Down underdogs review: This docu-series is an incurious retelling of Indian cricket team's extraordinary comeback

Down Underdogs barely goes beyond the news cycle of India-Australia Test series 2020-2021, and is a rushed vanity project about one of India’s greatest victories ever

Tatsam Mukherjee January 18, 2022 12:57:32 IST
Down underdogs review: This docu-series is an incurious retelling of Indian cricket team's extraordinary comeback

Few things tell the story of a particular moment in history better than a picture inside a sports arena. And we witnessed that moment in the fourth Test in Gabba (Brisbane) between India and Australia towards the end of Day 3. Shouldering the responsibility of carrying the first innings Indian total closer to their opponent’s, a 20-year-old Washington Sundar does something remarkable. Having reached his half century, Sundar goes down on one knee and tonks Nathan Lyon over mid-wicket for a six. What really stood out about the shot, was Sundar’s sheer disdain for the ball, the inflated reputation of the spinner bowling to him, or even the ‘delicate’ situation his team found itself in. Conventional wisdom would have argued Sundar to be more cautious in his approach, however that picture of him not even bothering to admire his shot, spoke volumes.

Trust writers/commentators/fans to attribute a ‘narrative’ to the most bland moment of sporting action taking place in front of their eyes. Which is why it’s no surprise that the India-Australia Test series 2020-2021 is now the subject of a four-part documentary series currently streaming on Sony LIV. Down Underdogs has such an embarrassment of riches in terms of ‘narratives’: right from India’s comeback victory after being skittled for 36 in the first Test, the emergence of a Mohammed Siraj, T. Natarajan, a draw snatched from the jaws of certain defeat by two bruised soldiers of Indian cricket (Hanuma Vihari and R Ashwin), and the aforementioned flamboyance of Washington Sundar announcing the non-verbalised confidence of a young Indian on the world stage.

The four-part documentary series is faithful to the ebbs and flows of the Test series, but it also doesn’t make even a single truly radical choice during its runtime of nearly four hours.

The ‘tellers’ of the tale are familiar too: Harsha Bhogle, Ayaz Menon, Sunil Gavaskar, Sanjay Manjrekar, Isa Guha, Lisa Sthalekar, Nick Night, Rajdeep Sardesai, Gaurav Kapur, Michael Clarke and Vivek Razdan. This batch (most of them were on-air commentators in the series) are also joined by players that took part in the series - Mohammed Siraj sporting his Hyderabadi twang saying it like it is, Hanuma Vihari’s sincere and soft-spoken take on things as if he were carefully guiding the ball to Third Man, and the characteristically busy Marnus Labuschagne, doing the on-camera equivalent of moving around in his crease, as he’s half-excited, half-nervous while recounting portions from the series, especially his partnership with fellow Aussie batter Steve Smith.

Down underdogs review This docuseries is an incurious retelling of Indian cricket teams extraordinary comeback

Bhogle waxes eloquent on Australian culture - where the boys get separated from the men, and where smaller mistakes tend to seem even more magnified. After all, Bhogle has spent a significant part of his career commentating on Australian radio, and attributes a large part of his work ethic to Australian professionals like Alan Border, Ian Chappell showing him the ropes during his broadcasting years. So, it’s hardly surprising that it’s Bhogle who comes with the most important sound-byte about Prithvi Shaw’s rawness getting exposed by a hostile bowling attack.

The four test matches are given alliterative titles: Adelaide Aberration, Melbourne Magic, The Sydney Siege, Brisbane Breached, and they all serve as a glorified highlights package of the individual test matches. The producers don’t seem to be reaching for anything beyond the surface, something a year of hindsight should have arguably triggered. There’s no attempt made to investigate beyond the surface pleasures of Shubhman Gill going onto his backfoot to pull in front of mid-wicket, or Rishabh Pant taking on Nathan Lyon with a long-on and long-off placed for him in case he mis-times the ball even slightly. After seeing Cheteshwar Pujara standing up to a hostile phase of fast bowling where he’s repeatedly dealt blows on his back, chest, and even a finger, the series merely cuts to Bhogle who says “I was concerned for him at that point”. That tells you everything about the series’ mission statement.

The 2020-21 Test series was historic in more ways than one, it was one that a depleted Indian side had no business winning against a full-strength Australian side. It delivered the most surprising twists even as it follows the tried-and-tested arc of an underdog side punching above its weight, and bringing to the fore the fundamental virtues of grit, mental fortitude and how even an ‘ordinary’ soldier can spring an extraordinary surprise when trusted with a common goal.

However, what’s disappointing about this four-part series is that it uncovers barely anything that we didn’t already know while watching the Test matches. Natarajan’s rise from a village near the Salem district through IPL, to becoming a ‘net bowler’, to earning his international cap under the most trying circumstances, is something that was already covered extensively in the news cycle. Siraj’s sacrifice, as he continued to play despite the demise of his father, was also discussed widely, as was Gill and Pant’s meteoric rise through the ranks as they took the attack to the significantly more experienced bowling attack, instead of cowering under pressure from them.

In the end, Down Underdogs is barely a little more than a rushed vanity project about one of India’s greatest victories ever. It’s an incurious, blind ‘tribute’ piece — how many of those have we seen in the last eight years?

Watch the trailer here

Tatsam Mukherjee has been working as a film journalist since 2016. He is based out of Delhi NCR.

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