As Australia commenced their Men’s World Cup preparations on English soil, coach Justin Langer admitted the personal welfare of Steven Smith and David Warner would require sensitive monitoring and handling over the coming months.
The two players joined in the centre wicket practice at Whitgift School, in the suburbs of south London, with a small media contingent and a few dozen fans, mainly children in whites, sat on the grassy banks. It was a quiet and even genteel start to a gruelling four-month tour that will incorporate World Cup and Ashes campaigns and Langer knows more hostile crowds and greater scrutiny will greet Smith and Warner now they have served the bans handed to them in the wake of last year’s Cape Town ball tampering affair.
“Well we can’t control the crowd,” Langer said. “What I do know? It may ramp up, it may heat up, but it won’t be any hotter than it was 12 months ago. I’ve never seen anything like it so the boys are very well prepared. They’ve paid a heavy price and we’re expecting always to come here and to face the fire and we’re ready for that.
“What we’ve got to understand is that they’re human beings as well. There’s not too many I’ve met in my life who like being booed or heckled or disliked so… they’re human beings. We’re going to have to care for them, we’re going to have to put an arm around them and make sure they’re going okay. But what people say, whether it’s in the crowd or social media or wherever, there’s nothing they can do about that, they can’t control it but what we can do is keep an eye on them and make sure they’re going okay as people as much as cricketers.”
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Aside from the expected questions from the media there was little evidence of any lasting effects of a turbulent 12-month period, punctuated by severe recriminations and introspection throughout Australian professional cricket. But Langer suggested both players have shown an understandable eagerness to finally put their exile behind them, from their return to the squad for warm-ups against New Zealand to the squad’s visit to the World War One battlefields of Gallipoli, where they broke their journey to England.
“Dave’s got that look on his eye, he’s really hungry, he’s a great player as we all know, he’s so dynamic, he brings so much energy, and that’s what we ask from our players, Langer said. “You watch Glenn Maxwell field or bowl or bat – he brings the energy. Dave Warner always brings energy to the contest. It’s really nice to have him back.”
“I watched Steve Smith batting against new Zealand in those three practice games, he’s literally a master of the game, so it’s nice to have him back. It’s been hilarious for me because whether on the ANZAC cove or in the lunch room or we’re in the bus playing cards, he’s just shadow batting the whole time. He’s literally – he loves batting, he’s shadow batting on the sand, he’s shadow batting in the shower – I’m not joking. You should see him, he just loves batting. From that point it’s great to have him back.
“From a broader perspective, it’s nice to have them back as well, they’ve had 12 months to have a good think about a mistake they and the team made. I’m sure they’ll be better people for that.”
Aside from his surprising knowledge of Smith’s daily ablutions, Langer believes both players are physically ready as they continue to progress from elbow surgeries earlier this year, although he admitted they are still at partially restricted in the field.
“They both fielded in the three [World Cup warm-up] games against New Zealand. Steve’s in literally career best shape. I mean you just saw a 2K time trial, he’s in great shape and Dave Warner is always elite fit. So in terms of their throwing, they’re building it up. Where they’ve come from, from surgery, I’m really proud of them and they’re up and running. Are they going to throw like Andrew Symonds or Ricky Ponting? Probably not at the moment but they’re certainly working towards that.
“Last week in Brisbane, [Smith] batted beautifully, he played an unbelievable shot off Nathan Coulter-Nile there – it was like watching Sachin [Tendulkar] bat. He’s in pretty good shape I think.”
Of greater concern to Langer is the task of getting his side prepared for their first World Cup match against Afghanistan in Bristol, the reason for their match scenario practice, which saw bowlers asked to simulate specific stages of an innings. After a difficult home summer, Australia embarked on an eight-match winning streak in India and Pakistan and they now have two warm-up games in England to settle on a starting side. The main selection questions centre on how to fit Aaron Finch, Usman Khawaja and Warner into the top three while Coulter-Nile appears to be favoured as the third seamer in an attack also featuring Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins.
The coaching staff will be bolstered by World Cup winners Ponting and Brad Haddin and, while England’s batting has dominated the local cricket headlines, Langer is adamant that Australia won’t be drawn in to changing their tactics.
“We’ve been hearing it for 12 months. We’ve shown if we stick to the formula then we’ll have some success. It’s as simple as that. And when it comes to playing India and England it’s just like match play, we’re just going to have to compete harder and be ready for them. In terms of scores, a lot will have to do with the grounds we play on, the conditions, whether we’re chasing or setting, all those sorts of things but we’re really clear on the game plan. We showed in India and Dubai that, if we stick to it, we’ll score big enough scores to win games of cricket.
“We love our cricket and we’ve been good at it. When everyone says we’ve got to start playing like England or start playing like New Zealand or start playing like India, no – we’ll keep playing like Australia because we’ve won four of the past five World Cups and that’s something to be proud of.
“The boys are aware of it and we know if we stick to the Australian way of playing great cricket… history has shown we’ll be pretty good.”
Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.