Sports Monks

Steven Smith: Justin Langer seeking improvement just as I am

Steven Smith has paralleled his evolving tale as a Test batsman, in which he emerged from a brief run of low scores against India to make the runs in Sydney and Brisbane that clinched his third Allan Border Medal, with the need for Australia’s coach Justin Langer to keep continually improving as a mentor and man manager.

As the world’s pre-eminent Test batsman for most of the past six years, it’s unsurprising that Smith revealed Langer gave him very little coaching whatsoever, aside from an occasional reminder to stay energetic on his feet at the crease. But he credited Langer for maintaining an attitude of learning and seeking feedback, though acknowledging that unvarnished opinions would not always be easy to find.

“I think even if you speak to Justin, you want to be improving all the time as a coach or as a player, so of course there’s things you can always get better at,” Smith said. “One thing that hasn’t been spoken a lot about is how tough a job it is to coach an international team, particularly in the circumstances we’ve been in when we’ve been in bubbles for long periods of time.

“But Justin’s always working hard, trying to improve and get better and we’ve had conversations over the last two weeks since we’ve finished and he’s always trying to get better and better and that’s all you can ask from a coach.”

Langer and Smith’s earliest interactions took place in 2010, when Smith was playing his first Tests for Australia and the coach was a batting assistant seeking to smooth the rough edges of players including him, David Warner and the late Phillip Hughes. Since Smith’s return to Test cricket for the 2019 Ashes, their relationship has been largely a case of the coach keeping out of the way of a batsman in command of himself and his game.

“Justin’s actually said about me before he doesn’t try and coach me too much,” Smith said. “Only every now and again he’ll say something particularly about the energy in my legs and tell me to have a bit more energy and that helps me move my feet a bit better and get going. He just lets me go about my business and do what I need to do. But he’s great around the group, he’s always improving and wants to get better and wants the feedback from the players, and I think that’s really important as a coach.

“Sometimes it can be difficult to get that feedback, you always want to get better, you always want to learn on the job and I think he does that as well as anyone.”

While it would be well beyond the realm of possibility for a player to give his frankest thoughts on the national team’s senior coach and selector during an open media call, Smith responded in the affirmative when asked directly whether Langer had his full support to keep coaching the team in all formats.

“Absolutely, I think he’s done a terrific job over the last couple of years, I wasn’t there the first year, but since I’ve been back I think he’s done a great job,” Smith said. “He always wants to get better and that’s all you can ask of anyone in the setup, whether it be a player or a coach, as long as you’re striving to improve every day, then that’s all you can ask.

“That kind of thing [split coaching] has been floated for a while for different formats and different teams and things like that around the world, not just Australia, so I think it’d be interesting. But Justin’s got my full support at the moment, I think he’s doing a terrific job and he has done for a few years, and I can’t see it changing anytime soon.”

As for Smith’s own evolution, he said the past two summers had been refreshing in their challenges, as New Zealand and then India provided new angles of attack and filed placings that restricted him from some of his usual areas to rotate strike. After two slim Test matches in Adelaide and Melbourne, Smith resorted to a more aggressive mindset in Sydney and Brisbane, running up his first century since 2019 in England in the process.

“Teams are starting to attack me a little bit differently or bowl to me a little bit differently, so I’ve had to make small adjustments,” he said. “At times I’ve had to be perhaps a little more aggressive than I have been in the past. I think I did that pretty well in the last two Test matches here and just coming up with some different plans and different scoring options but continuing to also play the game in front of me.

“There’s times in Test cricket where you’ve got to absorb pressure, time when you’ve got to put the pressure back on the bowlers and try and get on top of them, and I did that well in the last two games, perhaps not as well in the first two of the summer. I felt I learned a bit out of the first two games that I could improve on at the back end. Teams have different plans to me and I’ve got to keep working on my game and I love doing that, I love working hard and finding new ways to do things and getting better.

“It was a great challenge and that’s what Test cricket’s all about, people come with different plans to you and you’ve got to try to counter-act them. It’s been a great learning curve. I’ve loved the last two years of developing and learning and absorbing pressure putting pressure on when I need to, and just continuing to grow as a player.”

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