‘The Test’: For the Ashes, from the ashes

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on April 03, 2020

Game on: ‘The Test’ combines an impressive degree of locker-room access with an eye for the narrative arc   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AMAZON PRIME

With a line-up of remarkable characters and some thrilling game footage, a new documentary series shows how Australian cricket turned around after a mega scandal

In March 2018, captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner were among three players from the Australian men’s cricket team found guilty of ball tampering during a Test match against South Africa in Cape Town. The incident came to be known as Sandpapergate (Cameron Bancroft, the third guilty party, used sandpaper to scuff up one side of the ball, aiding swing) and Cricket Australia promptly handed out 12-month bans for Smith and Warner and a nine-month ban for Bancroft.

From that point on, the team was in free fall — in 2018, they won just two out of 13 one-day games. To their credit, the Australians turned things around admirably. Under new coach Justin Langer and captains Tim Paine (tests) and Aaron Finch (one-day and T20 internationals), Australia enjoyed a good run in 2019.

They beat India 3-2 in an ODI series in India and then reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, beating eventual champions England (and runners-up New Zealand) in the group stages. It was in the Test matches that the transformation was most visible. With a resurgent Smith and Warner back in the team, they drew England 2-2 in England, retaining the Ashes. They then overwhelmed both New Zealand and Pakistan at home, Warner smashing a career-best 335 not out against the latter at the Adelaide Oval.

Such recoveries don’t happen in a vacuum. A new Amazon documentary series, The Test offers audiences an insider’s view of how Langer and Paine, in particular, brought about this change. It combines an impressive degree of locker-room access with an eye for the narrative arc, a line-up of remarkable characters and some thrilling game footage.

And there’s nobody more remarkable than the diminutive Langer, one of the most admired coaches in the game today.

During Australia’s 2004 tour to India, he wrote a player’s diary for the erstwhile Wisden Asia Cricket, describing, among other things, a Roopkumar Rathod ghazal concert and a meeting with yoga maestro BKS Iyengar. He’s a black belt in an Australian martial arts form called zen do kai, an experience he describes in a self-help book he wrote called Seeing the Sunrise. He has strong views about every issue, on and off the field. As The Test shows us, he knows how to build a team and has considerable man-management skills.

The way he deals with a group of disparate characters — from iconoclast Usman Khawaja (whom Langer successfully motivates to get fitter and hungrier for success) to soft-spoken newcomers such as Marnus Labuschagne — is admirable. It’s no surprise that Australia’s inexperienced players Labuschagne and Ashton Turner (who won Australia a one-day game against India last year off his own bat, chasing 350-odd), as well as those on the comeback trail, such as James Pattinson, swear by his guidance.

Langer makes it clear that he won’t tolerate abuse on the field — but he also wants to see “a lot of banter”. Playing tough but fair, the Aussie way; this is the thread that holds his team (and The Test, in general) together.

As Australian writer Gideon Haigh says in the last episode: “Cape Town was so traumatic that it was possible for the game to have really fragmented. But in some respects, Australian fans have kind of enjoyed the fight. We like them (the team) more than we used to, and that’s almost more important than being proud of them.”

On the eve of the all-important Ashes, one of cricket’s fiercest rivalries, Langer brings on board his old teammates Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and the original tough-as-nails Australian Steve Waugh. They deliver rousing pep talks to the Australian team “in the inner sanctum”, as Waugh puts it.

Waugh is to Langer what Langer is to the likes of Labuschagne. At one point Langer says, “If Steve Waugh the great leader asks me to go through a brick wall, I’ll do it, because a) He’d have good reasons and b) He wouldn’t ask me to do it if he wasn’t prepared to do it himself.” The trio’s cameo appearances will bring smiles to the faces of those who grew up watching cricket in the late ’90s, when Waugh’s men would hardly ever lose.

Finally, a word about what may be seen as The Test’s most important achievement — explaining to someone who doesn’t watch cricket how much of a physical threat the sport can be today, even with the best of protective equipment. The clash between Smith, world’s number one test batsman, and England bowler Jofra Archer (the fastest bowler in the world today) has been depicted beautifully and with all the horror that a 155 kmph missile aimed at your head should inspire.

The moment when Archer hits Smith on the head with a super-fast, nigh unplayable bouncer is a harrowing one, and is given the breathing space that it deserves. Even the usually ice-cool Waugh is visibly shaken (“Need someone out there, need someone out there, big time,” Waugh tells the team doctor), as the dressing room shots reveal.

World cricket, and especially the Australian team, hasn’t been the same since opener Philip Hughes died after being struck by a bouncer in a first-class game in 2014, a few days shy of his 26th birthday. Fittingly, the Archer episode is dedicated to Hughes. At the very end of The Test, after the Ashes is in the bag, Langer sighs heavily, and breaks into a half-smile, half-grimace, as he says the kind of thing that players love and hate coaches for. “Now I’ve gotta start again. I’ve gotta start again.”

Published on April 03, 2020

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