It doesn't take long to realise that Justin Langer, in Amazon Prime Video's 'The Test: A New Era' For Australia's Team docu-series, is like the head coach character from an American football film. Langer, who was appointed as the coach of the Australian national cricket team after the ball tampering scandal, does a lot of talking in the eight-episode series. He talks about how Australian cricket is in his DNA. He talks about making Australians proud about the their men's cricket team again. He talks a lot during team meetings; either to provide inspiration to his wards or point out their mistakes. The makers also show Langer as the moral centre of the team. This is Langer's Australia and it is he who drives the team and this documentary series as well. He's the Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights.
But here's the thing about cricket. The head coach of a cricket team is not the most important person, unlike football or American football. In cricket, the captain is the decision maker. The captain sets the field, makes the bowling changes, has a say in batting order and plays a vital role in picking the playing XI. The captain takes the plaudits for victories, but the captain also takes maximum responsibility for defeats. It is the captain who has to lead by example.
For those who know the dynamics of a coach and a captain in cricket, 'The Test' portrays the roles rather loosely. Nevertheless, 'The Test' is an entertaining, a binge-worthy series about a cricket team trying to find a new identity under a new coach while also coping with the rigorous demands of winning matches across the globe.
The series chronicles the 16-month journey of the Australian men's team. From the time Langer was appointed as the coach to the conclusion of the Ashes. This Australian team is not a force anymore and they are bruised by the ball tampering/cheating scandal in Cape Town, which led to suspension of captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and opening batsman Cameron Bancroft. A new captain has been appointed, Tim Paine, an inexperienced international cricketer who almost thought of quitting the game a few months earlier. To lose Smith and Warner – two of the best batsmen in world of cricket for 12 months was a huge setback for the team in a World Cup year - and Langer also faced the task of changing the team's culture, which was heavily criticised post the controversy.
The biggest strength of the docu-series is the access given to the filming crew to shoot inside the dressing rooms. The camera also shows Langer sitting with his staff and discussing the squad. At first, Langer tries to do too much, coming across as an imposing figure with the sole mission of getting the best of his team. He's very demanding, he's relentless and he wants his team to fight till the end, at least that's what the cameras show. In a way, it's understandable what 'JL' was trying to do. He was not the most talented of batsmen in a team that wreaked havoc in 90s and 2000s. He fought for his place, showed tremendous grit and determination to become a success. The Australian team which he took charge of did not have many talented players, but lack of quality should not mean a lack of success.
As the phrase goes, not all are cut from the same cloth. There's an interesting conversation between the coach and Usman Khawaja. The Australian batsman talks about how he's 'harping too much on the negatives' because of Langer's methods and it's not helping him. Langer backs his methods and simply says to 'deal with it'. In one of the episodes, the players comment on how the coach has mellowed down since the time he first came in. Just like the team, the series also sheds a light on the journey of the coach as well.
Jofra Archer v Steve Smith
A legendary Ashes battle 🔥
— Amazon Prime Video Sport (@primevideosport) March 12, 2020
Sometimes, documentary films or series do not hit all the necessary emotions simply because they are not feature movies. 'The Test's' emotional quotient comes from players who are making their debuts, cricketers talking about missing their family, and experiencing close defeats. They all start with a dream of playing for the country and only a few very deserving ones get to fulfil it. The bit where Nathan Lyon hands Travis Head the Baggy Green is one of the high points of the series.
The final two episodes focus on Australia's fight to retain the Urn after losing in the World Cup semi-final. For those who remember, The Ashes produced remarkable storylines and these behind-the-scene features nicely wrap up the series. The Steve Smith-Jofra Archer battle, the rise of Marnus Labuschagne, that Ben Stokes once-in-a-generation knock, and even the abuse from rowdy English crowd have been intimately captured. From getting banned a year and showing remorse in front of the cameras to Smith and Warner enjoying and even dancing to the abuse from crowd, life did come a full circle for the duo.
The fact that this was a eight-part series, a lot more could've been covered. The players did speak about how they have to endure the constant pressure to perform, the frustrations of touring, leaving families behind and dealing with failures. But these issues were not explored much. The makers should have gone a bit in depth into players' mental health and well being of their families. These are international players who play to win matches, and sometimes, when plans fail, the criticism can be overbearing and insulting. Yes, criticism and pressure is part and parcel of the job, but shedding light on the human part of the players could've been more interesting.
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