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TV series review: The Test: A New Era For Australian Cricket

Thursday, 16 April 2020  | Brendan Byrne

The Test: A New Era For Australian Cricket begins at one of the lowest points of Australian cricketing history – the infamous 2018 ball-tampering scandal in South Africa – and traces the travails and struggles of the national men’s cricket team through to the Ashes defence in England in 2019. Seen largely from the point-of-view of new coach Justin Langer as he attempts to both rebuild the team around inexperienced captain Tim Paine, as well as instil a new ethos within team members, The Test is classic fly-on-the-wall documentary film-making in which as much is revealed by the camera’s silent tracking of events as by what those involved have to say for themselves. Along the way, the team play series against India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka with varying fortunes, while a parade of faces come and go as the selection and coaching team attempt to find a winning combination.

For a documentary about a team struggling to rebuild itself after the loss of key players and staff in the fallout from the ball-tampering scandal, The Test builds up to a suitably ambiguous conclusion: as we now know, the Australians retained the Ashes, but did so only by drawing the series against England, not by winning outright. However, what makes The Test both engaging and unsatisfying viewing is the questions it leaves unanswered in light of coach Langer’s avowed purpose of instilling a new team ethos. This is revealed in those moments when a dismissed batsman throws his gear around the change room and engages in a foul-mouthed tirade. Or, on another occasion, when one of the support staff has his arms pinned and his face smeared with chocolate cake to ‘celebrate’ his birthday. How does such conduct – which would not be tolerated in any other workplace – indicate the extent to which Langer’s ‘reforms’ are only skin deep? To what extent does it indicate the reasons why some players have trouble behaving appropriately in wider society?

Further, given The Test takes as its starting point the fallout from the ball-tampering scandal, the almost total lack of reflection on this event is startling. The general trajectory of the series runs from the PR nightmare of the scandal to the restoration of ‘public trust’ in the cricket team as a legitimate representative of Australian society – but that ‘restoration’ is only ever characterised as victory on the field. To the extent that the actual events in South Africa are dealt with, they are deemed to be a ‘mistake’ from which ‘lessons’ need to be learned – but what that ‘mistake’ and those ‘lessons’ might be is never spelled out. More tellingly, there is no reflection on the deeper issues. For example, nothing is said about the abuse of power that caused the then captain – Smith – and a senior player – Warner – to facilitate and induce a junior player – Bancroft – into an act of cheating. Likewise, while Smith and Warner, once they return to the team after serving their suspensions, are lauded for their subsequent on-field efforts and described as having ‘redeemed’ themselves, nothing is said about how this characterisation of ‘redemption’ reflects on Bancroft: Do his on-field failures and subsequent dropping from the team mean he is ‘unredeemed’? Is he the villain of the piece instead of the victim of what might arguably be described as an act of workplace bullying? Do Smith and Warner actually appreciate the quality and nature of their actions – and has this understanding changed their view of things? Sadly, the viewer never gets to find out.

The Test is clearly intended as a shame-to-glory documentary. That it doesn’t quite achieve this outcome is a product of both the ambiguity of the on-field results and the questions the documentary leaves unanswered. And while it contains many moving moments in which the humanity and vulnerability of the participants is painfully on display, the opportunity for deeper reflection is never taken up. Unfortunately, given its potential for revelatory filmmaking, The Test will likely end up as just another cultural artefact lauding the ‘Aussie spirit’ and congratulating us on our ‘resilient character’, rather than adding anything meaningful to our social conversation and analysis.

The Test: A New Era For Australian Cricket is currently airing on Amazon Prime Video.

Brendan Byrne is an ordained Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He is presently in congregational ministry in Melbourne, Australia; the creator and host of Ergasia: A Podcast of Work, Faith, Theology and Economics; and an Associate Member of the Religion and Social Policy Network of the University of Divinity (Vic).

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