Growing up in the era of Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath, I always saw the Australian cricket team as practically infallible.
Winning World Cups and beating everybody in test series, their dominance of world cricket was unparalleled. This made watching that great side fall to a rare defeat in the wondrous summer of 2005 all the more special.
Once that team began to split up after their whitewash of England in 2006/07, another couple of Australian teams came and went. They were good, but never reached the greatness of Ponting’s best team.
This spell allowed England to win a few more Ashes series and meant that other nations could stake their claim as the best in the world for a brief spell, but the Australians were always there around the top of the game, refusing to fall away.
However, this all came crashing down a couple of years ago, with the most dramatic fall from grace endured by Australia’s cricket team – and this one wasn’t even at the hands of Flintoff, Harmison, Hoggard and Jones.
The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team picks up after the 2018 Cape Town scandal, which saw Australia captain Steve Smith, along with opening pair Cameron Bancroft and David Warner caught up in a ball-tampering scheme during their second test against South Africa.
As a game which prides itself on fair play, cricket is very hard-line on ball tampering and as a result Australian cricket had never been so low. The scandal saw coach Darren Lehmann resign and resulted in lengthy bans for all three players involved. Australian supporters and media made their searing disapproval well known, and suddenly Australian cricket not only had to build a new team, but fix its image.
This is all captured excellently in the documentary, which begins with the appointment of former player Justin Langer as the team’s new coach in May 2018 and follows the team for over a year to the conclusion of last summer’s Ashes series.
Fly on the wall sports documentaries have become a staple of streaming services in recent years, with several NFL teams, the New Zealand rugby union side and Manchester City given the glamorous All or Nothing treatment on Amazon Prime.
Though All or Nothing: Manchester City offered a fascinating insight into the well-oiled machine that is (or was) Pep Guardiola’s team, there was, however, a lack of tension and interest fell after a while.
Watching brilliance during a season when City finished 19 points above anybody else was impressive, but was also severely lacking in conflict and stakes. You were left with a greater understanding of football management and the inner working of clubs, but also with the cold feeling that you had just devoted eight hours of your life to a very expensive PR campaign.
City were far and away the best team in the land and the documentary never missed an opportunity to tell you that. Additionally, just in case you lacked sympathy for them, it went to great lengths to paint missing Benjamin Mendy for most of the season as some sort of injury crisis.
On the other hand, there is also the excellent Sunderland ‘Till I Die, soon to return for a second series on Netflix, which is as much an analysis of the social fabric of England’s North East as it is a football documentary. Illustrating the importance of football to certain communities, Netflix’s show would not only appeal to football fans, but could enlighten non-converts on how much sport matters.
The Test resides somewhere between the two. Yes, Australian cricket had never been in greater need of a PR campaign than after the Cape Town scandal and the show does indulge in self-importance on occasion, but there is an actual journey at play here. The show is lucky to chart an incredibly interesting year which sees Australia go from hated by their own media, struggling in test matches in front of no crowd in the UAE to retaining the Ashes in England – becoming the first side to do so since 2001.
As Australian Cricket faced its greatest test, the world was watching.
You know where this story goes. Find out what it took to get there.#TheTestAmazon streaming March 12 on #AmazonPrimeVideo. pic.twitter.com/KPBuf4t14B
— The Test (@thetest_amazon) January 24, 2020
Whereas All or Nothing: Manchester City strived to make dominance look interesting, The Test is blessed with a narrative. Watching one of cricket’s great nations grapple with its diminished status, through the eyes of coaches, players, media and fans is captivating. Additionally, their desire to meet expectations and return to the summit of international cricket provides a simple yet gripping purpose.
Justin Langer is the show’s key figure. Offering a series of candid interviews, charting the highs and lows of his tenure and talking openly about his development as a coach and almost self-instilled need to take Australia back to world dominance.
Watching him at work as a coach is fascinating, especially when you have memories of his gutsy and determined batting style grinding out runs at the top of Australia’s order.
Langer coaches like he batted, emphasising hard work, with steel and commitment at the forefront of his philosophy. An authoritative figure, he is utterly devoted and fixated on the job in hand. As the show goes on, he begins to build the team in his own image – god forbid one of his players even contemplates giving their wicket away cheaply.
“It’s so competitive to get in. And yet when you walk through the doors, it feels like a brotherhood.” Justin Langer.
— The Test (@thetest_amazon) March 24, 2020
He creates a dressing room that has a strong team spirit, with himself as a father figure and providing a link between Australia’s great team and their current outfit. Wanting the best for his players, you find yourself somehow wanting to see Langer and Australia succeed – an impressive feat.
The footage from inside the camp is excellent, particularly during test matches, where the emotional toil of five days of cricket and the tension of a game’s final few sessions is laid bare. The show captures the uniqueness of the game’s longest format, with the drawn out agony of defeat, tension of tight matches and unparalleled satisfaction in victory all present at various points in the series.
For an England fan, seeing inside the dressing room during Ben Stokes’ heroics at Headingley is particularly enjoyable, but even on a cricketing point, it provides a perfect illustration of the emotional turmoil involved in the game and the perfect riposte to those who believe cricket is dull.
The entire Ashes series is presented excellently. Steve Smith’s dominance becomes somewhat more tangible, his concussion substitution is handled well and hits home the danger of cricket, while Australia’s recovery from defeat in Leeds to retain the urn in Manchester is captivating viewing.
Most of Australia’s side come across well and it is interesting to see how they interact as a team. Gaining an understanding of Steve Smith’s insatiable lust for runs, seeing Usman Khawaja as a headstrong and outspoken figure in the dressing room and watching Tim Paine’s approach towards captaincy are all fascinating, while watching Adam Zampa’s coffee routine provides a novel look at life on tour.
Paine, whose task of leading one of Australia’s supposedly weakest ever squads, comes across very well, with his battle with opposite number Virat Kohli during a series against India proving very entertaining. Watching Paine’s relationship with Langer develop is one of the key narratives, while the inclusion of Ponting on Langer’s coaching team provides a great point of comparison between two leaders.
— The Test (@thetest_amazon) March 22, 2020
Off-spinner Nathan Lyon is one of the show’s best interviewees and watchable figures. Seeing him lead booze-filled post-match celebrations is very entertaining, but provides an important contrast with his devastation after the Headingley test. Lyon’s task of presenting Travis Head with his baggy green on test debut is also the series’ standout emotional moment.
Gaining access to Australia’s tumultous journey from Cape Town controversy to retaining the Ashes makes The Test one of the finest sports documenataries to emerge on streaming services in recent years. Watching a fixture of Australia’s greatest team attempt to turn their middling team into world beaters injects the show with stakes and gets to the heart of the nation’s need to win.
The Test probably doesn’t have enough to appeal to the non-cricket fan, but for those who love the game and all its unique quirks, this is a great way to use up eight hours of self-isolation.
Presenting test cricket in an alluring light and fully understanding its appeal, the show makes for perfect viewing in these strange sports-less times. However, it does also leave you yearning to be back among a sparse crowd at your local county ground.
The Test is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
Featured image courtesy of @thetest_amazon on Twitter