The Edge (UK 2019)

The Edge is a sports documentary about the England Test cricket team. Released in cinemas in July 2019 soon after England won the Cricket World Cup (50 Over white ball game) it is now available on DVD and digital download and is free in the UK on BBC iPlayer for the next couple of weeks. Presented in ‘Scope format with some spectacular footage and voiceovers by Toby Jones, the documentary does have the feel of a cinema feature and follows Warriors (UK 2015) the earlier film by Barney Douglas. That told the story of a cricket team from the Masai in Kenya who came to Lords in London, the home of English cricket. As well as presenting the ‘feelgood’ journey for the team, that documentary also featured a discourse about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) still an issue in the Masai community. The Edge has a similar overall approach. While it has a conventional sports documentary structure about the rise (and fall) of a team that reached a peak of No. 1 ranking in world cricket, it is also about the mental stress of top level sport and the personal stories of specific players.

The crucial question about the documentary is whether it can appeal to a wider audience than simply cricket fans (although there are many such fans around the world). How much do you need to know about cricket to appreciate the highs and lows that the players and coaches experience? The film does work as a compelling narrative about a group of young men, presenting the drama of their encounters at major Test venues but it doesn’t attempt to explain how the game works or to offer any basic facts  – the individual and team scores in the most significant games. This could be frustrating for both fans and the wider audience. Like its American equivalent, baseball, cricket is a game in which statistics are important for fans and players alike.

If you don’t know cricket and cricket culture I think some of subtexts in the film are difficult to grasp. Test cricket is the ‘highest’ and most demanding form of the game, played by national teams in a series of 5-day games. Cricket expanded from its English base, first to Australia and then to many other parts of the British Empire from the early 20th century. There are now ten Test teams recognised by the International Cricket Council with several more ‘Associate Members’. Because of the Imperial background there are issues about race and class in the history of cricket which still have an impact today and events in The Edge do in some respects refer to this history.

The narrative begins at the point in 2009 when England were at rock bottom. Zimbabwean Andy Flower, already associated with England as a coach, was appointed as full-time director of the England Test team. Flower is presented as a tough coach and a man who had left Zimbabwe after criticising the undemocratic policies of President Robert Mugabe. He was actually born in Apartheid South Africa and in the England team when he took over there were four players who had been born in South Africa. Captain Andrew Strauss and wicket-keeper Matt Prior came to the UK as children, but batsmen Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen came as adults, gaining qualification status to play for England. The squad of 13 featured in the film comprised five young men educated at private schools (which often have cricketing facilities) and six who came from state schools (plus the two schooled in South Africa). Monty Panesar, the second spin bowler in the team, was the first Sikh to play for England and the only non-white player in the squad. I mention these distinctions simply because they represent references to the colonial history of cricket and the different cultures associated with private and state schooling. Up until the 1960s English cricket teams often comprised ‘gentlemen amateurs’ and professional ‘players’ with the distinction clearly marked in terms of status. Unlike the England football team, most of whom are likely to share a similar educational background, the cricket team has potential divisions which can be damaging, especially on tour. Perhaps because of this, Flower chose to take the team squad on a rigorous team-building course in a Bavarian forest devised by the German military. They were a talented group of players and this exercise arguably helped them to become much more effective as a team.

Cricket is as much in the head as out in the middle

The trajectory of the narrative is over the next few years during which time the team won several Test series and were eventually seen as the No. 1 team in world cricket. The apogee of their journey was a 3-1 defeat of Australia in Australia in 2010-11. But it would also be in Australia three years later that the team would finally fall apart. What fascinates followers of élite team sports is as much the implosion of a team as its rise to pre-eminence. Cricket, as the documentary shows, is an unusual sport in that it is all about the cohesion of the team but also the capability of each individual to cope with the pressure of performing in their individual role to the highest possible standard. All professional cricketers are highly skilled at playing the game of cricket, but only a few have the mental strength to play a 5-day Test on a consistent basis. As a batter or a bowler or a specialist fielder each player has a lone battle on the pitch. To captain the side, especially when things go wrong, is also onerous and for a variety of reasons the successful captain Andrew Strauss in this case was under great pressure.

Each of the thirteen players speaks in the ‘talking heads mode’ of the conventional documentary but some are singled out to enable the narrative to be clearer. Strauss the captain trying to keep things under control, Graeme Swann the joker, Steven Finn as the youngest feeling the media interest or Tim Bresnan as perhaps the most bemused by the whole set-up of the team and the tour and Monty Panesar seemingly as the outsider in the squad all feature. But the biggest stories concern Kevin Pietersen, considered the best batter but also a controversial ‘celebrity’ figure and Jonathan Trott as the mild-mannered player most visibly affected by the mental health issues associated with cricket. These two are at the centre of the story and James (‘Jimmy’) Anderson is presented as the contrast, a calm figure who seems able to deal with it all. An early sequence in the film includes an extreme long-shot of Jimmy running along the sands of a river estuary, heading for a large post in the distance. Like a similar sequence later in the film of Jonathan Trott walking in his cricket gear across a crop field these kinds of ‘creative’ images contrast with the interviews, archive footage and clips of the players’ own video footage. There is a music score by Felix White of the Maccabees which works to stitch the different types of material together. ‘The Edge’ has several meanings. It refers to that sense that all élite players have that something extra that makes them Test players but it also warns us that they are often on the ‘edge’ of their self control and the stress can push them too far. But in cricket, the ‘edge’ also refers to the moment when a bowler induces the batter into a false shot and the ball makes the slightest of contacts with the bat and is edged into the hands of the waiting wicket-keeper or slip fielder. It is these tiny margins that separate the winners and losers in Test cricket.

Test cricket is only available on Pay TV in the UK and the live games are expensive with tickets difficult to come by for certain games so I haven’t watched much since the 1970s but this documentary kept me engaged throughout. Barney Douglas and co-writer Gabriel Clarke (a sports doc specialist) have crafted an entertaining documentary well worth catching.

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