From the aftermath of their 2018 ball-tampering meltdown through to last summer’s Ashes defence, Australia’s male cricketers were followed by a camera crew. Net sessions, team meetings, coach journeys, the dressing room – hundreds of hours of access-all-areas footage were shot inside the team bubble.
Those 16 months have been edited into an eight-part documentary series for Amazon Prime entitled The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team, which begins this week. It is a hefty slab of work, the production values of which point to the director Adrian Brown’s team being deft operators and remind you how burnished cricket’s televised coverage is.
As the board with the most voracious in-house media arm and two home broadcasters, Cricket Australia was always likely to be first in subjecting its players to the fly-on-the-wall treatment. One motivation may have been its self-policing nature, given the team’s stated mission to win back the public it let down, although the idea was rumoured to be kicking around the CA offices before Cape Town.
Not that the end product draws on that time. After a swift recap of the officially isolated sandpaper caper – and the ensuing bans for Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, plus Darren Lehmann’s resignation – we begin with Justin Langer’s unveiling as head coach. He and the captain, Tim Paine, then lay down a fresh code for on-field behaviour in episode one, before the one-day team receives a 5-0 mauling in England.
From this punishing start the team are tracked as they negotiate a sweaty Test series defeat by Pakistan in the UAE and then a media-frenzied home summer in which Smith and Warner’s absence is truly felt as Virat Kohli’s India prevail 2-1 in the Tests. We watch an ODI revival against the same opposition before the main course: their path to the World Cup semi-final and the Ashes campaign.
Along the way there is plenty of talk about rebuilding trust, “mateship” and reminders of the difference between what Langer calls “Anzac” banter and outright abuse. But any soul-searching about the events that led up to Cape Town – or, more broadly, how the team came to find themselves so disliked by that point – is largely kept to a minimum.
Indeed after their tears at the start, the names of Smith and Warner are scarcely heard until their reintegration in the sixth episode: a pre-World Cup team meeting in Dubai, before a trip to Gallipoli, where the former shares previous doubts about his return and the latter says it feels like he’s never been away. The viewer knows a good deal more was likely said, either in the team room or the bar that evening.
But then this docu-series, co-produced by CA and the media company Whooshkaa, has laid out its intentions by this stage: this is not about the bad thing per se, solely the road to redemption thereafter. Like the kangaroo and emu embroidered on the crest of the revered Baggy Green, backwards is not the intended direction of travel. “CA and all the players were very supportive in the series being as authentic as possible,” Brown tells The Spin. “We never had any direction from CA or any pressure to take a certain viewpoint or the final narrative with regards to the team’s rebuilding process.”
Whether redemption is achieved will still lie in the eye of the beholder (and likely differ along national lines). Either way, the near hour-long episodes are pretty much manna from heaven for the cricket fan regardless of allegiance or pre-held suspicions about a PR job.
Test cricket, with its drawn-out battles and breaks for collective introspection, is the format best served in all this. Its all-consuming mental challenge can sometimes be forgotten but there is no uncertainty here. Of the numerous duels chronicled, Smith versus a fired-up Jofra Archer at Lord’s – and the dressing-room reaction to the former’s brutal felling – is the most gripping and cinematic.
Running this close is Headingley. The herculean Ben Stokes might have broken the team that day but Langer still forces them to rewatch their mistakes in full the next day. Here we see a haunted Nathan Lyon squirm and Paine look like a captain undermined; come Old Trafford, where Australia bounce back to retain the Ashes, it is confirmed as a masterstroke.
Langer is the central character; a pocket rocket who lives and breathes the job of forging “the brotherhood”. Some of his methods may test delicate constitutions – see the dressing room placards with “Elite honesty” printed on them – but he is never inauthentic or unlikable. A rather sweet obsession with the film A Star is Born pops up on more than one occasion too, amusingly.
“I never went to Harvard but I employ a lot of people who did” is a saying Langer likes and he calls upon Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh as team mentors in the hope their flint-eyed aura will rub off on a team wrestling with how to be acceptably aggressive. Their cameos deliver this but for all the motivational work, The Test is about the modern player and the intensity of international cricket.
Smith’s near-obsessive approach, amid a remarkable Ashes series, is showcased, so too Warner’s successful wrestle for form in the World Cup followed with his torment by Stuart Broad and the red Dukes ball. Perhaps the most refreshing character arc of all is Marnus Labuschagne’s journey from wide-eyed drinks carrier to concussion sub to mainstay – a kind of Scrappy-Doo to Smith’s Scooby.
Australia’s treatment by the English crowds features in the final three episodes, with Ponting minded to jump into the stands at one point and Langer calling it “ignorant and disrespectful”. The players, on the other hand, tend to either laugh or shrug it off and, ultimately, while denied the fairytale finish of an outright series win, respect from the Oval’s spectators is noted and they fly home with the urn.
Like the overall theme of an image restored, such moments will come down to personal interpretation. It would be a surprise, however, if viewers don’t reach the end sated by the cricketing drama and wondering who will be the next team to knock a hole in the wall between the living room and the dressing room.
• The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team streams on Amazon Prime Video from 12 March 2020.
Bairstow ‘rest’ is barely a break
Own up, who knew that at the end of this month the Bangladesh board is staging a two-match Twenty20 series between a World XI and Asia XI in Dhaka?
The games are being played to mark the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, although reports suggest they may be postponed indefinitely due to the global spread of the coronavirus.
Either way, The Spin noted that among the proposed World XI squad was the name of Jonny Bairstow, whom we were told was meant to be “resting” during this period, hence his omission from England’s ongoing tour of Sri Lanka.
Just like the decision to leave Bairstow out of the New Zealand tour before Christmas in order to “reset” his game against the red ball, only to pick him for the Twenty20 series that preceded it, his mooted inclusion looks a strange one.
Bairstow’s next cricket is in the Indian Premier League and so perhaps a couple of extra T20s before this is no great shakes. Nevertheless, words like “rest” and “reset” are starting to lose all meaning when it comes to squad announcements.
The Spin has only gone and won Best Sports Podcast at the Publishers Podcast Awards. Beating entries from both sides of the Atlantic, the judges hailed The Spin for having “an easily established authority and voice” and praised its inclusivity, adding: “It was brilliant to hear so many female voices as well as different fans.”