The Test review: Sandpapergate to Ashes glory and everything in between

The Test is an eight-part docuseries that focuses on Australia's journey back from ignominy while highlighting the public attacks on the team and its players.

Tim Paine (R) was appointed the Test captain following Steve Smith (L) and David Warner's suspensions.   -  Getty Images

The Test on Amazon Prime, an eight-part docuseries, charts the 18 months of Australian cricket from the Cape Town sandpaper gate to retaining the Ashes at the end of the 2019 English summer, providing a compelling insight into the sacrifices of individual players and a cricket team.

The series begins with the biggest scandal ever to engulf Australian cricket and ends with the promise of a better future. In between, Aaron Finch's turnaround, the UAE spark, the Paine-Kohli duel, the Smith-Archer showdown, Ben Stokes' Headingley riposte and the retention of Ashes add to the drama, the characters, settings, and the subplots.


Fresh from the ball-tampering incident and its aftermath during Australia's tour of South Africa 2017-18, the new Test skipper Tim Paine and coach Justin Langer were in two minds about the side's approach in the build-up to the four-match Test series against India. While Langer told his players there was a thin line between "banter" and "abuse", Paine wanted the team to refrain from acknowledging the fiercely competitive Indian skipper, Virat Kohli.

The Virat challenge

"Kohli will either look to pick a fight with you or go to the guys he knows and try and be all mates with them. Either way, I want him completely ignored," Paine said. But with Kohli, himself no stranger to verbal duels, being at his provocative peak during the second Test in Perth, Langer said Australia felt like a "punching bag" after being unable to hit back.

“I remember that afternoon (feeling) like a punching bag. We can’t fight back because it felt like we had our hands behind our backs and we just had to take it,” Langer said. “It just felt a bit double standards to me. Imagine if we behaved two out of ten (of) that.”

READ: Aaron Finch admits to ‘nightmares’ about Bhuvneshwar, Bumrah

During the wicketless first session on day four, the two captains even came into physical contact when Paine ran down the pitch for a single in the 71st over of the innings. Paine revealed what prompted him to exchange words with Kohli, breaking his diktat about not engaging with his Indian counterpart.

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Virat Kohli and Tim Paine bump into each other during day four of the Test match in Perth.   -  Getty Images

 

“The plan was not to talk to him when he was batting. When we were batting it’s kind of up to the individual what they want to do,” Paine said in the documentary. “I sort of just had enough and thought you also have to stand up for yourself and your teammates and that was one of the reasons I thought, ‘no, I’m the captain, it’s my turn, I have to stand up and show him we’re here for the fight’.”

RELATED | Lehmann reveals emotional struggles over sandpaper-gate

Australia won the Perth Test but lost the series, as India registered a landmark victory against a side which was without its two best batsmen, Steven Smith and David Warner, who were serving bans for ball-tampering.

The juxtaposition of these two extraordinary cricket teams could hardly have been more stark. Australia, a team of great heart and overly competitive players who give nothing away, had come undone by an Indian side, which revelled in its captain's never-wavering belief that all things are possible if everyone is in it for the long haul.

Openness and honesty

But things began to look up later in 2019, though, with Australia beating India in a five-match ODI series at home before a semifinal finish at World Cup 2019 in England. This gradual upswing was preceded by a telling subplot, that gave a glimpse of the openness and honesty that underlined the Australian side's revival. 

Ahead of the first Test against Pakistan in Dubai, Usman Khawaja openly questioned Langer's methods in the nets and why they were proving to be counter-productive.

"We can't always control the result, so what we can get better at as individuals, players, staff, everyone, is being in better control of our emotions, is more level headed, without making it too complicated, I think that's what the boys are trying to say if that makes sense," Khawaja said.

"Is that coming from specific people?" Langer asked.

"I think the boys are intimidated by you Alf, right. I think there's a bit of walking on eggshells sort of thing."

"So specifically talking about me. Straight up?"

"I feel like I think the boys are afraid to say it."

The drama

The returns of Smith and Warner, meanwhile, infused new life into the team, reigniting the craving for success especially with an Ashes series in England around the corner. 

What followed was galvanizing of any number of moments from the many twists and turns of the Edgbaston Test, the Headingley heartbreak to that frenetic passage of play in the Lord's Test, where the momentum ebbed and flowed before Smith copped a nasty blow to the back of his head from a brutish bouncer by Jofra Archer.

Steve Waugh: "Boys we need someone out there. Need someone out there big time."

Peter Siddle: "I think we were all in shock. I think the worst was when he was laying there. That was probably the scariest moment for us all."

Langer: "(He's) still down..."

Those few minutes, when Smith lay on his fours, put the players and the support staff through an emotional rollercoaster, captured adroitly in the above conversations.

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Steve Smith is hit on the neck from a high ball from Jofra Archer during the Lord's Test.   -  Getty Images

 

But after the hype surrounding the battle for the urn, they probably didn't expect the contests to be shorn of naked aggression. Smith was subsequently ruled out of the third Test but returned, with his hunger for big runs intact, to amass a gargantuan 774 as Australia retained the Ashes at Old Trafford despite drawing the five-Test series 2-2.

However, sandwiched in between was Stokes' extraordinary unbeaten hundred which carried England to a one-wicket win over Australia at Headingley. Langer, left shell-shocked by Stokes' rearguard, recalled the Facetime exchange with his wife as he drank scotch.

"You don't drink scotch."

"I do tonight, baby."

The Test throws light on how the backroom staff worked on creating a space to look at performances independent of results, both individual and team, eventually walking the fine line between not crossing the "line" while staying true to its win-at-all-costs attitude. It focuses on Australia's journey back from ignominy while highlighting the public attacks on the team and its players, which became so much more intense as the World Cup and the Ashes approached.

Langer's parting words sum up the journey: "Now, I've gotta start again. I've gotta start again."

 

Docuseries: The Test: A New Era for Australia's Team

Where to watch: The Amazon Prime

Episodes: 8

 

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