Justin Langer acknowledges the crowd. His 250-run innings lasted for 578 minutes and 407 balls, one that included 30 boundaries and a six © Getty Images
Justin Langer acknowledges the crowd. His 250-run innings lasted for 578 minutes and 407 balls, one that included 30 boundaries and a six © Getty Images

On December 27, 2002, Justin Langer achieved what many an Australian cricketer would have dreamt of — a momentous performance in a Boxing Day Test. The fact that it came during an Ashes fixture was the icing on the cake. Karthik Parimal takes a trip down memory lane and visits the epic innings, one during which 250 runs were scored.

One man’s loss is another man’s treasure. Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden formed a sound pair, but as the Ashes of 2002 arrived, Slater’s poor form and tiff with powers that be ensured his ouster, thereby duly making way for a certain Justin Langer. In the next 3 Tests, the duo of Langer and Hayden looked incredibly at ease and were just the fit as an opening pair. In due course of time, they were en route to being one of world’s finest opening partners, but it was during the fourth Test, on Boxing Day at Melbourne, the two southpaws stepped up a level. In fact, Langer penned his name with indelible ink on the team sheet at this venue.

A man for all seasons

Prior to the 2002-03 Ashes, Langer had played 54 Tests and, with an average of over 43, was considered by many to be the team’s messiah. Having bailed Australia out on several occasions, while batting at No. 3 and below, he was his captain’s banker. His ability to accumulate runs in adversity stood out, but his place in squad was still not a given.

On December 26, 2002, at MCG that equation took a turn for the better. Langer showed his penchant was not just for pressure-cooker situations, but also big-match scenarios. For an Australian cricketer, few things matter more than a noteworthy performance on Boxing Day, and that during an Ashes series is like the icing on a cake. Langer had his scripts well-rehearsed.

With the Ashes already out of reach, England had little to draw inspiration from. Their previous three defeats in as many Tests were gargantuan, and they walked out with a visibly dented confidence. The Australian unit of that era were masters in the art: teams were beaten even before the first ball was bowled. In Andrew Caddick and Steve Harmison, England placed her trust, but Langer and Hayden were quick to douse the slightest flame of hope. It was the day after Christmas, the morning strikingly different from the previous one for the visitors. For Australia though, the festive atmosphere spilled over. Hayden commenced his innings with a six over deep square-leg, whereas Langer’s first shot was a handsome cover-drive.

Regardless of who opened alongside him, Hayden often played the role of a protagonist to perfection. He tore into some of the finest bowling attacks while his partner was happy to drop anchor. It was a modus operandi that paid rich dividends, time and again. On this morning, however, Langer was in his zone. Hayden characteristically bludgeoned, but Langer matched him shot for shot. Like the erudite late Tony Greig noted from the confines of the commentary box, Langer had enough of playing second-fiddle to Hayden.

Anything pitched full, he pummelled towards the fence. Cover-drives were scored off Caddick, Harmison and Craig White at will. That shot brought up his fifty, too. Thereafter, the bowlers aimed for Langer’s throat with a barrage of short-pitched deliveries, but he pulled with such force that the fielder at long-on could hardly stop the ball from rolling over the ropes; this despite fielding just yards away from it. Nasser Hussain then turned to his off-spinner, Richard Dawson. Nonetheless, Langer’s willow knew no difference. He swept Dawson as nonchalantly and finely as he unfurled his straight-drive. With a flurry of boundaries, he almost caught up with Hayden.

Post lunch, Langer’s aggression was amplified. Dawson was still persisted with by Hussain, and Langer treated him with disdain, stepping out and smashing him over the head, occasionally the umpire’s, with an unforgiving look. Dawson looked more bemused with each passing delivery. Quite clearly, he was clueless, and Langer was fully aware and ready to pick on that. At the other end, Hayden provided no respite, cruising to a ton with no major hindrances, until Caddick had him caught on 102. After an opening stand of 195, the two were separated, but Langer had no qualms despite the hiccup.

Caddick proved futile against him while Dawson was helpless. On 95, Langer nimbly danced down the track and hoicked the off-spinner over the long-on boundary to reach yet another three-figure mark in the series. He punched the air, with almost the same ferocity as his shot, to celebrate the feat. As someone with great revere for Boxing Day and its significance, the moment could not have come at a better time and venue for Langer. As he mentions in his urbane blog, almost a decade after the knock: “There is only one MCG Test match a year and it is not the one you want to be missing out on.”

Justin Langer soaked in the applause after reaching his 200. A minute later he resumed with his usual array of strokes — sweep, straight-drive, cover-drive, pull, the odd hook — all back in play © Getty Images
Justin Langer soaked in the applause after reaching his 200. A minute later he resumed with his usual array of strokes — sweep, straight-drive, cover-drive, pull, the odd hook — all back in play © Getty Images

Tightening the screws

If off-side play dominated Langer’s innings thus far, he soon made up for it by deftly leg-glancing Mark Butcher multiple times. He sped to 150 on the second morning and, hopelessness was now evident on the faces of the frontline and part-time bowlers. Caddick and Harmison chose to bowl short, but their speeds often hovered around the 130 kph mark, which offered Langer ample time to rock back and pull hard. Overpitched deliveries were still continually punished. Wickets of Ricky Ponting (21) and Damien Martyn (17) were analgesic; the pain surfaced sooner rather than later.

At the other end, an irate Steve Waugh went berserk, smashing 15 fours in his knock of 77. Once he departed, debutant Martin Love (62 not out) played the perfect second-fiddle to Langer who, with a lovely backfoot-cut off Dawson, brought up his 200, his second in Test cricket. Taking his helmet off, Langer soaked in the applause. A sold-out MCG was on its feet. After a brief pause, the innings resumed with his usual array of strokes — sweep, straight-drive, cover-drive, pull, the odd hook — all back in play. He wasn’t done yet.

A dab down to third-man took him to 250, his highest score in Tests. The wide smile on his face suggested more was to follow, but a short and wide delivery from Dawson was immediately cut straight to backward point, and into the large palms of Caddick. An innings that lasted for 578 minutes and 407 balls, one that included 30 boundaries and a six, finally came to a screeching halt on the second afternoon. Walking off to a thunderous, reverberating applause, Langer knew he’d sealed England’s fate in this Test, too.

What followed?

Australia declared on 551 after Adam Gilchrist was the sixth batsman to fall. Jason Gillespie took 4 wickets as the English were bowled out for 270 in the first innings, yet again staring at an innings defeat. But a stubborn dig following on, owing mainly to Michael Vaughan’s 145, set Australia a target of 107. Langer could muster just 24 this time around and Australia, with a mini-scare, crossed the finish line with 5 wickets to spare. They were now 4-0 ahead.

Brief scores:

Australia 551 for 6 decl. (Justin Langer 250, Matthew Hayden 102, Steve Waugh 77, Martin Love 62*; Craig White 3 for 133) and 107 for 5 (Ricky Ponting 30; Andrew Caddick 3 for 51, Steve Harmison 2 for 43) beat England 270 (Craig White 85*; Jason Gillespie 4 for 25) and 387 (Michael Vaughan 145, Robert Key 52; Stuart MacGill 5 for 152, Jason Gillespie 3 for 71) by 5 wickets.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)