The Test Documentary And The Next Ashes Series

How is everyone doing? The lockdown is beginning to take its toll here – home schooling the kids isn’t much fun – but at least the cricketing hiatus gives us time to take stock. England’s Test series victory in South Africa was definitely a step in the right direction and there are finally grounds for (guarded) optimism. Having said that, the team clearly needs to improve if we’re going to compete down under in 2021/22.

Although the next Ashes series is obviously still a long way away, I started thinking about it after watching The Test on TV yesterday. It’s the documentary that chronicles Australia’s recovery from the ball tampering scandal in 2018. It culminates with Justin Langer’s troops retaining the Ashes last year. This makes it painful but required viewing.

The two episodes spanning the Ashes were really interesting. Although they’re carefully edited, and obviously present a somewhat biased perspective, you do get a feel for what it was like inside the Aussie dressing room at key moments of the series. The time when Steve Smith was hit on the head by Jofra Archer at Lord’s was particularly gripping. The tension was palpable. Some of the Australians were convinced that he’d been hit in the same place as poor Phil Hughes and feared the worst. The tailenders waiting to bat (which included Nathan Lyon) were absolutely terrified.

The series was also a great insight into the personalities of the Australian players. It seems they’re human after all (wink, wink). In fact, I found them all quite likeable. Marnus Labuschagne in particular is a real character, and my respect for Tim Paine (who admits his mistakes quite candidly), has definitely gone up. It was also quite amusing to hear Steve Smith somewhat sarcastically singing along to Jerusalem before the start of play. I have some sympathy for the Aussies here. I hate it when they play Jerusalem. It’s just contrived patriotism in my (admittedly jaundiced) view.

The most enjoyable moment from an English perspective was obviously when we won at Headingley. The cameras tracked Justin Langer and Smith throughout the run chase – every opportunity missed, every captaincy error, every umpiring mistake, and ultimately the moment when Stokes hit the winning boundary. Langer turned around in disgust, kicked a bin in anger, and then immediately started tidying up every individual piece of rubbish as a form of distraction or therapy. The others just swore and sat there somberly.

The scenes in the Aussie dressing room afterwards were captivating. Several players were close to tears and you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes I think us supporters forget how much professional players are invested in what happens on the field. It’s really is their life work. It means everything to them. It was also interesting to witness all the swearing and bat throwing whenever a batsman was dismissed. I’m sure it’s the same in the England dressing room after our guys have played a poor shot.

I’d love to know whether the England players have watched The Test. Joe Root has said that – despite resisting initial temptation to watch it – the docuseries has “been a good motivator to get back and train” during a time when cricket and sport, in general, is absent. These are all the right noises for the skipper to be making. It won’t have escaped his attention that the Aussies clearly think they’ve got the wood over this particular England side. Their plan was (and I assume it will similar down under) to stifle the English batting, bowl the right lengths, and then wait for us to implode.

This is a pretty good methodology against the cricketers England currently possess. Indeed, it was only Ben Stokes and his Headingley heroics which saved England from losing the series 3-1. Although the additional of Dom Sibley gives England’s top order a more traditional and patient flavour, we still have plenty of batsmen who like to get on with it. Overcoming Australia’s strategy, and wrestling that urn back, will therefore be extremely difficult.

Winning down under is a completely different challenge to beating South Africa (where we also won under Alastair Cook). We’ve won just one of our last 10 Tests away in Australia. What’s more, as The Test makes quite clear, the Aussies seem to be a pretty united and determined bunch under Justin Langer’s stewardship. I’m not sure this has always been the case, especially when Michael Clarke was captain.

© Ben Sutherland on Flickr

If England are to compete in 2021/22 then we’ll almost certainly need to start well. The Test showed just how vital it was for Australia win the first Test at Edgbaston last summer. It gave them an enormous boost – “they call this place a fortress?”. I sense that was the moment that they really believed they could retain the Ashes. England will need a similar performance at Bisbane – that traditional fortress of Australian cricket – if we’re to compete. There’s just one problem: Joe Root’s team are terrible starters. We even needed to come from behind to beat a poor South African team.

Starting badly is a bad habit we simply must kick. Playing catch-up is incredibly difficult in Australia and, according to the latest cricket betting on the series, we’re massive underdogs at this stage. The only glimmer of hope is that the Aussies were also favourites in 2010-11. They key moment in that series? I think it was when Cook and Trott secured a draw at Brisbane with that legendary partnership. I suspect we’ll need something special from someone (anyone!) again if we’re to escape from the first Test unscathed.

The other good news is that The Test reminded me just how reliant the Australians are on Steve Smith. Without him they wouldn’t have had a prayer. He rescued them time and again – including in that key game at Edgbaston. Although plenty have tried and failed to find ways to dismiss him – any ideas folks? – relying on one player so much can’t be good for any cricket team. Although one would expect David Warner to score more runs on home soil against the Kookaburra ball, and Labuschagne is obviously a good player too, Smith is quite clearly the key man.

If Joe Root can somehow find a way to score as many runs as Smudge, and perhaps enjoy a career defining series, then who knows what might be possible. The fitness of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood will also be vital. I want us to fight fire with fire next winter because I hate watching England getting bullied in Australia. With Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad getting older we might well have to put our faith in pace anyway. There might even be a role for Olly Stone and Henry Brookes.

Although looking this far ahead isn’t always practical – so much can change in 18 months – there remains something box office about The Ashes. Watching The Test brought home just how much I love the highest from of the game. If you haven’t already seen the series then I recommend that you do so. It’s not perfect – there’s plenty of Nathan Lyon adoration even though “the best off spinner ever” was out-bowled by Jack Leach in the series – but it’s still a valuable insight into the inner workings of an international dressing room and the personality of Australia’s players.

Next up I’ll be watching The Edge. But only after the home schooling is done. Sigh.

James Morgan


  • Good points here. Especially about the need to start well – last time England came back from losing the first test of a series in Australia was in 1954-55 under Hutton. Assuming everyone is fit I would expect England’s top three for that series be some permutation of Burns, Sibley and Crawley (with respect to ‘Dependable Denly’ he has been a respectable stop gap, but I would not be comfortable with him at 3 out there). Root, Pope and Stokes would likely round out the top six (a tour of Australia is emphatically not the place for giving people their first taste of international cricket!) and I hope that by then the selectors of realized the need for Foakes as keeper, at 7. For the bowlers I will be gobsmacked if Anderson, by then approaching 40, is able to make the trip, and only marginally less surprised if Broad is still around, but Archer, Wood and S Curran look like three good seam options, Bess should have continued to improve, and Parkinson or Leach would make an excellent second spin option. Thus I am cautiously optimistic, although the last England skipper to regain (as opposed to retaining) the Ashes down under was Illingworth in 1970-1. At least I do not anticipate that England will be trying to fend off a whitewash this time round.

    • I think this “you can’t give someone a Test debut in Australia” idea is overdone–and it’s also defeatist. (Can you imagine the Australian team saying “you can’t possibly give someone a debut in England because the conditions are so different”?)

      Essentially if you’re good enough, you’re ready enough. It didn’t do Stokes too much harm making his Test debut in Australia, nor Anderson his international debut, nor (going back further) Bob Willis, Graham Dilley or Phillip De Freitas to name but three.

      Joe Root made his debut in India, which can’t in recent years be a much softer place to make a debut–as did Swann and Panesar on the two previous tours; Michael Vaughan made his coming in at 2-4 in South Africa and was MoM by the end of the series, and Alec Stewart made his in the soft surroundings of the West Indies in their heyday.

      I would be quite happy with, say, Dan Lawrence or Saqib Mahmood making their debuts in Brisbane or Perth IF they’re playing well enough to be selected. The issue is not whether they’re making their debuts in Australia, but whether they should be making their debuts at all at that point…he says, remembering that on the last Ashes tour England were considering giving a debut to George Garton and did give one to Mason C!rane

  • The only problem with picking out a single player to neutralise and assuming the dominoes will fall is that it rarely happens. The 4-1 bodyline victory stands out as an exception and of you analyse that series, apart from Larwood it was used very little by the others. It seemed the Hype got to the Aussies more than the actual tactic itself.
    That said Bradman was a freak in the annals of the game and since there has been no single player who stood head and shoulders above his compatriots to that degree since, even the likes of Hutton, Richards, Tendulkar and Lara, so it’s difficult to take any useful tips from that series.
    We go on about Smith saying if he had failed Australia would have capitulated, but I don’t believe that. With the exception of Archer at his best we didn’t possess another bowler who looked capable of running through them. Personally I still feel if Anderson had been fit we would won that series. I think his absence was as important as Smith’s presence. Australia had some good bowlers, so any side was going to struggle to score big runs against them. If one player like Smith scores all those runs someone has to stay with him at the other end to allow him the time to do that, so others are contributing.

  • Good piece. Pedantic correction; England haven’t won any of the last 10 tests away in Australia. We drew once (MCG 2017)

  • Glad I’m not alone in my dislike of playing Jerusalem before each day’s play.

    Contrite shite. IMHO, obviously!

  • Not watched the programme and won’t be watching it. I’ll worry about the next Ashes when it’s certain to be going ahead which with the possibility of rolling lockdowns and changes to long haul travel is some way off yet.

    I am worried about the counties and the meeting on Friday. There’s some furious jockeying for position going on with the manufactured investigation into Watmore and county sources leaking apocalyptic visions of bankruptcies. The amounts of money involved are relatively small and I expect them to muddle through this time once Graves is clear he has the run at the ICC post – but the deeper issues are only going to be kicked a little ways down the road.

    • George Dobell is also reporting that The Hundred may be scrapped altogether i.e. not just postponed. Money is now tight and the ECB may not be able to afford a competition that’s expected to lose money in its first 5 years. This would be the right call imho.

      • I’ve heard a few virus conspiracy theories, but this one makes more sense than most.

    • “Money spent on consultancy work was slashed by 70 per cent and marketing and communications a similar amount”, reports Nick Hoult about one of Watmore’s previous jobs.

      We can only hope!

    • You seriously should watch it……and Death of a Gentleman. Giles Clarke, the biggest grub in cricket admin.

  • Re Brookes: he’ll have to have a hell of a season in 2021 to get on that tour I would think. He really seemed to get second-season syndrome last summer: every time I looked at a scorecard he was going at four or five an over and not getting many wickets.

    Any thoughts from Warks residents?

    • Quickies are notoriously inconsistent until they get comfortable with their game. Because they are a natural rather than coached commodity, they have to fine tune themselves more. This makes them prone to peaks and troughs. As a bowler you have to bowl to a field and if you’re pushing your body to the limit in order to generate pace this potentially makes you more inaccurate and expensive, especially when you’re learning the game.
      Holding, Roberts, Marshall and co. weren’t pulling up trees as teenagers, so we need to be patient. Brooke’s will be a work in progress for some time, hopefully he can stay fit, as this interrupts progress.

  • Vic Marks write with his characteristic whimsy, then drops it in at the end…. 4 day tests.

  • Decision on the postponement of the 16.66 now expected next Weds. DM “good journalism” has revealed a detailed financial breakdown of the competition. They reckon Watmore hasn’t seemed averse to scrapping the whole idea and going back to a revamped Blast but whther that’s him letting the counties think what they want to think remains to be seen. The broadcasters were signed up for a new tournament, not the 16.66 specifically (although the BBC seemed particularly keen on new city-based teams).

    Using Abu Dhabi for English games is apparently an option under consideration.


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