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(It’s) not about damage to a ball, but damage to a brand

One of the lines in the beginning of the documentary The Test: A New Era For Australia’s Team describes aptly what the infamous incident of ball tampering in South Africa in March 2018 did for the national cricket side. When Cameron Bancroft was caught on camera rubbing the ball with a piece of sandpaper, the controversy just accentuated Australia’s reputation of being the sport’s least popular side.

The new Amazon Prime show, with each of the eight episodes about 45 minutes to an hour long, pieces together what happened in the aftermath of the controversy leading up to the Ashes in England in August-September 2019. The show starts with the appointment of Justin Langer as the team’s new coach—after his predecessor Darren Lehmann quit in the wake of the scandal—and makes the former Australia opening batsman the lead through the film’s journey, covering a year and a half.

While Bancroft was banned from playing for nine months, former captain Steven Smith and vice-captain David Warner were banned for a year each from domestic and international cricket. The Australian team, under new captain Tim Paine and featuring a host of debutants, was forced to go through the rough process of not just rebuilding but winning back the respect of opponents and fans. As Paine says in the Adrian Brown-directed documentary, “It was not about how the team would play but how it would behave."

Through their subsequent series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, India at home and away, Sri Lanka at home, the 2019 World Cup and the Ashes, the players and staff talk about their processes, feelings, failures and successes while looking to get back to what they feel is rightfully their place—of best team in the world.

This is an intimate show, the kind that’s rare in the world of cricket, which is protected fiercely by its administrators. The conversations are often raw and uninhibited. The stories are personal and do not seem rehearsed, almost as if there is no camera tracking the players into the dressing rooms, their cars and homes.

Fans in India would be pleased to see the unabashed attention and admiration—but not affection—India’s captain Virat Kohli gets from his rivals. Kohli is the only non-Australian player in the documentary who is given ample footage—in episodes 4 and 5—as is the Indian team.

“I look at Virat and he has the Australian fight in him," says spinner Nathan Lyon. “Virat Kohli is the best player I have ever seen in my life," adds Langer, while newbie Travis Head has this to say about Indian fast bowlers: “I was scared shitless."

While the documentary alludes to a more-than-friendly relationship between teammates Marcus Stoinis and Adam Zampa, the latter’s love for coffee also provides the film with its best cinematic moment. As Australia’s One Day International skipper Aaron Finch finally finds his batting form in Ranchi after a long slump, the film’s editors intersperse the sequence with music, commentary and shots of Zampa grinding coffee.

It’s also ironically funny when Marnus Labuschagne says: “You are not going to be the first concussion sub to be ruled out for concussion.That’s not happening." Labuschagne substituted for Smith in the second Ashes Test after the latter was hit on the helmet by a bouncer and ruled out. Then Labuschagne himself was knocked on the helmet—facing a fate similar to Smith, and prompting the comment—but recovered to continue batting.

Only once do the proceedings on camera get a bit edgy, during a confrontation between Langer and Paine after the third Test against England at Headingley that the hosts won by a wicket. With England’s No.11 batsman Jack Leach at the non-striker’s end, Paine does not bring in his fielders to prevent Ben Stokes from taking a single off an over’s last ball and retaining strike. Stokes, who scored a centuryin that innings, eventually drags England to a win with a last wicket stand of 76 runs.

“We have got Leach who has come in, you want Patto (James Pattinson) to have six balls at Leach surely. The opportunity missed there is that we let him have a single. That’s just intent, that’s just game awareness, which we all talk about," Langer lashes out at Paine in a team meeting. “Balls five or six, we should have had the field up when we had 60 or 70, played it simple, seen that. Got it wrong," Paine finally admits.

As Bancroft, Smith and Warner return to the team for the Ashes, they face a hostile English crowd. But Smith answers his critics in the best manner possible, by scoring 774 runs in four Tests, helping Australia draw the series 2-2 and retain the urn. When Smith bravely comes in to bat in the fourth Test, after the blow on the helmet in the second Test forced him to miss the third, he is greeted not with sympathy but with continued boos—the film’s most poignant moment. By the end of the series, though, the high scorer has won some admiration.

But at a cumulative watch time of just over 7 hours—even in times of social distancing and home detentions—this requires some serious commitment to Australian cricket.

The periods of reflection and retrospection the players go through seem repetitive—are we interested in a deep analysis after every match and series that basically says the same thing? Some of the comments about the Aussie spirit and ethos also come across as self-indulgent and preachy.

At the end of the show, is the average Australian cricketer more likeable? Perhaps, because we see them smile and celebrate, at times tortured and hurt, and often as victims of circumstances. Whether they succeed in being better versions of themselves—as Langer says, “There is abuse, there is banter. From this day forward, no more abuse"—will only be known in the future on uncensored live television.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

At the end of the show, is the average Australian cricketer more likeable?
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At the end of the show, is the average Australian cricketer more likeable?
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