Midway through last summer, I found myself reading Geoff Lemon's Steve Smith's Men, and absolutely loved it. It was a seething and deeply personal account of Australia's greatest sporting scandal, from the eyes of its biggest cricket romantic that were no longer outlined by rose-tinted spectacles. You could feel the pangs, the cries, the downsides of being a cricket journalist, when an entire nation is doubting your craft. It was the mine blast that caused the earthquake, not the aftermath.
The aftermath was harder to tell—an emotional roller coaster rallying from the events of Cape Town to Australia's Ashes win, the 5-0 drubbing in England to Ben Stokes' Headingley, sizzling hot tour of the UAE to the World Cup of cricket, and home series loss in the hands of India to redemption in the subcontinent, through the words of real-life characters. The Test does that and more, bringing out the real intricacies of cricket through dressing room sequences, strategy meetings, practice sessions and all the great unknowns of international sport hidden from us fans.
The little things are what make the documentary glorious. There is a conversation that Usman Khawaja, who'd been left out of the ODI side citing his fitness, has with Justin Langer with a stoical, pumpkin-like face, in which you can feel his need to prove a point so intensely. There isn't a single shot in the episode with a smile on his face, until he played that mammoth innings in Sharjah, sweeping and reverse sweeping Australia to safety. These are things we already know of, but to see a human side to an international cricketer constantly behind the veil of stardom was heartening.
Three full episodes are understandably devoted to India. The little things feature again, like the mateship between Nathan Lyon and Travis Head, which emphasized the fact that men do cry, brief sights of Matthew Hayden and Mitchell Johnson in Australia's dressing room victory party, Lyon trying to coax Cheteshwar Pujara into his comfort zone, Glenn Maxwell's passion at victory, and Adam Zampa making coffee when Aaron Finch was milking India at Ranchi. The post-match parties with Lyon in the middle of the huddle remind us that these cricketers are no aliens, that they're just fun loving creatures with a sense of humor.
David Warner looked like a bereaved man, shamed and tortured by the world, with a beard as long and unkempt as a Neanderthal. Words had to be mined out of his mouth like iron, and you wonder if he might be a misfit in the side. Punter's dressing room speech about fear is the cricketing equivalent of Rocky Balboa's monologue to his son, and is invigorating enough to make Kim Hughes rise up from his grave. Throughout the World Cup, Australia is surrounded by legends in Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Hayden and Brad Haddin—some of them there as broadcasters, some as visitors, some as support staff—who are open to hearing it out from a Warner or a Marsh, and telling them what needs to be done. You cannot help but marvel at how closely knit their cricketing community is.
2019 was definitely Steve Smith's Ashes, and The Test documents that brilliantly. His brain was exposed and vulnerable to the scars from a patchy World Cup, a hostile crowd calling him a 'cheating b*stard', and yet Smith proved that there was only cricket inside it, and reaffirms the Paulo Coelho quote that, when you want something all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. You will laugh through his weird love for the game, and will be struck hard by a sort of humility that just can't be acted out.
Watching the snippets of the Headingley test would be like watching that game again, with a different pair of glasses. To see Lyon sitting in a corner of the change room, with red eyes and a red face, head in his hands, hiding himself from the world, is hard. Imagine being him while that ball is rocketed into his hands. An entire nation screaming their lungs out for a test match, a young man playing the innings of a century; emergency, anxiety, disbelief, hard hands, and a fast beating heart pumping a stream of blood into all parts of the body. Many players would've missed that opportunity.
The background score is what is most extraordinary, the standout being the tour of Pakistan and the India series in December. Be it the Arabian Nasheed in the furnaces of UAE, or the Indian tabala which gradually fades into Australian hip-hop as the tourists begin winning in the subcontinent by February, everything is so craftily conceived. There are little things like a 20-second segment of Pujara playing six defensive shots against a ticking clock and suddenly a booming cover drive, or the sun dawning in the backforth of a still titled 'Day 5', that you will go back and watch again and again if you are a cricket romantic.
Watching the series, I was just in my happy space, with no earthy sense or perception of time or responsibility, and you will be too. If you watch all eight episodes in one sitting, you will go to bed thinking about Zampa and Marcus Stoinis, Smith's love for the bat, Matthew Wade's pregnant wife, Khawaja's tears, and an ever-smiling, kind-hearted Pat Cummins concealed by the fierce on-field competitor who doesn't shy away from verbal volleys.
Every Aussie owes them something for being themselves through these battles, for making sure that cricket does not become just another sport after the most scandalous event of their times.
Australian cricket's docuseries is a celebration of dreams. It is sport in its purest form, narrating a tale of shame, belief, faith, mateship, camaraderie, brotherhood, redemption, and all the unworldly things that life can do for you against incomparable odds if you have the desire. You will cry, you will laugh, and you will feel inspired to tackle life head on.
'The Test', as its name suggests, documentates a test by fire that twenty five young mortals had to face, to restore the lost pride of Australian cricket. And no matter if you're a Pom, no matter if you're Indian, you will find yourself having goosebumps the moment Smith walks out to bat with a concussed head, you will find yourself celebrating a Virat Kohli wicket for the first time in your life.
One of Langer's closing statements in the final episode is, "What I'm most proud of though, is that Australians are proud of us again." Scott Morrison is, James Sutherland is, Darren Lehmann is, and all the other True Blue Australians who were directly or indirectly affected by the ball tampering saga is proud today.
Every time they see Smith or Marnus Labuschagne or Cummins on the field, they will remember a cricket-crazy weirdo who takes his bat to the shower, a reservoir of innocence and energy buzzing with joy, and a tall, strapping young man who saw it all from the start helplessly and stayed put by his team through their transformation into 'a new era of Australian cricket'. And needless to say, Geoff Lemon is clad in his rose-tinted spectacles again.
Subscribe to Amazon Prime just to watch this series. You will still think it's been undersold.