It was clear just after the World Cup final on Sunday that the Australia players had a particular turning point in their memories. “None for 120 against Sri Lanka seems a long time ago now, and being 0 and 2,” said a broadly smiling Mitchell Starc as the PA system blared dramatic music and his teammates gathered in anticipation of the trophy presentation.
His captain, Pat Cummins, referenced that game as well: at one point Sri Lanka’s openers had slammed 125 by the 22nd over against a team that had been belted by India and South Africa. Our coverage after those two losses identified that the road was running out. “From a maths perspective, Australia’s World Cup campaign is not yet at crisis point,” we wrote. “But it’s going to need something, some sort of spark that can get this team enjoying the challenge instead of being daunted by it.”
That spark came in the form of David Warner, usually a fielder inside the ring but in this campaign having retreated to the boundary, fiercely fit despite approaching his 37th birthday. Twice for the first three Sri Lanka wickets to fall, he burned around the boundary with his short legs whirring and threw himself into the air, not caring how hard he landed as long as he held on to the ball. Two catches, two wickets, Australia in the game.
The second was off Adam Zampa, a turning point too for the leg-spinner who to that stage had struggled. He recognised the significance as soon as the match was over. “Obviously, the first two games, we’d known that we’d been a bit flat and then that happened again. The conversation around the drinks breaks and even the early wickets there was to lift the energy and I thought the fielders did a really good job of that. The ring tightened up and then Davey’s couple of catches, changed the game for us.”
So they know. Australia know that could have been it, tilting to three losses and perhaps out of the tournament from there. Instead, they bowled out Sri Lanka for 209, Cummins prominent with the ball in as well as with his leadership, then chased it. They could still have qualified with that third loss, even a fourth as New Zealand did, but not with that build of momentum where wins came one way or another.
Warner took them through the next few, teaming up with Mitchell Marsh and then Travis Head: blasting Pakistan out of the match before a contest began, making sure there would be no slip against the Dutch, ransacking New Zealand in an early period of striking almost unprecedented in one-day cricket. The bowling wasn’t great but the runs were enough.
The bowlers did their job against England next, defending a score that at one stage was in reach. Starc struck early, Cummins and Zampa through the middle. Glenn Maxwell’s solo opus rescued a perilous position against Afghanistan, Cummins his company with the bat. Australia had qualified by then, but Marsh took care of Bangladesh on his own to finish the group stage.
Then it was back to the bowlers, Starc beginning the semi-final with early wickets again. Alongside him, Josh Hazlewood, the heartbeat of the attack throughout the campaign, consistency in each performance however aggressively the batting came. South Africa’s was supposed to be the most fierce. Hazlewood and Starc rendered it meek, 10 runs from the first eight overs, wickets falling. However hard South Africa tried to scrap back, that’s when the game was gone.
Australia had reason for confidence going into the final, even if just quietly to themselves. The steepness of the ascent was set, the gradient unenviable. But they had a team in which every member had contributed to wins, with middle-order runs chipped in at times by Josh Inglis, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith. They had an XI they were confident in, even if other configurations were considered. And they had nothing to lose except a game that they were expected to.
So they didn’t. Bowling first and applying a damp cloth to India’s red-hot batting, a side stacked with shot-making pedigree that found the fence four times in 40 overs after the fielding restrictions lapsed. Like Warner’s catch in Lucknow, like the opening spell in Kolkata, there’s the match right there.
Travis Head reached the fence 15 times, cleared it four more, in another addition to an absurd big-game CV. But for all of this Australia team, even the previous World Cup winners, this is the high point: the one the odds were stacked highest against, where everything was set up expecting an India win and where a side coming off a far less polished campaign decided to win it anyway.