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Survival of the fittest for Justin Langer's Australia

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When Australia’s players sauntered in one after the other to complete their customary 2km time trial at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane last month, some got quite a shock when they were immediately asked to do a series of short sprints to test their endurance.

This extra stretch of the players was no surprise to those from Western Australia, where Justin Langer‘s insistence on higher fitness and training standards had been a hallmark of his work in the state ever since becoming coach in late 2012. But there were others who were not used to the extra exertion, and were quickly left in no doubt that things had changed from whatever they had been used to for state or country.

“Over the past five years we’ve done a lot of that in Western Australia but to be fair that has backed off and he does work on the principle of common sense so we’re not going to be doing anything over the top,” Ashton Agar, one of the WA-based ODI squad members, has said of Langer. “I think being physically fit certainly helps your mental state and that’s what he’s all about. One of his biggest things for the players is discipline, and the fitness side of things certainly helps.”

ESPNcricinfo has learned of at least one player being given a stern talking to by Langer about general fitness and the need to improve his endurance, as part of a wider theme that will doubtless be carried through all the way from Brisbane in May 2018 to England for the World Cup and Ashes double a year from now. Langer has made it patently clear already that he wants thoroughbreds capable of staying mentally sharp despite fatigue, with rigorous physical preparation a key part of his outlook.

As he stated on the day he first addressed the team in Brisbane: “To me it is really clear. You need good athletes. You have to be able to field well and be really fit to run hard between the wickets. We have to take responsibility with the bat. We have probably got away from that the past year or so. Our ranking would suggest that.”

While much has been written and said about the still evolving area of fast bowling fitness, Langer’s link between fitness and “taking responsibility” as batsmen was significant. Quite apart from the technical demands of batsmanship, which are also being addressed by coaches at the NCC, the physical hardness and endurance required of those who bat for long periods is an area getting plenty of attention.

It is being backed up by plenty of empirical evidence, including the findings of GPS collections taken in recent times that indicated any batsman scoring more than 90 in an ODI is likely to cover anywhere between 11 and 13km between the wickets. Such a load is not dissimilar to a pace bowler getting through 10 overs while also fielding.

One of the guinea pigs for the 2016 GPS data was David Warner, clocked at 12.6km for his innings of 109 against South Africa at Warner Park during the Caribbean triangular series that year. It is one of the ironies of the Newlands scandal that the bans for cheating have shorn Langer of three players in Warner, Steven Smith and Cameron Bancroft who were all noted hard trainers with plenty of endurance. The way Warner had changed his body shape and built his endurance between 2012 and 2018 was something that Langer, among others, had admired even if they did not always agree with other elements of his behaviour.

“He’s a really good young bloke and he made a mistake,” Langer has said of Warner. “I love the way he plays his cricket. The way he runs between the wickets, the way he fields, the way he bats – they’re things that for the less-trained eye, you might not respect as much. Has he got areas to get better at? Yep … we’ve all got areas we can get better at.”

Getting better was of course something at the forefront of Langer’s mind when he became the coach of the Warriors and the Scorchers in late 2012 amid plenty of indiscipline and disunity in the state. Among the lessons Langer took from his stint as an assistant coach for Australia over the preceding four years was the importance of not only a strong fitness base but also training for volume, as recounted by Alex Malcolm for Cricket Mentoring:

“In the lead up to the first test at the Gabba Australia’s captain Michael Clarke was struggling with his ongoing back problems. The medical staff had advised him to limit the amount of batting he did in the lead up. Langer said Clarke ignored the advice and hit somewhere in the vicinity of 400-500 balls on each of the three days leading up to the test match, including the day prior to the game starting.

“What he had done in practice was train his body and his mind to bat for long periods. If you train in one-hour sessions all the time you will train your body and your mind to switch off after an hour. Is it little surprise then that you fail to kick on after batting for an hour in a match? It shouldn’t be. This was eye-opening to me. I would hit balls four or five times a week but never for more than an hour or 90 minutes. Most team training sessions batsmen generally only get 10 minutes in a net against bowling and have a few throw downs on top of that.

“So I tried some two-hour plus sessions the following winter, hitting 10 buckets instead of four, 400 balls instead of 160. The result was six of my next eight 50-plus scores [for Subiaco-Floreat in Perth first grade] were hundreds.”

For Malcolm, this sort of volume sat alongside physical training, based largely around the running of short repeated sprints to replicate running between the wickets. With WA, Langer emphasised a similar kind of regime with plenty of emphasis on personal responsibility. In many ways it replicated the sort of discipline Bob Simpson first brought to a then struggling Australian side, shorn of talent by the South African rebel tours, in the mid-1980s.

Tom Moody has recalled the fact that ahead of the 1987 World Cup in India, the Australians arrived earlier than most and trained for the sort of endurance that was to help them outlast all comers and claim the Cup.

“There were no prisoners,” Moody said. “He didn’t miss anyone with regards to practice and making sure it was done at a very high level. He had an enormous influence in where Australian cricket is now. Because we were so far ahead of our opponents in terms of how we prepared, how hard we worked, and he built a very strong foundation.”

The WA foundation Langer set in terms of physical preparation was to be backed up by results, particularly in terms of the state’s ability to produce long innings. Over the five seasons from Langer’s first full summer in 2013-14 to that just completed, WA batsmen compiled 51 centuries between them, six clear of the next best in Victoria. The number of balls faced by WA batsmen, 49,119, was a wide margin ahead of the sixth placed state, NSW, with 45,936.

More tellingly, the fruits of Langer’s demands were shown in a notable spike from season one (seven centuries) to two (18), before levelling out in seasons three (12) and four (10) and then finally dropping off last summer (five). Langer’s contract with Australia is for four years. Over that period, Adam Voges and Bancroft were equal most prolific centurions in the Shield with nine apiece, sharing the mantle with Callum Ferguson. Notably, South Australia employed the former Adelaide Crows fitness coach Stephen Schwerdt to raise the fitness levels of the Redbacks, reflecting a broader trend towards more exacting standards.

Tasmania, too, has pushed this line, with the coach Adam Griffith – a former assistant to Langer in WA – requiring his players to turn up for the start of preseason training in the sort of trim they might have traditionally hoped to get into by the time Hobart’s winter began to thaw. This is not only about higher standards but also more efficient training: a player needing to spent less time in the gym or on the running track has more time to work on technique. And as the new Australian captain and fellow Tiger Tim Paine said in London, the Australian players’ realisation about the fitness component of the new regime is a recent development, even if the 2km time trial is not.

“The style of cricket we want to play we realise we want to be a little bit fitter, for our little things, our running between the wickets, having a really high intensity for 50 overs in the field,” Paine said. “So we realise we have to be a little bit fitter than what we have been to play at the intensity for as long as we have. In terms of the 2km time trials and testing and all that stuff, that’s always been a part of our programs, it’s just that I think now guys actually buying into it and seeing that it is more important because of the style of cricket we want to play.”



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