them into twice winners of the competition.
As an aside, with England captained by one of his former pupils at Yorkshire, Joe Root, and well stacked with players from that county, his inside knowledge come the 2019 Ashes may be another tick in his favour.
Having led the Adelaide Strikers to their first Big Bash League victory earlier this year, there is evidence he knows how to construct and shepherd sides in different formats and different conditions, a versatility of value in the modern game.
Gillespie had been a strong contender for the England job before another Australian, Trevor Bayliss, took over in 2015. And with Bayliss’s relationship with English fans strained at present, there is a suggestion Gillespie may yet be on the sidelines in 2019 in opposition to Australia, rather than in charge of them.
Having recently taken over a management role at Sussex, there may be contractual and financial hurdles for cricket Australia to clear, should they offer him the job, but nothing that should prove insurmountable.
Ponting’s success in captaining the side between 2004 and 2011, and near bottomless wealth of cricketing knowledge, has long marked him out as a potential national team coach.
Though he has repeatedly gone on record to say he wasn’t interested in a full-time international role, especially as he has a young family he is understandably keen to spend time with, something the demands of international coaching prohibits.
Extraordinary times can change minds, however. And in Australia’s time of need there is a suggestion he might be compelled to return to right the ship that has gone so drastically off course.
Ponting has had a recent taste of coaching within the national set-up, having been an assistant during last summer’s Twenty20 series against Sri Lanka, as well as the recent tri-series involving England and New Zealand.
The full-time role as T20 coach, with growing enthusiasm for splitting the job between short form and Test cricket, was already pencilled in as his — were it to be created — prior to the events in Cape Town and the subsequent fall-out.
Ricky Ponting’s standing in the game would command instant respect in the change rooms. (AAP)
That might still be the next logical step for him. Though it would first need to be settled if the Test coach was willing to see the roles divided. Or indeed if Ponting can be convinced that now is the time to go all in.
Ponting, currently the head coach of IPL side Delhi Daredevils having led the Mumbai Indians to the title in 2015, would command instant respect within the dressing room.
Australia’s all-time leading run scorer, he is synonymous with success. Though, like others, may be tainted by being an emblem for a culture of pushing the line in pursuit of victory that recent events have called for a dramatic shift away from.
Australia’s current bowling coach has been clear in his ambition to one day lead the Test side. Though the current window of opportunity may have come slightly too soon for him to be any more than a leftfield choice.
However, he has long been building a solid coaching career despite the hindrance — in some people’s eyes at least — of never having played for the national team himself.
He was a fine first-class bowler and is perceived as a deep thinker on the game. He coached Victoria during the 2016-17 season and was a stand-in head coach for Australia during a Twenty20 series in India last year.
As an Australian and former England bowling coach, David Saker has a solid international reputation. (AAP: Matt Roberts)
Having also been a bowling coach for England, Saker is well respected across the international scene.
At a juncture where Australia is intent on rebuilding the side from the bottom up and exacting genuine change, his relative inexperience might be countered by being unencumbered by close association with the disgraced culture of Australian cricket teams of the past couple of decades.
If he does not get the top job, he is sure to be retained in a support role by whoever does.
The current England coach might be keen to return home after a mixed, and physically and emotionally draining, spell leading Australia’s Ashes rivals.
A more low-key, avuncular figure than some other candidates a shorter time in to retirement from playing, he may well be viewed as a safe — and uncontroversial — pair of hands for the immediate post-ball tampering period of rebuilding.
England Cricket coach Trevor Bayliss could be a viable option in the short forms of the game. (ABC News: Tom Wilde)
Though Cricket Australia would need to convince an underwhelmed cricketing public of the merit of the decision, with other contenders closer to supporters’ hearts.
The most likely scenario that would see him switch allegiances back to his homeland would be if the mooted split between white ball and Test roles is actioned.
While Bayliss’s England was soundly beaten in the most recent Ashes series, the one-day team reversed the roles in the series that came immediately after.
Bayliss is seen as one of the best coaches in the world in short-form cricket.
Indeed his success taking Sri Lanka to a World Cup final, two IPL titles with Kolkata Knight Riders and leading the Sydney Sixers in the Big Bash League was the primary reason for England turning to him in the first place.
His chief remit with the ECB was to prepare a competitive side for the 2019 World Cup, to be held later this year in England, which may prevent him from leaving the UK before that cycle has been completed.
As such he remains an outsider for consideration at this time, but may be offered some kind of role after the conclusion of the World Cup.
The long shot
If the decision makers at Cricket Australia are true to their word of seeking a clean break from the machismo and aggressive demeanour of past iterations of the national team, they could make no greater statement to that effect than employing Rogers.
They have already put some faith in his expertise.
Rogers has recently been installed as a high-performance coach, geared towards youth development and long-term planning.
A lack of coaching experience makes his candidacy a long shot on the scale of a Glenn Maxwell straight six, however.
Chris Rogers has the character Cricket Australia might be looking for but limited coaching experience. (Middlesex CCC)
Only in the past two years has he started on what many see as a natural path towards top-level coaching, with work undertaken with English county championship sides Gloucestershire and Somerset.
Rogers’ greatest assets are his character and evidently expansive cricketing brain. Only becoming a permanent fixture in the national team late in his playing career, he was always a man apart from the boys’ club of an in-your-face squad.
A quiet, considered, educated man, he was — and is — well-liked, and respected for making the most of his talent and opportunity when it finally came.
Australian cricket would be foolish to let his cricket knowledge be employed in the commentary box more than the training paddock. Though one for the future more likely than the present.
But with Australia looking for a new way forward, handing the reins to a man of old-school values of respect and honest hard work might be seductive to some.