Whether you love or despise the Australian cricket team, The Test on Amazon Prime, charting the 18 months from the Cape Town sandpaper scandal to retaining the Ashes at the end of the 2019 English summer, provides a compelling insight into the workings of present-day international cricket. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect to the eight-part docuseries is how it represents Cricket Australia taking a big step forward in the content arms race.
Since the 2013/14 Ashes and the introduction of cricket.com.au, dubbed their “independent media arm” at the time (the independent tag long since jettisoned), CA have been at the forefront of pushing their own brand. The success of that has largely been through their in-house productions.
Content creation has been the name of the game for the last ten years and, when it comes to online cricket media, cricket.com.au have been at the forefront when it comes to online streaming an social media. Much of that is to do with healthy budgets, emanating from CA headquarters, and the work of a dedicated team who operate in tandem at matches and remotely.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
At men’s Test matches, for example, they might have as many as four people in the press box working on the game, along with videographers on the ground. In 2016, sensing an opportunity to expand their reach, they came to an agreement with the West Indies to follow them behind the scenes during the World Twenty20 in India.
It is this forward-thinking that meant not only were they receptive and involved in the making of this documentary, led by an independent director in Adrian Brown, but the walls of the dressing room – usually forbidden for outsiders – were so seamlessly breached. By contrast, England turned down an offer for a behind-the-scenes documentary of their own for the 2019 summer.
Australia’s men and women are used to TV crews in personal space, and vice versa: when a documentary crew followed the women’s side during the 2019 Ashes, they did so in full CA tracksuits so as to blend in.
That’s why, for example, there are very few breaks of the fourth wall during intense moments in “The Test”: when batsmen return to the dressing room after dismissals and redecorate the walls with their gloves, bats and helmets. When Usman Khawaja breaks down in tears behind closed doors at Manchester when he realises his World Cup is over after pinging his hamstring. Even when a demoralised team return to the dressing room after Ben Stokes’ smash-and-grab at Headingley.
The documentary itself scratches a number of itches but not for those who wanted a deeper dive into the Cape Town ball-tampering saga. As such, some may feel underwhelmed – possibly even angry – if the over-the-top reaction to indiscretion the first time around is anything to go by.
As ever with these projects, the fascination is in the toil, and no sport deals in as much collective and personal toil as cricket.
To be in the room as the Australian team the morning after the final day of the Headingley Test rewatching the last-wicket partnership between Stokes and Jack Leach is extremely powerful. So, too, when Tim Paine and Justin Langer have a heated debate about what could have been done better on the field while Nathan Lyon, who missed a game-clinching run out, watches it all again with his head between his legs.
Aaron Finch, the one-day captain, wrestling with form out in the middle, in team meetings, and after-hours with his wife and dogs is a reminder of how even sportspeople bring the troubles of work home with them. That he carries those troubles with such distinction sees him emerge as one of the unlikely stars of the piece.
In fact, some of the most enjoyable turns are in the support cast. There is very little of the “sandpaper three” – Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft – beyond Smith’s well-documented quirks and bucketloads of Ashes runs. There is also an amusing moment before the start of a crucial Ashes day where Smith prepares to head out to the middle by singing along to “Jerusalem” in a mock English accent.
The Adam Zampa and Marcus Stoinis double-act – “The Love Cafe” two, as anointed by Langer – is arguably the best reflection of Nu Straya. Both are described as “rare units”, but whose cutesy relationship feels quite important for a team and brand whose legacy has been rooted in curbing individuality and toxic masculinity.
Khawaja, an outwardly cool and collected type, will surprise with just how outspoken he is, especially with authority. Again, it’s a small thing, but the idea of a player of Pakistani origin being shown to be such an important leadership cog in an Australian dressing room will have far-reaching benefits among his and the other Asian communities in the country.
The star of the show is, of course, Langer. You’ll either leave the series with affection for him or find his absurd syntax of hippy and management-speak nauseating. Personally, it’s manageable and makes a series that would be a lot less without him.
From saying bye to his ornamental Buddha whenever he leaves the house (a bit much) to how he kicks over a bin during a tense moment of a match and spends the next minute making sure all the rubbish is put back in, you realise he is exactly what these players need. A big, empathetic personality guiding a group who needed a new direction.
Sometimes his moonshine-levels of Australiana jar, and you do wonder just how much gibberish there must exist in the raw footage. Even whittled down there are at least two moments an episode to cringe at.
It might also provide uncomfortable viewing for some England fans. There is a scene at the end of the day’s play at Edgbaston when gaggles well-soused supporters lay into the Australians as they board their team bus and on their route back to the hotel.
It’s rather surreal watching the Australian players laughing along, joining in the sing-songs and generally just in amused bafflement at “grown men” making fools of themselves. Considering the behaviour and language reported to the stewards over the course of the Ashes – not just from Australian staff but other England supporters, too – they get off quite lightly.
As ever with these productions the question to be asked is whether it is just smartly executed PR and propaganda. And the answer is both yes and no.
Yes, because without a level of control, docuseries like this simply do not get made. The reason Sunderland Till I Die won such critical acclaim is partly because so much dirty laundry was aired that the club could not prevent. Unfortunately, Sunderland are a lesson to clubs and organisations in the future that some level of creative control is an absolute must. Even without final cut privelege, the measures can now be taken earlier in the process to prevent issues, such as simply dictating when and where cameras can be switched on or who is allowed to talk about what.
None of the bowling group, for example, were asked about the events of Cape Town 2018 when they were the ones who were reportedly most incensed at the time. While the director says Cricket Australia did not dictate the direction of the end product, the lack of clarity on how Warner was reintegrated into the group when the relationship with his teammates was almost non-existent warranted further investigation. Paine’s battle with Virat Kohli during the Australia-India series is also marked as a feather in the cap for the home captain which feels a reach of Hollywood proportions for the sake of bulking up one of the main protagonists.
Still, it is comfortably the best of its kind: a cricket documentary that shows us a World Cup and an Ashes through the prism of a once-great team trying to find a way to be itself by shedding much of what made it reviled yet great.
“We like them and, in a way, that’s more important than being proud of them”, is how Australian cricket writer and historian Gideon Haigh sums it up at the end. It was not made with England fans in mind, but it will certainly win a few of them over.
But perhaps its most far-reaching impact will be showing governing bodies with cash, like the England & Wales Cricket Board and the Board of Control for Cricket in India, how wedding access on their terms with outside creativity can develop a product that can compete for eyes in a saturated market.