Today we welcome back James Wilson, author of Court and Bowled: Tales of Cricket and the Law (WSH, 2017). Here’s his review of Amazon Prime’s documentary on Australia’s post sandpaper-gate resurgence.
I have just finished binge-watching The Test, the fly-on-the-wall documentary about Australian cricket’s travails from shortly after the sandpaper affair of March 2018 until the successful retention of the Ashes in England in late 2019. I imagine it has been staple fare for all cricket fans during lockdown, and it has already been mentioned on this blog by James Morgan. Here are a few more random thoughts on the programme.
First, and most importantly, it is entertaining, which is recommendation enough whatever criticisms might be levelled at it. There are many moments of human drama, along with amusing vignettes, one being the very modern obsession of making coffee with very old-fashioned methods along with modern jargon. Other commentators have beaten me to the observation that David Boon, legend of Australian tours past for his in-flight lager consumption, must be seriously shaking his head and uttering non-politically correct observations about modern Australian masculinity. (So too Rod Marsh and Doug Walters, who started the tradition of recording the number of ‘tinnies’ downed during international flights which Boon determinedly set out to break.)
There is not much cricket on screen beyond the minimum to place the dressing room scenes in context. Those scenes, in the usually well furbished facilities behind normally closed doors, are frequently gripping. English fans will enjoy watching the desperate strain on all the Australian faces as Ben Stokes marches towards what we know will be among the greatest test innings in history. Less amusing is seeing the dressing room horror as Steve Smith is felled by Jofra Archer and there is a fear he might have been hit in the same fashion as Phil Hughes. The genuine admiration the Australians have for Virat Kohli is evident. We are also given some idea of what it is like to tour and play in India, where the size and enthusiasm of the crowds lining the streets and hotel lobbies almost rival those in the stadia.
The latter experience is probably the main reason why Tim Paine chortles in surprise when an English reporter asks him if Edgbaston is the most intimidating ground in the world. ‘I could give you fifteen that are more’ he laughs, and to prove his point the Australians go out and win the first Ashes test emphatically.
Beyond giving results there is little by way of match reporting and summary; this is not Wisden in moving pictures. It is more a character study, with the inherent problem that the cast is too large. Only coach Justin Langer and captain Tim Paine get much repeated screen time, and apart from seeing glimpses of comfortable houses and supportive families we do not learn much about them as people – save that Langer is not very imaginative with his use of swear words; he never attempts anything creative on the lines of R Lee Ermy’s gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.
We learn even less about the other players, other than that like many young people (not just in Australia) they struggle with pronouncing the letters ‘t’, ‘r’ and ‘d’. Thus, we are told they play ‘criggid’ (rhyming with ‘ribbit’) for ‘Straya’, and that Ricky Ponting’s nickname ‘Punter’ is apparently pronounced ‘Punna’. There is not much new here – I have a book by Christopher Martin Jenkins about the 2001 Ashes, in which he laments that some of his fellow English commentators sound like Harry Enfield’s disc jockey Dave Nice, with his selfless work for ‘charridy’. (Gideon Haigh, like CMJ before him an éminence grise among cricket writers, does not suffer from the affliction during in his interviews in the programme, proof that it is not a necessary component of the Australian accent.)
Some schadenfreude comes from seeing players returning after being dismissed cheaply or through bad shots. Cricket can be the cruellest of games: in nearly every other sport a single blunder might cost a game, but at least a player has the rest of the match to try to make up for it; a batsman in cricket, on the other hand, might play his first ball badly and know he has to spend the rest of the game watching everyone else and feeling sorry for himself. That feeling must be all the worse the higher one goes; televised games will replay the moment of humiliation mercilessly. It is no surprise therefore that we see several players stomp into the dressing room, throw their gear aside and display the look of someone who really, really hates cricket.
Those episodes show the players to be as vulnerable as anyone else to personal frailties. Frustratingly, though, aside from seeing a bit of net practice, we do not get any sense of how they came to be international sportsmen in the first place. Each must have an interesting back story about natural ability, dedication and opportunity, but nothing much is hinted at in the programme. They could almost be any other random bunch of blokes on a package tour, apart from being evidently much fitter than most.
Throughout, there are various direct attempts to repair the damage from the sandpaper disaster. It is repeatedly called a ‘mistake’ rather than what it was – a pre-determined plan of deception. The only ‘mistake’ was thinking they might get away with it. The players gripe about the booing of Warner, Bancroft and Smith, but it is possible to overdo the sympathy as much as the fans overdid the insults. To be sure, the fans’ booing was boorish, but it is hard to downplay the significance of the crime the three men committed against the sport of cricket and the country of Australia, and they were extremely lucky to escape with nothing more than a 12-month ban. Match fixers are sent to jail, while in a commercial context something equivalent to Sandpapergate would have resulted in civil litigation for fraud or breach of contract. Still, it is right that the cricket world has now moved on, and we should not expect the Australians to indulge in more self-flagellation than what they feel is necessary.
Smith is seen redeeming himself partly through coming across as a decent bloke away from the spotlight, but primarily through unrivalled brilliance at the crease. By contrast, the Ashes failures of Bancroft and Warner – the latter a modern Doug Walters, able to score runs at will anywhere apart from England – go almost unmentioned (Langer himself put an unintentionally amusing spin on it). Smith also gains much sympathy when he is hit by Archer. At the time his concussion was thought to be potentially fatal to Australia’s Ashes hopes; in retrospect we can see it gave them an accidental but considerable boost by opening the door for Marnus Labuschagne, who started with a half century and, at the time of writing, was averaging 63 in test cricket – the only current player in world cricket ahead of Smith himself.
Various other steps towards the rehabilitation of Australian cricket are shown. Langer repeatedly emphasises respect among teammates, and he urges only ‘banter’, not ‘abuse’, of the opposition. Captain Grumpy’s 1989 surliness is seen to be a thing of the past as the Australians mingle cheerfully with the English after the series. There is certainly no repeat of the Warner/Root 2013 incident, and not just because no Australian would be foolish enough to throw a punch in anyone’s direction with Ben Stokes in the room. The side also gets strong and appropriate lessons in perspective, humility and patriotism when taken to Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
Although Australia have technically returned to the number one position in test cricket, their defeats to India showed they still have a long way to go. Their failure to retain the World Cup also puts them below the better Australian sides of the past 33 years in ODIs. Then again, retaining the Ashes in England is something no other Australian side has managed since Steve Waugh’s 2001 team (incidentally, the familiar steely Waugh gaze can be seen in the programme as he returns to the side as a consultant).
Ultimately, the documentary shows the current Australian side to be a genuinely likeable bunch, something not always said about their predecessors (perhaps unfairly as they never had an equivalent behind-the-scenes documentary). It also shows they will be hell-bent on defeating their next opponents including – especially – England. But we knew that anyway. Recommended.
© James Wilson 2020
Patronising much? Seriously, a whole paragraph dissecting the Australian accent like some sort of “My Fair Lady” elocutionist, complete with remarks about variations of it being an “affliction” – would you remark on the Indian/Pakistani/Caribbean et al accents with the same level of condescension? Of course you wouldn’t. And last I heard, any number of the regional British accents are just as strong, if not verging on the downright unintelligible.
And banging on about Sandpapergate, suggesting that Smith, Warner and Cameron were “extremely lucky” to avoid harsher penalties, if not civil penalties. Unbelievable. The ICC-mandated penalty for ball-tampering before Newlands was a one-Test ban. Anything above and beyond that was a voluntary action on behalf of the players’ own board. One could mount a strong argument that they were extremely UNlucky to have been hit that hard.
Let’s not beat around the bush here, the ball-tampering that happened at Newlands was an egregious and shocking example of a nasty and under-handed element of the game – but one that has a long and colourful history, involving some of the most decorated players ever to play the sport. Did they try to run Atherton out of the game? Imran? Waqar, Shoaib, Afridi, Martin Crowe, Dravid, Faf du Plessis (who got caught twice), Stuart Broad or Marcus Trescothick?? No. Of course they didn’t. And neither should they have.
Do your homework next time that you want to clutch your post-Colonial British pearls.
1. I have a New Zealand accent, not so different from Australian, and specifically said in the article (if you’d read the whole thing) that it wasn’t accent, it was pronunciation. As I pointed out English people do it too, while not all Australians do (I gave Gideon Haigh as an example of someone who doesn’t). Try to read the article properly before replying next time.
2. Atherton was very lucky at that time and I had zero sympathy for him. The Australians went one worse by a pre meditated plan involving at least three people. Others who did the same should have been hit harder by their boards / the ICC.
Accent IS pronunciation, surely? Aren’t you just saying that there is more than one Australian accent, and that you like one and don’t like the other–just as Estuary English is not the same as BBC English, but they’re both equally British.
There is an overlap but no, they’re not the same thing. When the BBC was founded, its first pronunciation committee was headed by George Bernard Shaw, who spoke with a Dublin Accent. Many presenters over the years eg Brian Redhead have spoken with impeccable vowels etc whilst retaining a regional accent. Jeremy Coney, my fellow countryman, speaks precisely but his accent is not of any discernible category beyond the generic NZ accent. And, as I said above, Gideon Haigh sounds as Australian as anyone but does not say “Punna” for “Punter” etc.
You can be in Darwin, Hobart, Brisbane or Perth and you will not know the difference. Cross a bridge in London and you can hear the difference straightaway.
One the of the amazing things about the English language, it can say a lot, but not!
I agree with Carrot here, so need to expand on that. Other than that, the article by James is good.
The problem with any documentary is an editor can make you think anything with a bit of judicious cutting. I’m not suggesting the Aussies aren’t a decent bunch, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be, but by mere dint of broadcasting time there has to be stuff left on the cutting room floor.
If you are a documentary maker with an agenda you can tilt the balance in your favour easily enough.
I have always been a sceptic when it comes to taking anything as read from documentaries. You don’t have to lie, just leave things out that go against the impression you want to create.
Despite all this I’m intrigued enough to want to see the program, even if it’s only as an entertainment.
Yes that’s no doubt correct; you never know what was left out. But I’m recommending it as entertainment and unless one hears to the contrary the Aussies do seem a decent bunch.
One glaring omission (or perhaps not) is when Virat Kholi went to his fans during a WC match against Australia and urged them to acknowledge one of the greats of the game (Steve Smith), not boo him.
Not sure if that was deliberate editing or not, but it was a telling moment in the big scheme of things when Smith was getting battered by the crowds. Until The Oval, where they stood and acknowledged a champion.
The thing that makes me a sceptic about the ‘decent bunch’ is that under Steve Waugh the Aussies undoubtedly developed a cynical gamesmanship culture. Darren Lehman seemed to carry this on as coach and Langer, having been an apparently willing part of that culture as a player, is now the coach.
I never understood why Waugh bothered with the “mental disintegration” stuff; Australia were already the best team in the world when he took over and from having players like Gilchrist into the side they just got better. There was no need for childish sledging etc and I think Langer agrees since on The Test he was urging better behaviour on the field.
I also wonder simply because the personnel is ;largely the same: only Lehmann has actually gone anywhere.
The only player missing from Newlands in the England tour last summer was Mitchell Marsh, and that was because he was injured. In the playing XI, the replacements were Pattinson, Wade, Labuschagne and Head….and Wade and Pattinson are very definitely not the players I’d choose if I wanted a team that sledged less!
As an Aussie through and through, and who was at Newlands and who thought the punishment was a little harsh (I anticipated about half the suspension they got) The Test was very well done. The most poignant moment for me was when Jofra felled Smith, a cross field shot I had never seen before showed Ben Stokes in the leg trap hold his head in horror and literally reel away, barely able to look back to check on Smith. I saw/see Stokes in a very favorable light after that, not that I ever doubted his cricket capacity, and think that he, like 99% of all test players go out to play hard but fair and understand it’s only a game after all and the opposition are not there to be vilified.
Not watched it and not going to watch it. Who really believes that the presence of the cameras doesn’t change behaviour or that anything truly damaging to the corporate image would ever be allowed to emerge?
Meanwhile, county players are staring down the barrel at another 20% pay cut on top of the 20% most have already had. Some counties may not even be able to pay minimum wage. No county cricket of any sort this year continues to be the vibe. The WI tour also sounds in doubt with an expanded Pakistan tour looking more probable. I guess it’s just the ECB’s good luck that Wasim Khan happens to be in charge of the PCB and one might suspect will be more than averagely amenable to what the English game needs. Funny too how it’s worked out that, if England can get on the pitch, Stokes is likely to be captain at some stage.
Nice inclusion of a 33 in the article BTW. Well done on getting that in.
We have too many counties and too many county ‘Pro’s’ and hangers on who are simply not really very good.. Maybe this is the push we have been waiting for to close a few counties down. I would love us to have 18 fully filled counties with good players all of high quality but when I look at the local team to me (Glos).. I see naff all actual red ball quality and barely anything more than bits and pieces white ball hitters.. That really isn’t what we want in our counties and certainly looking at the players in the 2xi and ‘squads’. .. some very very very poor players who aren’t even very good in the amateur leagues and get push on the ‘big’ teams purely as they are at ‘county’..
Still, I get why people who love their county don’t wan tot see it go. It’s just the sheer amount of cash we waste on rank average players who aren’t red ball players, aren’t interested and we have numerous counties whose sole focus in one 2020.. that isn’t right.. if that’s the case.. then we split off.. ECB fund those who are willing to produce red ball players and those who want to just play white ball.. fend for themselves.
Isn’t the focus on white-ball just the adapting or dying that you’re talking about in another post on this thread, though? Spectator numbers average over 7000 per game for the Blast (which is still only half the capacity of the grounds used, on average), and for the Championship it’s less than 1000 per day–plus the day is twice as long so you have to pay staff that you’re paying by the hour twice as much, but the ticket price is around the same.
I’m not a big fan of T20, and I can’t imagine paying to see a game, but I can see why county treasurers like it. I suspect that with what you’re proposing both the ECB and the counties would go bust within a few months–because they would also lose tens of millions of TV money which comes from white-ball cricket. Essentially you would be making the entire county game dependent on half a dozen Test matches a year–and the risks that would come to them from cancellation due to viruses, terrorist attacks or the Queen dying the day before a game is due to start.
I think you’ve hinted at the real point elsewhere–that county salaries have got much too high for the amount of money coming into the game (plus, for all the way it’s talked up, the Blast isn’t actually a really successful competition in terms of filling grounds).
Not against us having 2020.. Just stop pretending that a 2020 player is any good at Red ball. Admit that if you want to be good at 2020 you (excluding the odd very rare player) quite simply will be crap at red ball
TBF to Gloucestershire, they have produced decent players who then move on. I was astonished when, a couple of seasons ago, Warwickshire were able to raid them for a couple of decent seamers who could have been solid members of the Gloucestershire attack but were never going to be first choice at Edgbaston when Woakes, Stone and Brookes were available.
The ECB’s attitude to the international summer seems to me like a classic example of British exceptionalism.
The UK’s death rate per million inhabitants is 460, third highest of any country (only Belgium has a higher death rate both per inhabitant and per case of Coronavirus). There are so many territories in WI it’s difficult to calculate theirs, but it seems to be about six, or about 75 times less than the UK: the rates in Jamaica and Trinidad, which are the two most populous, are 3 and 6, the highest of any of the main cricketer-producing territories is 31, and the five smallest countries which have international grounds haven’t have a single death between them. (For comparison, only Ireland of the other Full Members has a death rate of more than 4 per million, and two of the Associates who are going to the WT20 have also not had a single death).
I can’t see why any country other than Ireland would be remotely willing to tour the UK, but particularly WI, which has countries which haven’t really been affected at all and whose players are from an ethnic group which is disproportionately liable to die of Coronavirus in the UK–although interestingly not elsewhere. As`Johnny Grave said the other day, who wants to be the WI player who introduces Coronavirus deaths to somewhere like St Kitts?
The ECB have been talking like a religious cult: that what they want to be reality is actually objective reality. I suspect that the international summer could easily be a total mess this year: the Australian government has been saying that they won’t let anyone in or out of the country till mid-September, so the Australian tour looks very dicey. (It’s interesting that there has been no mention at all yet of rescheduling the series between India, death rate 1 per million, and Sri Lanka (0.4), but the ECB are talkling as if the WI series is a done deal). Reading in a bit more detail, it’s not even clear if there will be any flights out of the Caribbean by mid-June (or between islands) when the team would need to leave. There’s also no certainty that the UK government would allow games even in bio-secure venues–or that all the players would agree to play.
As you say, it’s lucky that the other tourists are Pakistan–both because of the Wasim Khan link and because they’re likely to be more sympathetic than most countries to the plight of a country that other teams are unwilling to tour because it’s too dangerous. Incidentally, I wonder how high the statistical chance of dying of Coronavirus in the UK is now compared to that of being killed by terrorists in Pakistan in, say, 2016, when no major team was even considering going there…
I doubt it’s down to British Exceptionalism, more like ECB exceptionalism, who are obsessed with money above all else.
Unfortunately, sheer nonsense. The only way to compare mortality will be in retrospect by looking at excess death rates. The differences between countries, excepting those which have handled matters well such as S Korea and Germany) is most probably down to reporting differences caused by different protocols (cause of death or probable cause), availability to confirm infection (almost non-existent in the sub-continent which explains the low numbers) and, in some cases (such as certain US states) deliberate misreporting.
Do not base any thinking on current reported numbers. I may be a lousy cricketer, but I was a professional user of statistics.
Good watch. Sure is it made up, sure it’s edited to only show what they want you to see but that’s the media for us. Its always been like that, hence why listening to any form of reporter/media or pundit (and players!!) is quite simply pointless.. They will never ever tell you the truth.. only what they want you to think.
Interesting and enjoyable few hours.
Aus no:1 in the world is good for them.. well done… shows how POOR the rest of the world are though at Test Cricket now.. .White ball has a lot to answer for in terms of declining skill levels..
Even the ‘great’ George Dobell who is lauded as the top cricket writer is employed by a main site and has access to the ECB BECAUSE he toes the line. Anyone who thinks he doesn’t is deluding themselves… If he didn’t, then he wouldn’t;’t be employed AND the ECB wouldn’t give him access to the players/coaches etc.
Players, coaches, managers, adminers and the media can[t afford to tell the truth as they’d lose their jobs within weeks
I don’t blame the ECB for acting like every other business in the UK.. Money obsessed above anything. We still have 600+ dying a day and yet people this last week are acting like all is fine.. going out and about, filling paths, parks, supermarkets and ignoring 2m social distancing.. why.. not because they are ‘bored’ or even because they are mentally ill.. it’s because business is pushing the agenda to make out we should all go back to work because they aren’t earning a quick buck.
Just adapt your business to be work from home.. if you can’t adapt.. you die..
Airlines for example.. not willing to social distance.. not willing to quarantine… unlucky.. adapt or die.. if you die..so be it.. it’s happened before in history so why not now.
Covid kills more.. lockdown is only going to kill businesses that refuse to adapt to allow online or working from home as the norm.. anyone working in an office can and should work from home forever…
Warehouses etc can simply learn to adapt with social distancing .. if you won’t, then hopefully they close
Not that it’s relevant to this article, but regarding CV, this country is now vastly approaching the stage where the “cure” is worse than the disease; major mental health issues, people not going to get checked out for serious medical problems, a looming recession and potentially financial disaster if this lockdown goes on much longer, that will probably kill more people than the virus ultimately. There is no chance of a vaccine within 18 months, and there is no immunity being built up by keeping people “social “distancing ( what a horrible term). It has to stop and soon.
Everyone bangs on about mental illness….
People are exercising more
People are eating healthier
People aren’t wasting money on luxury items
People are living a slower life
Many are living with less stress
Most are seeing more of their family via vtc etc than they ever did before
Sure a few will struggle but they are struggling anyway. Most business can operate online and woek from home and if they can’t or won’t then adapt or die
Why does it have to stop?? So a few people can go back to earning bucks while others die??? Health before profit and the economy will always recover.. has before, will do it again
What do Don Bradman, Len Hutton, Dennis Compton, Douglas Jardine, Bill Bowes, Herbert Sutcliffe, Bill Lawry, Bobby Simpson and Clive Lloyd have in common?
A preference for cross dressing and Pimms when visiting Lords? (sorry – my resistance was just too weak).
I have no idea what has led to the perception of Ben Stokes as a ‘hard man’. Certainly beating up a couple of drunks cannot be the explanation. Compared with past England hard men like Peter Willey and Brian Close he is a teddy bear.
He isn’t hard.. sadly people just make a link between gobby aggression and ‘hard’.. see it all the time
It’s saint Stokes though so we are not allowed to Say anything bad
He is the son of a New Zealand rugby league international, so he has some hard genes at least … plus he is built like a brick outhouse. But agreed he hasn’t faced Michael Holding bowling non stop bouncers, while wearing 1970s cricket gear ie no helmet and nowt more than a cotton shirt by way of rib protection.
I was thinking more of their non-playing behaviour. Willey being able to bench press over 300lb and ‘persuading’ Botham to behave by threatening to insert his bat in Botham’s rear end, and Close turning out with Yorkshire Colts to play in his 70s.
As for the documentary, I thought it was entertaining as well as a good insight into the Aussie side. There’s always stuff on the cutting room floor, but I’m not sure why the accent stuff is actually relevant? Who cares.
Not particularly relevant beyond the fact that the programme was as much about the players as people as it was about the cricket – more so in fact. And it reminded me of CMJ saying the same about his fellow English commentators a while back, and what people have said about my Kiwi accent over the years I have lived in England (be it as an ice break or piss take).