“When did the Western Bulldogs do Year of the Dogs?”
That’s the reply you get when you ask Stephanie Beltrame, the executive in charge of Cricket Australia’s genuinely groundbreaking eight-part documentary series on the men’s national team, how long CA has wished for the chance to take a closer look inside the closely guarded walls of the dressing room.
The answer is 1996, when the seminal documentary on a struggling AFL club in Melbourne’s western suburbs told a gritty and often confronting story of its many travails and latest brushes with extinction in the league’s centenary year.
In the two decades since, barely a professional sporting league or team has managed to get by without something approaching that frank level of portrayal. If American sports have led the way, closely followed by European football clubs, not even the IPL has got by without similar treatment, via the recent Netflix series on the Mumbai Indians.
For Australian cricket, though, the national team has evaded camera capture, for the simple reason that its leaders actively opposed or discouraged the idea. Take these words from the former captain Ricky Ponting, of how he viewed his role as captain between 2004 and 2011.
“I was very guarded as the Australian captain because I didn’t particularly want – and this will probably come across in the wrong way – the public to know about our team.” Ponting said at the Chappell Foundation fundraising dinner in Sydney last month. “There was a lot of mystique about what happened in the change rooms of the Australian cricket team and I found myself a guardian of our players, almost like a father figure to the players where I wasn’t going to let anybody know anything they didn’t need to know.”
There is an abiding irony, then, to the fact that one of the most striking moments of The Test, to be viewed on Amazon Prime from March 12, comes from a full view of Ponting exchanging his frankest possible views on batting and team thinking to David Warner, after Australia’s loss of their World Cup game to India at The Oval.
Captured by the project’s cameraman Andre “Doc” Mauger, Warner explains his thinking while composing a halting innings that hurt Australia’s pursuit of a steep target as much as it helped, having been involved in the run out of the captain Aaron Finch: “From the batting point of view I was quite rattled after I ran out Finchy. I felt like I had a fear of getting out. I didn’t feel like I could take that risk.”
At this, Ponting intervenes with a forcefulness many will recall seeing from the boundary’s edge, but never hearing as closely as this. “If you’re scared about getting out, f*** that. You’ve got to be thinking about getting runs, not be worried about making a mistake,” he replies. “I’ve been there, you start thinking about making mistakes as a player, you’re f***ed. At the end of the day all of you have got nothing to fear, nothing to lose right now.”
— The Test (@thetest_amazon) February 28, 2020
Warner’s response is to play his best innings of the whole northern summer, a counter-punching century in difficult conditions against Pakistan at Taunton, as the documentary moves into its high gear climax as the World Cup is followed by the most thrilling Ashes series since 2005. By this stage, the players are barely registering the presence of Mauger’s cameras, so skilfully has he subsumed himself within the team environment.
It was a different story a year before, as the coach Justin Langer and captain Tim Paine agreed to the proposal put forth by CA’s head of broadcast, Richard Ostroff, to allow Mauger to be the fly on their dressing room wall. In a further irony, Ostroff had commissioned Adrian Brown, the director of Year of the Dogs’ descendant, the 2016 Bulldogs premiership documentary Outsiders, to pull the project together.
“From the very first day, we went up and made a bit of a presentation to the group in Brisbane,” Brown said. “It was basically how would we do something and we said it’s got to be a trust exercise. You have to be able to trust us that we won’t leak any footage, we don’t divulge any details of intimate conversations or whatever else it may be, and at the end of it I’ve got to give you my word that I’ve got to look you in the eye and say I’m proud of what we made. Because if I couldn’t do that, it’s not the project I want to make.
“Some of you have got so many f***ing theories, you’ve got f***ing theories coming out of your brain. None of you are good enough to have theories yet” Justin Langer gets angry after a defeat to England in 2018
“I remember at the end of it Aaron Finch saying ‘I’m so happy we’re doing something like this’, because I think the players, whether it’s NBA or NFL, everyone loves watching access from all other sports, so they got to a point of saying ‘maybe we should have one about cricket’. It gave them the opportunity to show a side of what they go through and give people an understanding of the challenges they got through.”
Undoubtedly, this evolution was given an almighty shove by the Newlands scandal and its aftermath, leaving the players in a position where they needed to open themselves up more in order to win back public trust – a tradeoff for the trust they expected of Ostroff, Brown and Mauger. “Probably not,” Brown said when asked whether he thought the project would have been possible without Newlands. “The byline of the title being ‘a new era for Australia’s team’, it effectively was and has been since that point.”
The project began in England on that first ODI tour, as CA funded the initial period out of its own budgets as it sought a partner for the wider project. A 5-0 hiding by England made for an inauspicious start in a performance sense, but at the same time a rich initial trove of footage that would ultimately help win over Amazon to financially back the series. A key moment arrived when Mauger was able to capture Langer’s first significant “spray” of the team after their loss in Cardiff.
After praising Paine for keeping with an open cut to the face (“Unless you’re injured, unless you f***ing can’t play, I don’t want to hear from anyone ‘I’ve got a f***ing niggle, think about what he did today”), Shaun Marsh on a hundred, and Ashton Agar and Jhye Richardson for their bowling, Langer moves into raw territory.
“Some of you have got so many f***ing theories, you’ve got f***ing theories coming out of your brain,” he says. “None of you are good enough to have theories yet. Concentrate on the next ball, concentrate on your technique, concentrate on competing. Do that better, we’ll be okay.
“Fielding drill was f***ing s***house, slack. No wonder we’ve won three of the last 16. I can be all nice, I’ve been nice for three weeks, but how we’re playing at the moment, I know we lack a bit of experience, we’re playing against a very good team, they’re playing with confidence. We’ve got to get better.”
The next day, Langer asks for feedback, saying Ponting (there as an assistant) and Adam Gilchrist (invited into the rooms as a commentator) were surprised at the sharpness of his words. A back and forth ensues with the assistant coaches David Saker and Brad Haddin, before the strength and conditioning coach, Aaron Kellett, notes that if the team is preparing well, performances must be given time in which to also improve. Langer, though equivocating a little, concludes that “I can’t be talking process, process, process, and then be emotionally affected by us losing two games”.
Another telling subplot is contained within the singular personality of Usman Khawaja, and how his willingness to speak openly helps to shape Langer and the team. In Dubai, ahead of the Test in which he will play the best innings of his Test career to salvage a draw, Khawaja openly questions why Langer’s nets drills are putting players under pressure by insisting batsmen swap ends if the one on strike is dismissed in the nets.
“Honest feedback?” Langer asks.
“I think we’re worried about getting out rather than trying to execute better and execute well,” Khawaja offers.
“Yeah, well what happens if you get out in a game?”
“If I’m getting out two times in the nets, right, I know I’m getting out two times in the nets, I’m playing f***ing Test cricket here.”
“Well what are you worried about then?”
“I’m worried about harping too much on negatives.”
“I think the boys are intimidated by you Alf, right. I think there’s a bit of walking on eggshells sort of thing” Usman Khawaja to Justin Langer after Australia lost to India at the MCG
“What, don’t get out? What we are saying is we’re not going to accept you getting out, because for the last 20 times in Australian cricket, we’ve had 20 batting collapses. Twenty f***ing batting collapses and we’ve got to get better at that. It’s got nothing to do with how we set up a net session, because the Pakistanis, they might put 10 blokes around you. This isn’t f***ing fair. Or they might put 10 blokes on the boundary. This isn’t going to suit my f***ing style. You’ve got to deal with it, because you’ve got to deal with it in Test cricket, so we’re going to put pressure on you. Now if you guys want to say ‘oh no this isn’t suiting my f***ing style, no worries, we’ll suit your style when we don’t have f***ing 20 batting collapses every time we play for Australia.”
As the Australians serve Virat Kohli’s India without the aid of Warner and Steven Smith, Paine relays feedback from a players’ meeting in the aftermath of their heavy defeat in the MCG Test. There is, they believe, too much negativity in the coaching of the batsmen in particular. Langer, coiled tightly by the pressures of the job and the scrutiny of the media, looks increasingly like Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of William Bligh immediately before the mutiny on the Bounty, but agrees to discuss the matter collectively. Again, it is Khawaja articulating the feelings of others.
“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, being more level headed, without making it too complicated, I think that’s what the boys are trying to say, if that makes sense,” Khawaja says.
“Is that coming from specific people?” Langer asks.
“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.”
At this point the pressure on the team is tangible, but over time, Langer is able to let go a little, something Nathan Lyon and Pat Cummins reinforce somewhat less confrontationally. “We’ve had a security breach this week,” Lyon says in a victory huddle against Sri Lanka in Canberra. “It was the evening of day one, we actually had a lookalike come into the change room. I could not believe it. One I thought it was the coach, and I know a few other staff members and players thought it was the coach, but he had a smile on his face!”
They are aided by the emergence of several young players who give him and other players a sense of revitalisation. Something the documentary is able to demonstrate is how the efforts of Jhye Richardson, Kurtis Patterson and Ashton Turner help ease a path for the World Cup and Ashes teams they will not, ultimately, be a part of.
In capturing such a vast expanse of time and events, Brown learned that the emotional thread of the story was more important than slavish chronicling of every single day.
The result of the long game is a rewarding one, with the payoff of the Ashes series itself. Mauger, having spent a year improving his own craft in terms of where and where not to station himself, is able to film, with a remarkable degree of candour, moments such as Ponting’s address, and the many twists and turns of the Edgbaston, Lord’s, Headingley, Old Trafford and Oval Tests. Where Year of the Dogs had Terry Wallace’s infamous “I’ll spew up” speech, The Test has multiple moments of similar power.
As for the inevitable questions about air-brushing, Brown was happy to talk through the vetting process, but also the pleasant surprise he got as they went through it. In addition to Ostroff, episode cuts were run past Langer, Paine, Finch and Cummins. “One of the delights was travelling home at the end of the Ashes on the same flight as some of the players, and be able to go ‘here’s my laptop, here’s episode four’ and have Nathan Lyon or Marnus Labuschagne watching. As far as I know, they’re all really proud of it.”
The curtain, held over the Australian dressing room for so many years, has finally been lifted.