World Cup 2023: Pat Cummins' Australia do an Australia in a very un-Australian way
They had an uncharacteristic start to the 2023 World Cup but as it progressed, the Australia the cricket world knows and fears came increasingly to the fore.
Among the many themes that have emerged as talking points around the 2023 World Cup final is the fact that Indian fans of a certain vintage might be experiencing a sense of deja vu. It has been 20 years to that day in Johannesburg and yet, here we are again, an Indian team walking off the field with their heads dropped and their dreams shattered while an Australian team celebrates. However, it can't really be a deja vu, can it? For the similarities between what happened on March 23, 2003 and on Sunday really end with the fact that Australia beat India in a World Cup final.
It might not be a stretch to say that not too many Indian fans in 2003 expected their team to beat Ricky Ponting's Australia. Ponting and Co. hardly ever put a foot wrong throughout that tournament. While their ODI results leading into that World Cup were patchy, compared to their lofty standards that is, the form they hit in the tournament was enough for Australia to have an aura of invincibility by the time they got to the final. It was all too easy in those days for that aura to be hoisted on them, they always had it regardless of which country they were playing in.
In the run-up to Sunday, the proverbial boot was on the other foot. India looked nigh unbeatable throughout this World Cup. They were challenged only in patches by a few teams but they would then go on to win those games so comprehensively that those periods would become nothing more than footnotes and testimony to just how good this team was. Australia, on the other hand, started off in the most un-Australian way possible. Their fielding was a tangled mess and they looked bereft of any self-belief as they were handed a 134-run hammering by South Africa. That was after they lost their tournament opener to India after being all out for 199 batting first. All this meant that Australia, the five-time world champions and the reigning Test champions, were deep in the bottom half of the table after the first two rounds of fixtures.
This was met with a mix of incredulity, disbelief and maybe just a hint of schadenfreude. It even led to many predicting that this Australian side is not quite 'it'. Some even suggested that the tournament is done for them. Well, what happened after that was the most Australian thing ever.
After those first two defeats, Australia went about winning every game they played. After recording their first win of the tournament against Sri Lanka, David Warner, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell and Travis Head, four of their most dangerous batters, scored centuries in the next four matches. They were all big centuries, ranging in the 160s and 170s, but they all paled in comparison to the one-legged assault that Maxwell launched on Afghanistan at the Wankhede on November 7. With absolutely no foot movement in the last quarter of his innings, Maxwell smashed an unbeaten 201 in 128 balls to help Australia chase down a target of 292 with three wickets to spare despite being 91/7 at one point. There they are, one would have said, there are those Aussies. Even then, it can now be safely said that the true recreation of the Australia of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting was seen most clearly in the knockout games of this World Cup.
Those great teams of the past had batters, Waugh and Ponting themselves included, who could score big. However, where they established themselves as a cut above the rest was with the ball and in the field. In the 2003 World Cup, the highest score any team could make against Australia was Zimbabwe's 246. They restricted teams for less than 130 in five out of the 11 matches they played. Those too young to remember seeing that live, got an idea of just how hopeless it feels to see your side trying to bat against a team like that when Australia played South Africa and India in the semi-final and the final respectively of the 2023 World Cup.
South Africa batted first in the semi-final. Whenever they did that, the Proteas' scores in this World Cup were 428/5, 311/7, 399/7, 382/5 and 357/4. India, who were dominant regardless of whether they batted first or second, had scored 357/8, 326/5, 410/4 and 397/4 in their last five matches. Australia dismissed South Africa for 212 in the semi-final and India for 240 in the final.
Their pace trio of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Cummins were the destroyers-in-chief in both those games, despite there being fears about the pitch for the final being too conducive to spin. Marnus Labuschagne and the 37-year-old David Warner seemed to be guarding kilometres of boundaries on their own, sliding in from seemingly nowhere at times to deny what would only be four against most teams. Travis Head dived like he was standing at the edge of a swimming pool to get the dangerous Rohit Sharma out in the final. He also chipped in with the big wicket of Heinrich Klaasen in the semi-final just when his stand with David Miller looked to put South Africa on course to a score close to 300. Cummins kept KL Rahul and Virat Kohli guessing throughout the middle overs of the final by throwing in a different bowler almost every over, all of them excelling at limiting the runs. All the while his fielders set up a prison around the batters.
This is what the great Australian teams that ruled the roost over the turn of the century were all about. And yet, this current side is not really seen as a great Australian team. There were already discussions over whether this was the worst team the country had ever sent to a World Cup. Despite the fact that this is a team made of Warner, Steve Smith, Maxwell and arguably one of the greatest pace trios the world has ever seen in Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood. Despite the fact that they now hold the World Cup, the Test mace, the Ashes and even the T20 World Cup not too long ago.
Neither of three pacers, though, is the highest wicket-taker for them in this tournament. That would be spinner Adam Zampa with 23. He didn't have the greatest of times in the knockouts, compared to the standards he set in the group stage. Their best bowler in the tournament was not at his best in the knockouts. And yet they almost made light work of the two teams that finished first and second in the group stage. One of whom hadn't faced a serious challenge yet in the tournament, were the hosts and had a crowd ranging between around 93,000 to over a lakh depending on your source, rooting for them. In the cricket world, there is probably nothing more Australia than that.