With the complete absence of world cricket, nuffies like me have been forced to take refuge in nostalgia, allegations of financial incompetence at Jolimont Street, and The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team, Amazon Prime’s eight-part documentary series.
I just finished watching the latter and came away with ten main thoughts.
1. Justin Langer is more like David Brent from The Office than perhaps he would like to admit
Sure, Brent may not have played 105 Tests and scored over 28,000 first-class runs but there are definite similarities between him and Langer in The Test. Endless monologues to camera and colleagues, philosophical sound bites, a general lack of self awareness, even Langer’s enthusing over A Star is Born feels very David Brent. This series shows how rough it can be to play for Australia – no sooner have you faced a barrage of top quality bowling, then you’ve got handle a Justin Langer monologue back in the sheds. In all three formats, too. I am not the first person to notice this.
2. Batsmen losing it after being dismissed never ceases to be entertaining
I’d be happy to watch a whole episode of batsmen losing it in the dressing room. The hugely entertaining scenes of Aaron Finch, Shaun Marsh and so on throwing their bats around, flinging off the gloves and whining about the umpire shows that for all the millions players earn, it’s still a game – and a game that people still play like they’re ten years old. Never lose that passion, fellas!
3. The Marsh brothers seem like genuinely nice blokes
Mitch doing DJ duty, Shaun being quiet and polite… they are a credit to their parents. It still doesn’t mean Shaun should have played as many Tests as he has. And Mitch shouldn’t have played any at all. But don’t worry – apparently Mitch is about to “realise his potential”. I mean, he hasn’t for ten years, but what would social media trolls know? Aside: when the Sheffield Shield resumes, I predict Shaun Marsh will have a record-smashing season with the bat. Because that’s exactly the sort of thing Shaun Marsh does.
4. Usman Khawaja has more bottle than he gets credit for
While other players hang their heads sheepishly around Langer, it’s Usman who speaks up… and Langer, to his credit, respects him for it. The narrative of Khawaja under Langer was working out so well. He was getting fitter, working harder, played that wonderful innings in the UAE, then his form drifted away and he got dropped. He’s just as enigmatic as he was under Darren Lehmann and Mickey Arthur. Like many Australian cricket fans, Khawaja does my head in a little – he’s such a tease with his form, always threatening to break through but never quite seeming to get there. The selectors wanted to pick him more, but his form hasn’t been great and now Marnus Labuschagne turned into the player they wanted Khawaja to be. At least the batsman comes out of this documentary well.
5. Tim Paine and Aaron Finch seem like men, but Steve Smith does not
It’s not until the filmmakers cut between Tim Paine and Steve Smith in The Test that it really sunk in how different the two are. Smith is a boy. A phenomenally talented one but still a man child. Tim Paine is a man. The Steve-Smith-should-go-back-as-captain lobby are doing no favours for Australia or Smith by pressing their case, especially when wicketkeeper heir apparent Alex Carey clearly still struggles with the gloves at first-class level. I get Smith wants to make a complete comeback and lead Australia to glory once more (narrative!), but the Australian cricket team isn’t his personal vehicle. There is a long rich tradition of genius batsmen being so wrapped up their own game they’re not very good captains such as Geoff Boycott and Dean Jones, and Smith is part of that. Cricket Australia are going to have to be the parent on this one. When Paine goes, give the captaincy to Travis Head, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Marnus Labuschagne or Josh Hazlewood.
6. It’s really nice not to have former playing legends as talking heads
Instead, they get in people like Gerard Whateley, Gideon Haigh and Peter Lalor, who maybe talk about narrative too much – especially Whateley. But they are all from Melbourne, where sports journos love their narrative, and at least they aren’t the stock boof-head former legends cranking out dribble. We do hear some ex-players commentating in footage of games – I wish they’d muted it for the documentary, it wasn’t necessary, and would have been artistically more interesting.
7. The filmmakers lost their nerve
Easily the best scenes in The Test are the fly-on-the-wall stuff: the dressing rooms, the board rooms, the players and coaches at home. This is riveting even in glimpses, and really should have been the basis of the whole series. But somewhere along the way the filmmakers lost their nerve and resorted to the more standard device of talking heads between footage. This is far more familiar, and is no way near as compelling as the other stuff. For a series to make a claim to greatness, it needed to stretch more. This was a good documentary, but not a great one.
8. There are a lot of support staff for the Australian cricket team
When the team sing the victory song, the support staff join in. They seem to outnumber the players. What do they all do? One or two seem useful, like a spin coach and the number-cruncher dude. What about the rest? I guess we’ll find out with these COVID-19 budget cuts. In the meetings that Langer has, the support staff are always quick to give their processes a good mark. It’s very human and is pretty much like 95 per cent of any staff meeting I’ve ever attended. People cover their arse first, and don’t criticise the boss second. Aside: does Mr Number Cruncher have any stats about how Australia perform when there’s six specialist batsmen in the side as opposed to five and Mitch Marsh?
9. You’re always aware of a more interesting story going on behind the scenes
We see some mild conflict between David Saker and Justin Langer, glimpses of Glenn Maxwell, discussion of Aaron Finch’s spot in the batting order, Justin Langer’s jokes about his WA bias, Trevor Hohns lurking around, but nothing about Greg Chappell or the fall out from Smith publicly blaming sandpapergate on the leadership group. I get that the filmmakers needed Cricket Australia’s consent and I’m grateful for what we’ve got, but this series tells a very small portion of the story from this period. Gerard Whateley suggested The Test should be shown in schools as a historical document. That would give a very misleading impression of what went on during the years in question.
10. I felt sorry for Darren Lehmann
Lehmann did a lot of things I disagreed with as a coach, and clearly stayed in that job too long, but watching The Test I kept feeling sorry for him. The poor guy not only had heart surgery, he’s had to sit there for all of Langer’s reign having to listen to the narrative being relentlessly pushed how Cape Town was so awful, how Australia’s cricket team was at the lowest ebb until Langer came in to save the day, how abusive the team was under Lehmann but not Langer, and how great Langer is. Yet from what I can see many Lehmann-era problems remain: an over-reliance on Steve Smith, the bewildering passion for Mitch Marsh, the coach picking favourites and running a little cult, with the added twist that we’re coming back from the mess of Lehmann. Lehmann’s era wasn’t that bad and Langer’s era isn’t that good. Mind you, I remember when Lehmann took over, the narrative was how Australian cricket was a mess under Mickey Arthur and how Lehmann saved the day. So swings and roundabouts, I guess.
Still, the series was absolutely worth watching and I wish they would do them regularly.