By Riley Taylor(@rileyttaylor21)
Welcome to the 17th edition of Overtime’s Cricket Weekly Column, where we look at the week’s biggest stories and games.
This week with no cricket action on thanks to the small matter of a global pandemic, I thought I’d give my verdict on Amazon’s cricket documentary The Test which documents the rise of Australian cricket following the ball-tampering scandal in 2018.
With eight episodes to cover, each around 45 minutes in length I’ll be reviewing one per week, whenever I can, and discussing the content from each one.
The Test: Episode One A New Beginning
The episode starts with the Fourth Ashes Test 2019 at Old Trafford, the Test that saw Australia retain The Ashes.
It gives an epic build-up to the ball from Josh Hazlewood that trapped Craig Overton leg-before including reaction from Langer and the backroom staff.
But before we get to see that we go 16 months back to the time that legendary Australian opener Justin Langer was announced as Australia head coach following the ball-tampering scandal that shook the world in 2018.
The documentary itself follows the team behind the scenes following the tour of South Africa to the 2019 Ashes, with interviews, exclusive reactions and behind the scenes content from players, coaches and journalists.
The first interviewee of the documentary is Langer who gives his viewpoint on the situation that happened in South Africa, stating that “he couldn’t believe what he was seeing”.
This is where the episode begins to unfold, as we start the journey from the ball-tampering scandal, as we are given reaction from journalists and players alike amongst the real-life action and news reports.
The reaction to the scandal is shown fervently to be extremely negative as it rightfully should be, newspapers labelling the players involved as a disgrace and radio callers likening it to the underarm ball incident in 1981.
We are shown the moment that Steve Smith, captain of the Aussies during that scandal, escorted to the airport by police surrounded by a gaggle of journalists, which as Langer says was incredible and unthinkable considering the fact that he was touted as the next Donald Bradman after almost single-handedly winning his side the Ashes back a few months earlier.
Furthermore, we are shown the press conferences of Smith, Cameron Bancroft, David Warner and then head coach Darren Lehmann, with Smith, Warner and Lehmann breaking down in tears as they resigned their positions.
All involved were banned for 12 months with Lehmann resigning permanently as head coach, a fair penalty I must admit for one of biggest scandals in cricket in recent memory.
Peter Lalor, Australian cricket journalist states in the documentary that “it wasn’t about damage to a ball it was about damage to a brand.”
Langer reflects on the incident stating that he believed it was real when Lehmann stepped down as head coach but he also could not stop thinking about what an amazing project (not pro-ject Justin, proj-ect) it could be to take over.
Fast forward two months and Langer is made Australia head coach, stating in his press conference that he aims for the team to be “good humans and good Australians” not just good players, which I thought is a good message to go by.
Langer wholesomely reflects on his new position stating that “I had to pinch myself” as he couldn’t believe where he was and comparing to it receiving his first Baggy Green cap.
Next, we are introduced to the next key figure in the journey, Tim Paine. Paine had been called-up as the Aussies new keeper in the Ashes and was on the ball-tampering tour in 2018.
After the resignation of Smith as captain, Paine was named temporary captain before officially given the title at the end of the tour.
We see Paine go back to his old University of Tasmania club as he reveals he couldn’t believe he was captain of Australia as he thought it would never have happened.
Over in Brisbane, Langer calls his first team meeting as he sets about his new style of the dressing room and how the players should behave, Paine states how it was more about becoming Australia’s heroes again.
This is where the episode takes an impressive turn as we are directly involved with the Australian team talk in the preparations for their tour of England.
Our next interviewee of the team is now introduced with opener and T20 captain Aaron Finch giving his overview of the Brisbane training camp. Finch is a likeable character and despite his terrible facial hair resonates as a player and a leader.
Langer now gives a press conference and he is portrayed as a likeable character, introducing himself to all the journalists and saying hello to the one’s he recognises. As a journalist this automatically pushes him up in my estimations as its nice to have people you interview on sometimes on a weekly basis, interact and acknowledge you, unlike most football managers.
The Aussies now begin their next chapter, their first tour since South Africa with a five-match ODI series versus world number one’s England, a tough Test for a new captain, one made even tougher for Paine when he admits he almost didn’t get in the country as he accidentally mixed up his passport with his 12-month old daughter’s.
Langer becomes even more likeable as a person when he takes the team to Pozieres in France, a place where 46,000 Australian’s died fighting in The Battle of the Somme, to give the team a reality check to remind them how lucky they are.
We are retold a story by Langer who says that Australia manager Gavin Dovey on the team bus gave every player and Langer a gift. Each player was given a letter and a photo from their parents telling them how proud they are of them. A touching sentiment all-round but even more so for Langer whose mum died just a year before the tour.
Next, we see the players warming up at Lords’ ahead of their series versus England as Nathan Lyon gives us an insight into how Langer was different from most head coaches, as he was very hands-on instantly in comparison to most head coaches who step back in the first few months.
Over in England, Langer introduces his new policy of “banter but no abuse” a sensible step considering the previous “win at all costs” strategy that the Aussies had previously implemented. He also outlines how the English press and crowds were going to be on their backs at all times. Little did he know what was to come…
We are then shown action of the tour in each ODI with brief reactions from Paine and Langer. After the Aussies defeat in the first one-day game, Langer talks about a process and how things aren’t quite going to click instantly. The second ODI shows as Paine says the two different stages of the two sides, England on top of the world, Australia very much struggling.
After the second ODI, we are given are bits of dressing room action with Langer firing his team up after the game, in which they were comprehensively beaten.
It’s a brilliant insight and it really does make you feel like you are there with them and it also shows what a proper team talk is like with Langer really hitting home with some of his thoughts.
This team-talk is followed up by a coach meeting which is a really nice exclusive as these are never shown by any team in any form, as Langer gets feedback on his team-talk from the previous day.
However, as bounce-backs go their next game was the opposite of what the Aussies needed as they conceded a world record score of 481 and suffered their heaviest defeat ever by 242 runs.
Australia then followed this up with a fourth defeat in four at Chester-le-Street which leads to a coaches meeting in which Langer and his staff admit their plans are working but the players might not have the skill and quality they once thought.
Langer at this point drafts in his former teammates and legendary players Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting who attempt to rile the team up in order to prevent a whitewash.
England won the fifth ODI to complete a whitewash, but Langer continues to say throughout the episode to trust the process and to ask anyone who he played with to this is the right mantra to stick by.
The episode ends with Langer explaining how this might not be a new team but losing to England is never ok.
Overall, it was a fantastic start to what could be a superb insight into one of the most interesting sporting stories in recent years. And after not watching any kind of ‘fly on the wall’ series produced by Amazon such as All or Nothing: Manchester City, it was a fantastic insight into what sport at the highest level is truly like.
Ball-tampering scandal: My Thoughts
Now introducing a new section where I give my thoughts on any relevant topic from the week of cricket, this week I’d thought it would be appropriate to discuss the ball-tampering scandal.
At the time, I felt sorry for Bancroft, a young batsman in his first away series with Australia being instructed by three high ranking players to take part in unethical conduct, it felt like he was the scapegoat.
Smith, I never felt sorry for as the captain he was the one that ultimately made the call as to whether they should have taken part in such acts but I and most cricket fans will have somewhat forgiven him after proving his worth in last year’s World Cup and Ashes series. But he must now be aware that wherever he goes he will be still labelled a cheat and booed and that is justifiably fair.
Should he still be playing? Yes.
Should he continued to be labelled a cheat and should the paying public be allowed to boo him? Yes
Does the action demerit him as player? No.
Warner is a fantastic player but after his incident with Joe Root in 2013 and his general demeanour I have never felt any kind of admiration for him and as such, I felt no remorse for him during this incident. Unlike Smith, he was a player that I would have preferred to never see play again.
Now obviously this is going to sound like me targeting Australia and to some extent I am and so it would be only for me to point out the ball-tampering incidents that England have also been involved, albeit not nearly as serious and as stupid as this.
Two incidents Australians always bring up when English fans and pundits rightfully criticise the ball-tampering scandal is Mike Atherton’s dirt incident in 1994 and England’s ‘minty fresh’ behaviour.
Atherton’s dirt incident I cannot defend, he was caught red-handed by a photographer using dirt from his pocket to rough up the ball, he admitted it and was punished.
However, what he didn’t do is do it in an age of cricket where cameras are everywhere, filming every little moment, which is what the Aussies did, in front of not only the paying crowd but four million-plus people on TV and online.
Now comes my most hated argument as it has no substance. There has always been an argument that England have ball tampered in the past as players have been caught with mints in their mouth which are used to create a build-up of saliva to use on the ball.
No players have ever been caught tampering or using sa\liva to do so, none have ever been punished for such actions, yet when former-England off-spinner Monty Panesar admitted in 2019 that the England side used this tactic, the Australian media and cricketing public went ham.
Famously, of course, everything written down in a book is obviously true I mean why would a player write a controversial statement that would make rival fans that wouldn’t previously give the book a moment notice, want to buy the book.
It was defiantly not to try and sell a book. No? Well, this is what the Aussies own captain, Tim Paine tried to claim that Ben Stokes was trying to do when he wrote about David Warner in his new book On Fire.
But hey that’s just my thoughts and only my thoughts.
Well, that’s it for Cricket Weekly for this week, stay tuned for next week where ill be going through the second episode of The Test as well as any other news that might come up, fingers crossed!
For more cricket content check out last week’s Cricket Weekly where Riley takes a look back at the past six months of cricket.