The Whig Interpretation of Cricket


Review: The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team (Amazon Prime Video, released 12th March 2020)

A chest infection sparked my interest in cricket. Prostrate on the sofa on a hot afternoon last August, I was enthralled by the miracle of Ben Stokes’ run chase at Headingley – aided by the glasses-wiping stalwart, Jack Leach – to keep the Ashes alive. Glued to the Test Match Special commentary, I lamented what I’d missed, from the heroics of England’s 2019 World Cup to the Ashes, Tests, ODIs and T20s of years gone by. My abiding memory of cricket had always been circa 2005, spectating at Lord’s with my dad. As a child more interested in museums and the London Underground than the gruelling, attritional phenomenon of a Test match, I wrote off cricket as about the most boring spectacle I’d ever seen. But listening to the Ashes last summer – particularly that third Test – I appreciated the magic of the sport, its potential to inspire and the almost foreordained quality of Stokes’ performance.

That same sense of destiny permeates Adrian Brown’s compelling docu-series, The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team. His crew follow the Aussies from the national disgrace of the ball-tampering scandal in March 2018 to their retention of the Ashes – perhaps the greatest prize in cricket – in September 2019. Under the leadership of a new head coach, former batsman Justin Langer, the team is revived from villain status to model sporting ambassadors. With fascinating, fly-on-the-wall access, the eight-part series observes how a relatively inexperienced squad devoid of its leaders (Captain Steve Smith, Vice-Captain David Warner, and opening batsman Cameron Bancroft were suspended for their roles in the scandal) cohere, packed with entertaining characters.

It is the human side which The Test captures best. The Australians are battered by the torment of 2018, losing a disastrous ODI series 5-0 to England (who scored the highest one-day innings total ever recorded in the third match) and both an ODI and Test series to India, 2-1, on home soil. Yet head coach Langer combines tough love with constant allusions to the historical tradition of Australian cricket to rekindle the motivation and sense of identity within a team castigated at home and abroad. The ceremonies in which debuting players are presented with their “baggy green” cap, or where spinner Nathan Lyon leads the roasting of his teammates after every victory, are deeply emotional rituals that speak to the significance of cricket within Australian culture, alongside those relatable characteristics of respect and humility stripped from the team following the cheating in Cape Town. Langer undergoes personal turmoil as he lives each match, and it is no coincidence that his decision to dial back his intensity coincides with an uptick in results for the squad. Their victory in ODI and T20 series in India in early 2019 is seen as perfect preparation for the upcoming World Cup, for which the disgraced Smith and Warner will be eligible for selection once again.

As Australia’s summer in England approaches, we grow invested in the squad. We see the eccentric genius of Steve Smith – who shadow bats for hours in his hotel room – determined to revive his reputation with a series of stunning World Cup and Ashes performances. Smith is the subject of adoration from the quirky batting revelation Marnus Labuschagne. Test captain Tim Paine seems the quintessential, down-to-earth Aussie, enjoying banter with the highly-strung Indian captain Virat Kohli. Small details like the bromance between coffee-obsessed Adam Zampa and Marcus Stoinis reinforce that these teammates relish each other’s company. Perceptions of this are enhanced by interviews from players, coaches and insightful pundits such as Harsha Bhogle and Jonathan Agnew.

While Australia are defeated by England in the semifinals of their winning World Cup run, Langer’s side have the last word by retaining the Ashes (drawing 2-2, but victorious as the previous winners). The ultimate prize in The Test, however, is the rehabilitation of the gold-standard image of Australian cricket. Brown’s is a satisfying story of progress, vanquishing the obstacles of injury, absence and media reputation. But it still felt that there was something missing. Was the rehabilitation of Australia’s team really so definitive?

Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979)

In 1931, Regius Professor of History and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Herbert Butterfield, published a ground-breaking essay entitled The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield attacked a tendency in all history writing to warp events of the past to suit motivations in the present, allowing the historian to pick and choose to suit their argument. In so doing, the historian creates a perception of inevitability: a preordained route of progress when events, in reality, are never that simple. The historian employs teleology: explaining an action in terms of its result (Australia lost in the semifinals of the World Cup because that allowed the necessary contemplation and training to go on to retain the Ashes) rather than in terms of a process of events (Australia lost in the semifinals of the World Cup because poor decisions were made tactically/ England had certain home advantages).

Butterfield calls this a “Whig” interpretation in reference to a school of historians associated with the 18th and 19th century Whig political party, who viewed English history as a gradual progression – of personal freedom against tyranny; of Parliament against the Crown; of Protestantism against Catholicism – from Magna Carta to the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Nonetheless, “whig” in the lower case can apply to a historian employing the above principles more generally. That is where the parallels between a Cambridge don’s essay and a present-day documentary about cricket become clear. My criticism of The Test is how Brown, as the director/ historian, places a whiggish spin on the events of the Australian team in 2018-19 to bolster – and obscure – their story.

From the start of Episode 1, Brown’s breezy treatment of the ball-tampering scandal seems disproportionate to the damage wrought on Australia’s cricket team and even the national reputation. In a ten-minute opening montage, The Test glosses over the context, rationale and consequences. Why was ball-tampering deemed necessary in the 3rd Test against South Africa? Were there omens of arrogance and rule-breaking leading up to Smith, Warner and Bancroft’s actions? What was their reaction to suspension by Cricket Australia? Perhaps these questions detract from the mantra of the series – and head coach Langer – not to brood on past mistakes. But as it is, adopting a narrative of relentless progress makes for a first episode that puzzles viewers about the cheating that required this “new era for Australia’s team” in the first place.

And what of the nature of this progress? Wishy-washy references substitute for focus on the strategic and tactical elements that helped Australia’s success. We see simplistic graph projections in musty hotel boardrooms suggesting which Test sessions Australia need to win. We see Langer exhorting his squad to focus on “one ball at a time”. One episode focuses on T20 and ODI captain Aaron Finch’s batting struggles, but glosses over the media scrutiny this attracted at the time – given his place at the top of the batting order – and suggests that the solution was a bit more time in practice. I’m hardly a cricket expert, but I doubt it was that simple. At times, The Test treats the cricket itself as an irksome sideshow that he struggled to fit into the teleology that the series required.

The blind spots in Brown’s whiggish interpretation led me to consider the sacrifices required by a filmmaker who commits to an extended journey with a sporting team or individual player. Granted, I don’t have much knowledge of the financial and contractual intricacies of the industry. But I wonder what Brown might have produced if the Australian cricket team, for instance: never revived its good name; never cohered as a squad without Smith and Warner; or never returned to its pre-ball tampering form. For how long does the filmmaker continue invest their time and resources in the squad, hoping for a revival? If the team maintained its dismal late-2018 form, would he bail out? Might the head coach force him to stop filming? Or would he try to fabricate a success story because – like President Johnson in Vietnam – he has invested too much to lose face?

While there is a sense of jeopardy for Langer and the team in the doldrums of late 2018, the editing of the series portrays a positive arc such that later losses are blips: an inspired performance (like Stokes’ at Headingley); low energy; or bad luck. Maybe by last summer there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the team, but Brown’s framing seems to assume that good results will come. In fact, Australia drew the Ashes – rather than winning outright – which leads to a somewhat confused, less triumphant crescendo than he might have hoped. Nuance is lost in service to the story and leaves the viewer to contemplate realities beyond the locker room.

At least Brown’s 18-month investment paid off. The revival of the Australian cricket team must rank as one of the greatest sporting stories of the last two years. Everybody loves an underdog, and the depiction of triumph over adversity is the most relatable tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. Some whiggish editorial decisions are ultimately necessary to create a narrative of excitement and entertainment, building to the final victory. Viewers can never expect a full, objective picture; but equally, they should be under no illusion that they are going to get one.

Nowadays, a whiggish approach looks facile and anachronistic for writers or politicians – who still employ this selective history to rouse their nations in a time of pandemic crisis. But even Herbert Butterfield, writing in 1944, conceded that whig history has its uses. In the entertainment realm, there is no better way to convey a sporting story of redemption. Even if the results had not come for Australia, framing The Test around conduct and reputation ensures a happy ending: internal critics are silenced; the nation’s respect for its cricket team is restored. Perhaps the Whig Interpretation of Sport is here to stay.