In March 2018, Australian cricket changed forever. Three of the team’s players, Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, were found guilty of ball tampering. Smith and Warner were banned from cricket for 12 months while Bancroft served a nine-month ban. The Test: A New Era For Australia’s Team is an eight-part docu-series on how the team, criticised by the media and fans the world over, put this setback behind them and regained respectability. With unprecedented access into the Australian dressing room, the show offers a first-hand look at the team’s highs and lows across a period of 18 months. It ends with Australia retaining the Ashes in England in 2019.
The road to recovery is a long one
How does a team rebuild itself after its captain and vice-captain are banned? How does a demoralised group of individuals put behind the “worst cricket crisis in Australia’s history” to resurrect the glory of Australian cricket?
The Test begins with Australia getting a 5-0 drubbing in an ODI series in England in 2018. A year and a half later they would be back on English soil, successfully defending the Ashes against their old enemy. The documentary series traces this transformation. It goes inside the “inner sanctum” of Australian cricket, that is the dressing room, selection meetings, brainstorming sessions, giving the cricket fan a terrific interior view of how the team functions. At the centre of it all is Justin Langer, a passionate, no-nonsense individual who was appointed coach of the side soon after the ball-tampering fiasco.
Langer’s chief endeavour is to bring about a change in the thought-process of his team, in order to win back the respect of the cricketing world without compromising on the Australian way of playing tough, relentless cricket. The players are constantly reminded that they’re representing their country and must always uphold the spirit of the game. In one of the most heartwarming moments of the show, the players receive letters from their family members saying how proud they are to see them play cricket for Australia. We also see a conscious effort to build team camaradarie. “We, not me” is the motto. You first play for the team, then for yourself.
The earnestness of the team to turn a new leaf is heartwarming. You find yourself sympathising with them through difficult periods and rooting for them throughout. Langer shows that he can be a father figure to his boys, but also a tough taskmaster who won’t mince words when it comes to slamming them over a poor performance.
The process is more challenging for some. There’s Tim Paine, Australian cricket’s “nice guy” who nobody thought would be captain someday. Aaron Finch struggles to break out of a rut of poor form that may jeopardise his selection for the world cup. And of course, there’s the story of Smith and Warner, two global superstars who turned villains overnight. Their return to cricket after serving their bans was never going to be a piece of cake.
“We’re just normal blokes playing cricket”
What makes The Test truly compelling is the raw emotion one gets to witness. Cricketers are treated like demi-gods, especially by the Indian fans. It’s in the dressing room that you see their real faces. We see frustration, agony, displays of anger and spirits getting crushed in times of failure.
It’s heartbreaking to see Warner and Smith subjected to jeers by English spectators. Keeping calm and maintaining dignity in the face of such hostility is tough, and the angst is evident in the Aussie camp. The dynamic between Langer and batsman Usman Khawaja is interesting to watch. Both are strong-headed individuals with their hearts in the right place. We learn about sacrifices made by families from wicketkeeper-batsman Matthew Wade, who had to leave behind his days-old daughter to join the team. One of the more endearing segments on the show is the ‘bromance’ between Marcus Stoinis and Adam Zampa. Many assumed they were gay and made fun of their friendship. But the team management is happy that they’re not shy in showing their close bond, suggesting that in a team it’s important to be oneself.
Fielding Virat Kohli’s team was a challenge
In December 2018, cricketing circles in Australia were abuzz over just one thing. King Kohli was coming to their shores. Virat Kohli‘s men would go on to clinch their first test series win down under. India gets extensive coverage on the show, in three out of the eight episodes. We see the challenges of facing a formidable Indian side, and the pain of losing to them at home. There is also an attempt to highlight the difficulties faced by a visiting side touring India, a country that is home to millions of cricket fanatics. It is the ODI series win against Indians on their home turf early in 2019 that makes Australia truly believe they have a shot at the world cup later that year.
The Aussies are generous in their praise for Kohli as a player and a fighter. At the same time, they admit to harbouring a few sour sentiments. Kohli is not one to shy away from having a word or two on the field. The Aussies, who would normally give it back, are now hesitant to retaliate because they’re under the scrutiny of the entire world. Kohli is understandably the center of attraction during the India segment. However it’s pleasing to see the unassuming Cheteshwar Pujara, the architect of India’s test series win in Australia, also get a share of the limelight.
The Test is a heartbreaking and heartwarming capture of the emotionally tumultuous period in Australian cricket after the 2018 ball-tampering episode. The behind-the-scenes view of the dynamics of a world class cricket team is a treat for cricket fans.