England Cricket World Cup Win Documented in 'Greatest Game': TV Review

England Cricket World Cup Win Documented in ‘Greatest Game’: TV Review

Landing on Sky’s U.K. arm as England’s cricketers enter the knockout phase of this winter’s T20 World Cup, Ashley Gething’s one-off documentary “The Greatest Game” benefits from innately dramatic raw material. Held at Lord’s in 2019, the one-day World Cup final between England and New Zealand was quickly framed by some experts as the most thrilling cricket game ever witnessed: a high-stakes encounter before a roaring full house at the sport’s spiritual home with an outcome that remained in doubt until the last ball of a so-called “superover” — rare and unusual occurrence that effectively serves as a tiebreak.

As commentators on the day remarked, it was fairy-tale stuff, a screenplay you couldn’t write for fear of being dismissed as a fantasist. Two evenly matched sides, all-rounder Ben Stokes’ last-gasp heroics, extraordinary strokes of luck and flashes of skill: they’re all here, compressed into an enthralling 90-minute digest that displays many of the strengths of the first-rate sports doc. Between gleaming multi-angle HD match footage, Gething and his co-writer and producer Simon Hughes interview the players themselves, whose years of media training and sports psychology have left them better placed than their curt predecessors to articulate the highs and lows of a World Cup campaign.

Brisk and atmospheric, these passing pen portraits offer useful context. Ever-sanguine England captain Eoin Morgan, now retired, reflects on his progression from Irish club cricket; Stokes on his career-threatening 2017 run-in with the law; Bradford-born spinner Adil Rashid on his Muslim faith. Managing a winning team, the editorial suggests, is not unlike running any successful enterprise: it’s a matter of integrating disparate personalities, beliefs and styles, and thereby pulling through in the face of emergent challenges. As Morgan summarizes: “I’m most proud of what we stand for as a team: courage, unity and respect.” There may be wider lessons here.

In its own tactics, Gething’s film doesn’t deviate massively from tested sports-doc formula, fleshing out a known result with firsthand testimony that deepens the implications of each boundary and wicket. Nevertheless, it serves as further evidence of how sports docs have themselves raised their game since the millennium, in part by approaching their subjects not as gods but as tangible, often fallible humans with demons in their head and butterflies in their stomach. “The Greatest Game” builds on the fine therapeutic work of 2019’s “The Edge” in seeing off the pressroom spin to better examine the men beneath the helmets and padding.

Stokes’ demons, allowed fuller expression in the recent Prime Video exclusive “Phoenix From the Ashes,” will be central to the third act, but Gething appears just as comfortable soliciting head of England cricket Andrew Strauss’s tender recollections of his late wife Ruth, and around Exocet-bowling wild card Mark Wood, whose singularly nervy finals-day behavior provides an element of comic relief. We need it, given how effective the finale is in returning the butterflies to the onlooker’s own stomach, the combined result of such frank testimony and editor Owen Davies’ eye for the match footage that best exposes the participants’ gnawing uncertainty.

That home stretch remains jaw-dropping: you couldn’t write it, because so much of it came completely out of the blue, sending even seasoned cricket observers scrabbling for the rulebooks. (As Jonny Bairstow’s sister Rebecca admits, “Nobody knew what a superover was.” Bairstow himself chuckles: “We didn’t, either.”) Here, as elsewhere, “The Greatest Game” amply illustrates the advantage the best live sport still has over on-demand scripted entertainment: spontaneity and surprise, underpinned by a shared sense of disbelief at what we’re watching. However this weekend’s T20 action pans out, it will have to go some way to surpass the events of Gething’s stirring celebration.

“The Greatest Game” screens on Sky Sports Cricket on Saturday (Nov. 12) at 9 p.m. and again on Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 9 p.m. It is currently streaming via Now TV.

Producers: Victoria Barrell, Ashley Gething, Simon Lazenby.Executive Producers: Victoria Barrell, Ashley Gething, Simon Hughes, Simon Lazenby, Jonathan Rogers, Tony Singh. Line Producer: Simon Glass. Archive Producers: Anthony Green, Sarah Leach.Featuring: Eoin Morgan, Trevor Bayliss, Andrew Strauss, Ben Stokes, Adil Rashid, Jofra Archer, Liam Plunkett, Mark Wood, Kane Williamson, David Young.