But Langer admitted that when he first laid eyes on the man at the heart of Australia’s fall and rise, he doubted he would ever play a Test, let alone shape history.
It was in Wellington in 2010, immediately after Langer had retired as a cricketer and before he had resolved to become a coach. Asked by captain Ricky Ponting and coach Tim Nielsen to help out, he found himself feeding a bowling machine for 20-year-old Steve Smith.
“I went back to Ricky and Tim and said ‘this kid cannot play’,” Langer told The Analyst podcast. “He can’t bat. I’m telling you, he can’t bat.”
It was Langer who learned. “I thought he couldn’t bat because he didn’t bat like I batted,” he said. “What a mug am I? But what a great lesson in coaching.
“What I’ve learned – a lot of coaches don’t get this – is you must treat every single person differently. You can still have your standards and expectations of the group or the team, but you have to treat everybody differently.”
Fifteen years previously, no less than Don Bradman had said much the same to Langer. Replying within two days to the then rookie Test batsman’s letter, Bradman wrote: “Never become a slave to coaching. Always trust your instincts.”
These days, everyone has thrown off the shackles of orthodoxy, and Langer says: “We over-coach kids. We don’t let them be as natural as possible.”
Now Langer mentors and Smith is the fulcrum of a restored Australian team. In the past 12 months, it has retained the Ashes in England and won all six home Tests. As older results fall off the rolling ICC rankings table – not to be confused with the Test championship – Australia has supplanted India at No. 1.
In T20 cricket, wins for Australia in eight of its past nine internationals have edged ahead of Pakistan, who have been No. 1 for more than two years.
“We have got lots of work to do to become the team we want to be, but over the last couple of years not only have we performed well on the field but we have performed well off it,” Langer said.
“We have earned some respect back from other teams around the world but also from Australia.
“What I am most proud about is when we started on this journey, there had been a lot of talk about Australia wanting to be No. 1 in the world in all three forms of the game.
“We took a different approach. Not once did we talk about being No. 1 ranked in the world. We wanted to be No. 1 in our values and process. That is what I am most proud of.”
Now, Australia is the hunted again, but the rhetoric is unchanged. “I said in my first conference as coach we will know we are a great team if we can beat India in India and that is certainly a great goal for us,” said Langer. “We know they are so tough to beat so only then will we really know we can claim the No. 1 spot.”
Australia is scheduled to host the T20 World Cup in October, but possibly it will be pushed back to February next year. In any event, Langer said the No. 1 ranking was not a guarantee.
“I know how hard it is to win a World Cup,” he said. “England were very deserved winners of the one-day World Cup last year and everything has to go right. You can’t have an off day.”
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.