Note: Mild spoilers ahead for The Test – A New Era for Australia’s Team
In these times of limited sporting action, ‘The Test’ is bound to be on the watch-list of almost every single cricket-starved fan around the world, not just Australians. It is an Amazon original documentary on the Australian cricket team featuring “unprecedented access inside the dressing room,” and on that part, the series delivers handsomely.
For sure, some of the scenes we get to witness behind the scenes are truly remarkable.
We see former players present the debutants with their caps in cricket all the time but Travis Head asking his friend Nathan Lyon to do it in Dubai before his first Test saw the off-spinner break down in tears. Usman Khawaja was inconsolable when his World Cup comes to an end with a hamstring tear ahead of the semi-finals, adding this is the first time he had cried in the dressing room. Shaun Marsh’s World Cup comes to an end soon after and it is his best-friend Nathan Coulter-Nile’s turn to well up in tears, because he does not know what to say to him.
And there are many more such fantastic dressing room exchanges during the course of eight episodes that start with Justin Langer’s appointment in the wake of the damaging Cape Town controversy. And the downside to the series bragging about the “access” it has to this Australian team is that it is clear from very early on that there is a certain message the country wants to project with this: the days of arrogance are behind them; this is a side that Australia (and cricket) fans can get behind; these are a bunch of good blokes / mates.
Langer does not forget to mention this across the episodes, sometimes multiple times in one episode.
All access also means it is mostly what they want you to know instead of what you, as a viewer, might want to know.
For instance, Langer stops at the start of steps leading up to the dressing room at Edgbaston after the national anthems on day one of what was a sensational Ashes series last summer. One particularly mean “cheat” comment from a fan seemed to have ticked him off. He stood there for a minute, staring in the direction where the abuse came from. But proceeded without saying anything. For a man who perhaps spoke the most on the entire series, this was a moment when you wanted to know what he was going through. What he wanted to say. But we move on too quickly.
There are also no mentions about Glenn Maxwell’s issues during this time, Khawaja’s personal battles when India visited. David Warner and Steve Smith’s reintegration is shown as a quick team meeting that feels way too scripted. There are definite moments in the middle part of the series where you are left feeling wanting.
In some ways, Tim Paine is the hero of this series. From taking his daughter’s passport to the airport, the way he batted in Dubai in a draw to make a mark as a leader, his “are you serious” behind-the-scenes comment for the question regarding Edgbaston’s status as one of the most intimidating and, finally, the way he talked about ignoring Virat Kohli to his teammates and then did a complete u-turn, only to win over his teammates and rest of the country perhaps during the Perth Test.
Ultimately, while the documentary is largely focussed around Langer’s reign as Australia coach since the sandpaper scandal, it is Steve Smith — one of the protagonists of that nightmare day — who steals the show when the narrative is complete.
Smith, called a “weird man” by one of his teammates, had an Ashes series only a few can dream of and the fact that it came on his comeback from the ban made it extra special. The snippets about his obsession with batting (he shadow-practises in the middle of a restaurant, apparently) are fantastic and give an insight into his greatness.
The episode where the Lord’s Test spell against Jofra Archer is featured is sensational. Great sport begets great drama. And the drama of that bouncer, the hit on the head, the worries on his teammates faces in the dressing room, the inevitable Phil Hughes conversation, were all captured beautifully.
There is a moment in the sixth episode that sums up the brilliance of this series that gets better with each episode, much like Australia’s fortunes. It is the end of day one at Edgbaston. Smith had taken his side from 122/8 to what would be a match-winning first innings total. The boos were near-constant during the day inside the stadium but it did not end there. Fans were waiting on the Australians’ ride back too, hurling more boos and abuses. Warner was sitting in the front seat and absolutely revelling in the comedy of it all. That was when the documentary truly came to life.
There was one England fan scratching his palm, mocking the sandpaper incident. “Look at that bloke, he’s starting a fire!” was the comment inside the bus - in a way, maybe he really did. The Australian team, after talking about the volume of abuse that physically shook them at the start of the day, had now turned it around completely because Smith had lit up a fire.
On Australia’s Ashes campaign. And this documentary.