Director: Adrian Brown
Format: Documentary Series
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
The concept of cricket is impossibly primal. Thirteen players on a field try to control a tiny leather ball. At any given point, three separate skills – batting, bowling, fielding – are executed in unison. It is a contest of sides, but it’s also a physical expression of humans at the mercy of nature. Which is why, as a spectator sport, cricket has always thrived on teams that embody the balance between humanity and naturalism. West Indies, Pakistan and India (to some extent) have always had a legacy of players who, irrespective of their stature, always make the sport look like a game of fragility and talent. Even when they dominate, they play like normal people who just happen to be good at cricket. Fans relate because such teams can be carefree, careless, crazy or all at once.
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The Australian men’s cricket team has routinely been viewed as the complete antithesis of romantic heroism. Reminiscent of the Soviet Union national ice hockey teams of the ‘80s, the Aussies inspire a distinct set of adjectives, and most of them are accurate: Ruthless, relentless, professional, efficient, clinical, cold, win-at-at-costs, peerless, perfect. For over two decades, Australia has conquered opponents with the kind of machine-like precision that has transformed modern cricket into a microanalytical, impersonal sport of mechanics and numbers. The team has never really been fallible enough to be interesting. But Amazon Prime’s new documentary series, The Test: A New Era For Australia’s Team, manages somewhat of a casting coup by locating a rare trough in Australian cricket history – and filming the hell out of it. In doing so, it captures the realness of a people who have often considered personality to be a sign of weakness. Crisis tests everyone’s character, but it also turns everyone into a character.
Most non-biographical sports documentaries hinge on access to the inner sanctums of the game. But choosing the right moment is more important than choosing the right style. The Test picks up from the appointment of ex-opener Justin Langer as the head coach of Australia in the aftermath of Sandpapergate in 2018, international cricket’s most high-profile ball-tampering scandal. Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft are banned for a year, and Langer is left to pick up the pieces of shattered excellence. When the cameras begin to follow the shell-shocked group, these players don’t look like elite Australian athletes; they look like humans at the mercy of nature. The only thing perfect about them is the storm they’re in. Overnight, Australia – the team that flew too close to the sun – become charred cricket tragics. And, for the first time in years, an underdog story.
Given that cricket is a rare team sport that endorses national identity over franchise alignment, The Test is driven by players battling their own Australian-ness rather than their rivals. Suddenly, adjectives like respectful, trustworthy, fair and emotional enter a vocabulary that is traditionally bereft of vulnerability. As author Gideon Haigh remarks towards the end of the series: We like them more than we used to, and maybe that’s more important than being proud of them. After all, while failure strengthens the spine of most teams, it took cheating to rehabilitate the soul of Australian cricket. Over eight episodes, The Test reveals a group of fragile and talented men at odds with the sporting culture that created them.
I, for one, found it both amusing and disarming that these war-hardened chaps in that dressing room react to people and situations the way we would. They say the kind of things (JL: “I’ve never seen batting like Kohli’s, it breaks your heart”) we would say, despite being the ones in the hot seat. When they get grinded down, disappointment makes them think like we do, too – a clock-ticking sound over Pujara’s endless batting in Australia feels like a witty extension of their weary mental space. I suppose no amount of cutting-edge technology and flowcharts and performance managers and fitness experts and assistant-assistant coaches can prepare a sportsman for the kind of existential turbulence this particular team had to endure: Is a fall from grace worse than a fall? For local context, imagine a crew following the Indian cricket team when Sourav Ganguly took over as captain after the match-fixing scandal. A country loses faith in its biggest religion: The narrative already exists, the arc is tailormade, but these are humans – men, boys – whose cocoon isn’t as exclusive as you’d expect it to be. These are characters who define the direction of the film, and not vice versa.
Unlike Cricket Fever: Mumbai Indians, The Test has a story to tell. Like F1: Drive To Survive, which in my opinion is the pinnacle of sports filmmaking, The Test trusts its access and fixates on little pockets of story-making – the young Test debutants, the Kohli effect, Aaron Finch’s confidence crisis, Usman Khwaja’s brazenness, Steve Smith’s brave Ashes redemption – to personalize an unprecedented period of world cricket. For instance, there’s a fleeting section about the Zampa-Stoinis bromance during the ODI tour in India. It doesn’t amount to any heroic partnership on the field, but their “quirky” camaraderie serves a larger purpose: It illustrates the Australian team as a group of misfits who have switched sides to become the “us” in the “us v/s the world” dynamic. In contrast, the one-sided Smith-Labuschagne bromance, where Labuschagne is painted as a dewy-eyed puppy shadowing his hero, culminates in a wonderfully moving wink of fate on the field: Labuschagne becomes Test cricket’s first concussion substitute, replacing Smith at Lord’s, and bats with the kind of steely-eyed missile-man-ness that turns him into a clown-to-prince fairytale story. Given where the prolific Labuschagne is today, it’s almost surreal to see that, behind the mask, there’s a boyish face that always looks to be on the verge of copious tears.
It’s easy enough to make the person in the frame narrate an incident from the past and juxtapose it with footage of that incident. The challenge, however, is to make the person relive that moment in real-time, making him sound like he is in the middle of the match and unaware of the result even though we – and they – have already experienced the ending. The presentness of suspense-building is a crafty device. I always wonder what the director asks them: Can you tell me exactly what was going through your mind at that moment but can you also narrate it to us like nobody knows what’s going to happen?
It’s sort of poetic that Langer, a proud Australian grafter who made a career out of playing hard, is treated as the grumpy protagonist. You suspect that he, more than most, is struggling to come to terms with the new ‘image over performance’ rulebook. He seems to be torn between wanting his team to be human and worrying that too much human-ness might be an irreversible disease. A particular moment symbolizes his conflict: When Lyon messes up a simple run-out chance in the dying moments of Ben Stokes’ miraculous Leeds chase, Langer kicks a trashcan in anger – he then spends the next minute dutifully putting all the strewn items back into the can. Yet, when his team loses, and they lose a lot before things turn around in India, you sense that Langer is trying to curb his hurt with a mental reminder: Everyone likes to see Australia get defeated, but cricket is boring without a worthy antagonist. He wears the strict look of a doctor guiding his patient to a safer lifestyle after a near-fatal heart attack. His eyes – intimidating, sincere and dangerous all at once – burn a whole into the cameras.
Most of all, though, Langer’s inherent intensity shines a spotlight on an underrated aspect of documentary making. I’ve long believed that there’s a fine art to using talking-head interviews in non-fiction stories. It’s easy enough to make the person in the frame narrate an incident from the past and juxtapose it with footage of that incident. The challenge, however, is to make the person relive that moment in real-time, making him sound like he is in the middle of the match and unaware of the result even though we – and they – have already experienced the ending. The presentness of suspense-building is a crafty device. I always wonder what the director asks them: Can you tell me exactly what was going through your mind at that moment but can you also narrate it to us like nobody knows what’s going to happen?
It’s a tough sell, but Langer’s instinctive reactions in interviews – the oohs and aahs, the wincing, the “aw, mate,” the groans, the live pain and pleasure – are a sight to behold. The placing of these reactions at precise junctures in an episode turn The Test into a compelling portrait of a primal game. A game in which thirteen players, at any point of time, are trying to control a tiny leather ball. A game that a bunch of regular Aussies just happen to play well.