John Stern attended the premiere of a new documentary, Death of a Gentleman, which goes right to the very heart of the game’s governance to ask what the future holds for Test cricket.
Two years is no time at all in the scope of Ashes history – not long enough to most people’s tastes, for whom anticipation is half the fun. But it’s long enough to see a career go up in smoke. Around this time in 2013, Ed Cowan was preparing for the ultimate moment for an Australian cricketer: the start of an Ashes series. A first-baller, a 43-ball 14 and a last-day Australian defeat later, his Test career was finished.
Cowan’s attempts to crack the five-day game and cement a place at the top of Australia’s batting order – he played 18 Tests in little over 18 months – is the most delightful, human and heart-rending strand of Death of a Gentleman, a new documentary about the governance of international cricket that premiered at the Sheffield Documentary Festival and will have a London premiere on July 23, three days after the end of the Lord’s Ashes Test.
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When the film was conceived back in 2011, by journalists Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber, Cowan was just embarking on an international career that had seemed, for some years, to have passed him by. Over the course of his Sheffield Shield career that took him from New South Wales to Tasmania and then ultimately to a baggy green, he had become friends with Kimber, a smart, iconoclastic blogger who now is a mainstay of ESPNcricinfo’s editorial team.
Cowan invited Collins and Kimber to witness his Australian career at close quarters and it is these behind-the-curtain glimpses, coupled with Cowan’s ability to articulate the pressures and the polarising extremes of emotion that elite sport brings, that give Death of a Gentleman a flavoursome personal narrative to run in parallel with the grittier examinations of how the game is run.
The original point of the film was to investigate whether T20 was killing Test cricket, the ‘gentleman’ of the film’s title. But as the film developed – an inevitably lengthy process – the narrative of the world game kept shifting, until the revelations in early 2014 that India, Australia and England were forming a coalition that would secure each of the countries more power, influence and revenue than ever before.
I should declare an interest here, in that the filmmakers are friends and colleagues and I offered some modest financial support at the outset. But aside from the odd trailer posted online, I had no idea what the finished product would look like, not least because of the complex, and ever-changing, nature of the story that Sam and Jarrod were trying to tell. I feared that the film might be too worthy, or too arcane. And I’ll be honest, I have generally not felt as impassioned as many others about the ‘big three’ takeover. My instincts with most issues, whether they be sporting or not, is to look for the counter-argument to the prevailing wisdom or at least conclude that most issues are more nuanced than many polemicists would have you believe.
But the remarkable success of Death of a Gentleman is the clarity – and indeed levity – with which complex issues are tackled. The sub-title ‘The Biggest Scandal in Sport?’ is quite a claim and it’s tempting to respond with the old journalistic maxim that if a headline is a question then the answer is probably ‘no’. The film’s Sheffield premiere coincided with the full fury of the FIFA scandal which, on the one hand, added weight to its to arrival (“look here, this is what’s going on in cricket”) but, on the other, made the ‘biggest scandal’ line harder to stand up. Collins made a manful attempt to justify it in a Q&A after the Sheffield screening, saying that whatever corruption exists at FIFA, the game of football is still growing around the world, whereas cricket is wilfully trying to contract on a global scale. That being the scandal, as opposed to the pocket-lining that various FIFA executives are accused of.
And that is the nub of the serious point that the film is trying to make. My interpretationis that it isn’t, as such, about whether Ireland should have a tilt at Test status or whether cricket will ever take off in China or the United States, it’s that the governance of the global game is increasingly and inexorably in the hands of a single nation, India, and more specifically the hands of one man, Narayanaswami Srinivasan, the current chairman of the ICC, with no apparent regard for the game’s global health or the health of its existing elite participants like West Indies, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. One of the many talking heads in the film, Ravi Shastri, essentially says, ‘So what? India is all-powerful, deal with it’. It’s a particularly glib assertion and predictably partisan on a number of levels.
There is no smoking gun that exposes the game’s power-brokers for some grand misdemeanour but what there is, in very watchable detail, is a joining of the dots, a laying bare of where the game has got to and where it is headed unless some serious selfless – as opposed to self-interested – action is taken.
Gideon Haigh raises the question – does cricket make money to exist or does it exist to make money? His assertion is that the latter is now the case. Ehsan Mani, the former president of the ICC, describes the Aus-Ind-Eng axis as a “power grab and a money grab”.
But the shiver-down-the-spine moment comes with the sight of Ed Cowan’s wife, Virginia, watching him bat his way to a debut fifty in the Boxing Day Test against India. And the bathetic counter-point to that is the brutal honesty of Cowan following what turns out to be his final Test at Trent Bridge two years ago. Like Test cricket itself, the film is compelling and compulsive viewing.
DEATH OF A GENTLEMAN is in cinemas 7th August http://deathofagentlemanfilm.com/