Imagine rooting for the Australian cricket team. If you’re Scottish, Welsh or Irish — or Australian obviously — it might not be such a stretch. But for an Englishman, I suspect, it’s nigh on impossible. It would be like supporting Germany in the (football) World Cup. Or yearning for the All Blacks to win the rugby. We invented cricket, after all. And in that particular sphere, Australia is our natural enemy. They burned our bails in 1882 — ‘the Ashes of English cricket’ — and quite properly we have never forgiven them.
But if that’s how you feel — and I really don’t blame you — then you should treat yourself to the marvellous Amazon Prime series The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team. Not least among its virtues is that it will inure you to the misery of the next occasion the Aussies inevitably thrash us. Sure they might be cocky. Sure, the way they sledge us is appalling. But for all their disgusting and outrageous skill advantage in devious areas like batting, bowling and fielding, you’ll no longer begrudge them the occasional victory because underneath they’re bloody good blokes by whom it’s an honour to be beaten.
The eight-part series begins with the Aussies at their lowest ebb. It’s 2018 and they are mired in the ball-tampering scandal — aka Sandpapergate — which has temporarily cost them their captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and opener Cameron Bancroft. There are tearful press conferences; walks of shame; once these men were heroes but now they’re the most hated cricket team in the world and there can be no redemption.
Or can there? Enter Justin Langer, a dogged, thin-lipped, haunted-looking former Aussie batsman, drafted in as the new team coach. Langer’s strategy is to stop them all behaving like loudmouth, prima donna-ish thugs — banter is encouraged but not bullying — respect one another’s differences and work as a team again.
It sounds a bit new age and girlie — certainly by traditional Aussie standards — but it does make the team a lot more likeable and human. We’re shown the intense and unlikely bromance that develops between bowlers Marcus Stoinis and Adam Zampa who bond over the specialist coffee which Zampa carries everywhere he travels and brews with all the obsessive care of a hipster barista. This is not the sort of behaviour you can imagine having been encouraged in the pre-ball-tampering era.
As with the similarly gripping and involving Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the cameras get access to absolutely everything. Even if you’re not that interested in the sport itself, it’s very hard not to become hooked on the personalities and thence to be sucked into the drama.
Obviously, if you’re English quite the best moment is the third test at Headingley in last year’s Ashes series. This was the match — about the most exciting in the history not just of cricket but of any sport — in which Australia was expected to clinch their third consecutive test victory in the series, leaving England (all out for 67 in their first innings) utterly humiliated.
Instead, of course, our champion Ben Stokes entered the lists and smote and smashed his way through England’s highest ever run chase to snatch victory from the jaws of disaster. It was delicious enough watching it live on TV at the time. But it’s even more fun watching it from the Australian dressing room — the groans; the covering of the eyes; the normally unflappable Langer reduced to such depths of misery, all he can think to do is angrily go round collecting loose gloves and water bottles and putting them in a bin.
But the disaster proves character building. The next day, rather than let them drown in despair, Langer forces them — almost to the point of prising their eyelids apart with matchsticks — to watch a video of the match and relive every agonising moment: Harris’s dropped catch; the tactical error that reduced their chances of bowling out Stokes’s weaker batting partner Jack Leach; the hilarious — sorry, Australia, but it was — accident of fate when, having used up their last review on a frivolous challenge, the Aussies were unable to review the LBW decision that would have won them the match. The shock therapy works. Australia wins the next test and retains the Ashes.
I was there on the last day of the fifth test at the Oval with cricket-mad Boy. We had come to see our gods — Stokes, obviously; Joe Root and Jofra Archer — destroy the satanic hordes, and viewed the likes of Steve Smith as little more than verminous enemies in need of urgent crushing. Having sat through The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team (bloody awful title, by the way!) I have a completely new perspective — not unlike the one I got of D-Day after reading James Holland’s account of what it was like being a German MG42 machine gunner on Omaha Beach. My dad brought me up to loathe cricket — ‘Shh! Cricket!’ he’d say mockingly, whenever it came on the radio — but I’m afraid I’m a convert. Watch this and so will you be.
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