The Test: showing cricket’s virtue, and the virtue in cricket
Sports fans have never had it so good. We can watch events unfolding live on our TVs, we can follow our favourite players on social media, and series such as The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team provide unfettered behind-the-scenes access.
The cancellation or postponement of most professional sporting events in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic only underscores how good we have had it in recent years. Any fan in lockdown seeking a fix of the drama and entertainment that sport provides should look no further than Amazon’s eight-part series, which follows the fall, and fall – and eventual rise again – of the Australian men’s cricket team from 2018 to 2019.
The Test is largely a story of redemption of both the team and star player Steve Smith but it is also the story of coach Justin Langer’s leadership. The narrative is pushed forward by “Sandpapergate”, one of the most controversial episodes in cricket history, in which Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were implicated in a cheating scandal.
The Test does not dwell excessively on the incident, but for anyone interested in the back story, Crossing the Line, a documentary on Showmax, explores it in more detail. The scandal raised serious questions about the culture of Australia’s team and led to the resignation of captain Smith along with bans for him, vice-captain Warner and Bancroft for their involvement in illegally changing the state of the ball in a match against South Africa.
Former Australian batsman Justin Langer is drafted in to coach the side in the wake of the scandal and he sets out to both change the culture of the team and rebuild it without key players such as Smith and Warner while they serve their bans.
Langer from the outset sets out his targets for the team. “It’s not just about being a great cricketer but a great person,” he says. As a player Langer was a fierce competitor in the great Australian sides of the 1990s and 2000s. As a coach he is every bit as fierce, while also enjoying yoga and swimming in the sea. He is a collaborative manager, often seeking input from his assembled team of experts and former players. He makes for a fascinating study for anyone interested in management philosophy.
Without Smith and Warner, Langer appoints Tim Paine as captain. An earnest, hard-working player, he wins the respect of his team with his fearless approach against India – the best team in the world – and his capacity for empathy and honesty. Paine says his first tour as skipper did not start well, as he arrives at the airport only to find that he has his daughter’s passport rather than his own. It’s a wonderful anecdote that brings a humanity to the hard-nosed world of Test cricket – the kind of humanity that was missing in the pre-Langer era.
Paine and Langer work tirelessly to change the culture of the team and are largely successful in their efforts. Warner and Smith return to the fray in 2019 after serving their bans, and to Langer’s credit the return of the old guard has no negative impact on an Australia team that has become more likeable, but lacks the competitive edge to compete consistently against the likes of India and England.
At the same time, we see that Smith is an extraordinarily odd human being.
At the Cricket World Cup in England in the summer of 2019, the focus shifts to Smith and Warner, who are roundly booed and jeered by English fans during the tournament.
“We saw you cry on the telly, we saw you cry on the telly, we saw you cry on the telly,” fans in Birmingham chant, a reference to Smith’s emotional press conference in 2018 when he, as the captain, took responsibility for the Sandpapergate scandal.
Smith, like most great players, lets his bat do the talking in the Cricket World Cup and then emerges as the dominant force in the Ashes Test series that follows against old foes England.
Langer is always keen to exonerate Smith for past wrongdoings and defends his star batsman at every turn. At the same time, we see that Smith is an extraordinarily odd human being. “He just loves to bat,” says Paine. Walking down a passage, Smith practises batting. While sleeping he dreams of batting. Smith is unorthodox in his technique and has many tics that suggest he is somewhere on the OCD spectrum, and Langer sums it up in true Australian fashion.
“Steve Smith is f**king weird, mate.”
It is the kind of quip that many cricket fans will love to hear, and is a small piece of evidence that Langer has succeeded in redeeming Australian cricket. The Test succeeds in providing that kind of texture and shows us that sport need not be results-driven at the expense of our better nature.