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Death by a thousand cut-shots

Cricket

Adelaide cricket lovers will tomorrow finally get the chance to see a film that has riled the game’s establishment and, as Tom Richardson writes, it is a timely opportunity.

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Bradman, famously, hit just six sixes in his illustrious career.

Five of them against England.

Last week, Queenslander Chris Lynn matched that tally in as many balls during the course of a single, frenetic over, as his bottom-placed Brisbane Heat almost cruelled the Melbourne Stars’ BBL season.

The implications of this discrepancy, and of a format so removed from the traditions of test cricket as to be almost a different sport entirely, is what Death Of A Gentleman starts off exploring.

A documentary made by lovers of the game, it begins as a chronicle of the strange death of test cricket, but by its denouement plays out with all the paranoia and intrigue of a post-Watergate political conspiracy thriller.

The movie comes, at last, to Adelaide for one night only tomorrow, at Morphett St’s Mercury Cinema from 7pm (its trailer can be viewed here.) It is, perhaps, the right time for Adelaide cricket enthusiasts to see this movie, as the city’s BBL side powers towards a highly-touted but relatively meaningless trophy, and in the midst of the most turgid summer of test cricket in recent memory, tempered only by the contentious innovation of the local fixture, which showcased pink balls and magenta sunsets to the world.

Death Of A Gentleman is gonzo journalism, but really polite gonzo journalism.

DOAG poster at 10mbIt is one of the finer exponents of long-form sports reporting, in the class of When We Were Kings or Year Of The Dogs, but it plays out as investigative journalism on a grand scale. Its Woodward and Bernstein are a couple of enterprising young cricket scribes – Sam Collins, a plummy “old Etonian” and his dishevelled Aussie expat pal Jarrod Kimber, who made a name for himself with an irreverent blog named “Cricket With Balls”, and whose latest book on the subject is an “unauthorized biography” of test cricket – just in case you couldn’t tell on which side his bread was buttered.

But Kimber insists he’s “not anti-Twenty20”; in fact he genuinely likes it.

“I think it could help spread the game,” he tells InDaily.

“But if people are not looking after Test Cricket at the same time… that’s our biggest fear.”

That fear led the filmmakers into conflict with the game’s custodians, but Kimber says there “hasn’t been as much fallout as we thought, considering we had a lot of flak while we were making the film”.

He regularly expects his accreditation requests to be spurned “but so far it hasn’t happened”.

The film’s most rapturous receptions, he says, have been in the smaller cricketing nations, those who appreciate why South Africa’s stand-in captain AB de Villiers has publicly contemplated retiring from long-form internationals, or why Australia’s newfound sporting pariah Chris Gayle – for all his pizzazz and prowess in limited overs – literally carries his greatest achievement, 333 test runs against Sri Lanka in 2010, on his back.

“In the bigger countries, I think they forget how much the smaller countries struggle,” says Kimber.

“In those countries they understand how important this film is.”

The remarkable thing about their film is the amount of access they manage to gain, most notably to N Srinivasan, the controversial former Chairman of the International Cricket Council, former President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and owner of the Indian Premier League’s Chennai Super Kings. They also have seemingly unfettered access to Lalit Modi, the spurned father of the IPL, and ever-decreasing access to former chairman (now president) of the England and Wales Cricket Board Giles Clarke, who appears hell-bent on stamping himself as the villain of the piece.

Clarke comes across as a caricature of an archetypal movie baddie, huffing and hissing that he has “every right to put [his] board’s interests first”, even above the betterment of the game itself.

Not so very strange, then, that on his departure from the chairmanship last year, the UK Telegraph marked the moment with the headline: “Farewell to Giles Clarke, who left the ECB richer but cricket poorer”.

If Death plays as an intelligent political thriller with Clarke as its nemesis, the film’s heroic heart derives from an intriguing sub-plot.

Early on, as Ed Cowan prepares to finally debut for Australia, Kimber is heard on the phone begging him to appear in the doco, telling him there could be no doco without him.

He was right. Cowan’s brief journey as Australia’s opener is key to the narrative, and the personal and professional contrast between him and his batting partner, David Warner, is painted as symbolic of the gulf between the classical cricketing conservative and the impetuous swashbuckler.

“It was a little bit of a random sort of event, how it all came together,” Cowan tells InDaily.

“I was friendly with Sam and Jarrod before they made the film… they were exploring the idea [and] what sort of angle it was going to take.”

At the time, he says, it was a broad exploration of test cricket and “the health of the game”.

“I was making my debut [for Australia against India]… they thought they could tell that story as a human element of the film they were making,” he says.

“From my point of view, it’s a nice little time capsule of my time in the test team… but the film they ended up making, they could have kept filming and kept telling a story; the way cricket is being governed at the moment, there’s a story to tell each and every month.”

Cowan admits to a “very short and initial concern” when he viewed the finished narrative.

“They made a very anti-establishment film, and I’m still playing cricket and enjoying cricket – and want to continue to,” he laughs.

“So I was a bit concerned I’d be seen as part of that, but it didn’t take long to realise it was an incredibly important film [and] they were very respectful of my story within that.

“I’m very proud to be associated with the film.”

Australia's Ed Cowan in the field during day three of the International Warm up match at New Road against Worcestershire at Worcester. .

Ed Cowan provides the heart of Death of a Gentleman’s grand narrative. Photo: AAP.

In fine form for NSW, Cowan insists returning to the top flight is “something I certainly still aspire to”.

“Playing cricket is a fickle old profession… to be attaining high performance in domestic cricket, you need that drive to play test cricket,” he says.

“But at the same time, I’m realistic… if I were never to play cricket for Australia again I can certainly look back on the film with very strong memories; seeing your first ball in test cricket, the reaction of your wife when you get a 50 – all those moments you’re blind to in your bubble [on the field].”

Kimber says Cowan’s legacy, perhaps too fully embracing his role in protecting his team from the new ball at the expense of building a score, is steeped in “the last remnants of the John Inverarity and Mickey Arthur era”.

“There’s obviously a very different system [there] now,” he says.

Kimber believes Cowan appreciates that his time in the national team is probably gone, lost with a poor showing in the first Ashes test at Trent Bridge in 2013.

But having returned to NSW without a contract to focus on his family, Cowan is enjoying an Indian Summer with the Blues, and Kimber warns if he were to re-emerge as a national prospect, we’d likely see a very different beast to the disciplined but dour opener who defended his way through many an innings.

“He plays his best cricket when he thinks it’s all gone… he does best when he thinks there’s nothing left to lose,” he says.

“I think his time’s passed, but I’d love to see him do it again… I don’t think we’ve seen the very best of him.”

The way cricket is being governed, there’s a story to tell every month

The film’s narrative wanders a strange dichotomy: the first half rails stuffily against the T20 interloper, yet its denouement appears to advocate for a truly world game – predicated on its shortened form.

The filmmakers are incensed that the opportunity to pursue T20 as an Olympic contest is not embraced by the game’s custodians, who instead concentrate their authority – and the associated revenue – in a power triumvirate of India, England and, yes, Australia.

As an Australian viewer, there is a pang of shame about the whole thing – not merely because of our country’s complicity, but because of the wistful hearkening back to the stately origins of the game’s inherent sportsmanship, wherein winning is a second-order priority to playing fair, a notion that few devotees of our national team would recognise.

Kimber argues the only way to grow the game in non-traditional cricketing countries such as Afghanistan, China and Japan is through Twenty20, and not merely because it is a more accessible code.

“No-one can start off playing Test cricket – look at New Zealand,” he says, referring to the fact the Kiwi cricket team played its first Test in 1930 but didn’t win one until 45 matches and 26 years later.

An emerging school of thought is that T20 will not sound the death knell for Test Cricket as loudly as for One Day matches, but Kimber argues the 50 over game is still immensely popular on the subcontinent and thus “will take a long time to die”.

But beyond World Cups and the odd domestic juggernaut, the shortened game remains a transient entertainment, removed from any deeper sense of occasion.

“That’s why Test cricket is important – they are moments people will remember,” he says.

Rather than an either-or scenario of Test vs T20, I suspect the truth is than the limited overs code is like an introduced species that will – and has already – infected Test Cricket with its mongrel progeny.

Thus, if the grand old gent is to die it will not be a quick, merciful execution, but a gradual transformation into something we no longer recognise – a death by a thousand cut-shots.

“There’s only so much money in cricket – there’s billions, but only so much,” says Kimber.

“The Olympics can bring extra money to the table [and] the benefits of that are massive.”

Massive for grassroots development, and massive for spreading the game. The conclusion of Death of a Gentleman, though, is that the game’s governors don’t want it spread.

In arriving at this conclusion, the filmmakers find themselves at loggerheads with many of the sport’s powerbrokers.

Has the experience soured their subsequent appreciation of the game?

“It’s quite interesting, it’s like the whole thing where you see how the sausage is made – it’s hard to unsee it,” Kimber admits, likening the experience to the spate of match-fixing revelations around the turn of the century when it became “hard to just watch the game and not look for signs that someone’s cheating”.

“Now I watch England and Australia, and I know they’re playing with a stacked deck,” he says, referring to their relative advantages.

But he insists it’s not hard to rediscover the sheer joy of the game, watching the likes of Ireland, Afghanistan, Hong Kong or Scotland – teams playing not just for their livelihoods but for their respective nations’ chance to make history.

“It re-excites me again, because I know how much that means to those players and their countries,” Kimber enthuses.

He also recalls a host of “amazing moments”, not least the emotion-charged test match in Adelaide after the death of Phillip Hughes.

“Luckily, cricket overcomes all the bad stuff,” he concludes.

“Unfortunately there are a lot of bad things we need to overcome.”

Tickets to tomorrow’s screening can be purchased here

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