Following a shambolic Ashes debacle in 2013, Matt Prior did not mince any words in assessing his team’s failure to turn up during the series. Bemoaning a spineless display by England, Prior opined that, England had finished ‘third’ in a two horse race. The Australian version of cricket has always been characterized by the laudable elements of a never-say-die attitude, adorned by an unflinching self-belief, and having as its very edifice the ability to recognize opportunities where others see desolate ruins. It is altogether a tangentially different and undesirable fact that such lethal qualities are supplanted with a perceived need to engage in some turgid and vapid sledging ranging from the macabre to the mundane. It was with this explosive mix of attributes that Michael Clarke led his men out at the Melbourne Cricket Ground hoping to secure an unprecedented fifth World Cup Championship title for the Baggy Greens.
New Zealand, for their part have run South Africa ragged over the course of many a World Cup in competing for the invariable stumble just when the finishing line materialized itself into their cross hairs. Brendon McCullum for his part was steadfast in his resolve to mitigate any attempts at obfuscating the Kiwi dream, and in furtherance of this singular objective had displayed a style of captaincy, that could only be described as superlative in both effort and outcome. On the 29th March, 2015, Brendon McCullum led his band of unconquered brothers into the roiling cauldron that was the MCG, in the quest of his country’s maiden World Cup glory.
This match, in addition to being the last match of The Cricket World Cup 2015, was also a game bathed in myriad significances. Michael Clarke, in a shock announcement, had stated that the Cup final would be his last One Day International Game. The New Zealand superstar batsman, former Captain and one of the heroes of the 1992 World Cup, Martin Crowe penned a powerfully evocative and poignant letter to the Black Caps exhorting them to get the Cup back home. Crowe, ailing from a rare form of cancer, also expressed in a clinically matter-of-fact manner that on account of a very bleak survival outlook, the World Cup final would more likely than not be the last major cricket match to which he would bear witness.
After an intense rendition of the two anthems, the Trans-Tasman rivals took to the field. McCullum, by virtue of having the rub of the coin, elected to bat first. 93,013 eager fans watched with a sense of heightened anticipation as Mitchell Starc, the most outstanding bowler of the tournament came steaming in to bowl at Martin Guptill, the most prolific scorer in the current edition of the World Cup. To quote that doyen of cricket writing, the late Sir Neville Cardus “We remember not the scores and the results in after years; it is the men who remain in our minds, in our imagination”. Once the dust dies down and the grime settles, World Cup 2015 would be known as the Starc Cup. In a tournament, where featherbeds substituted pitches and a whopping 460 sixers lit the lights of people’s imagination, this tall, lanky Australian left arm fast man stood isolated from the rest of the bowlers with his impeccable display of swing, seam and accuracy. 22 World Cup wickets at an average of around 9-odd makes Starc the most lethal weapon in Australia’s arsenal.
McCullum took strike to the third delivery of the first over, as a result of a Guptill single and straightaway, signaled his intentions. He was beaten when he tried to drive a swinging delivery. With a view to either unsettling Starc, or to negate the swing, or both, McCullum charged down the track to the very next delivery, only to be beaten a second successive time. Though standing well into his crease sans any fidgeting, McCullum could hardly bring his bat down on the fifth ball of Starc’s first over. A fast, hurtling Starc special came swinging in and had McCullum hopelessly stranded in his popping crease. The off-stump was pegged back and so was the brief and unsettling innings of Brendon McCullum. As a pall of gloom descended over the Kiwi fans, the Australian supporters in the crowd were beside themselves with unconcealed glee. New Zealand 1/1.
Kane Williamson arrived at the wicket with a responsibility of neutralizing the Australian advantage, courtesy the most inauspicious of all Kiwi starts. Starc and Hazlewood piled on the pressure relentlessly and New Zealand was soon struggling to get the ball away. The shackles seemed to be broken, albeit fortuitously, as Guptill while trying to hook Hazlewood out of Sunday and well into Monday top edged the ball, which went soaring behind Haddin’s head all the way back for a six! At the end of the mandatory power play New Zealand were progressing at a snail’s pace to be on 31 for the loss of their Captain.
In a surprise move, Clarke got Glenn Maxwell into the attack as early as in the 12th over. This move turned out into a masterstroke reaping instant dividends, when Martin Guptill, in trying to play for the turn, saw a straighter one crash into his stumps. As a despondent Guptill prepared to leave the pitch, Haddin got into his face with an aggressive applause, which doubled up as an acrid send-off. New Zealand were 33 for 2 when the veteran of many a tight battle, Ross Taylor approached the crease. Maxwell abhorring his parsimonious line and length for once, fed Ross with a full toss, an invitation which Taylor gratefully accepted by sending the ball packing through the covers for a boundary.
Any hope of rebuilding a tottering innings was further muddied, when a scratchy looking Kane Williamson spooned a simple return catch to Mitchell Johnson. New Zealand was now in some serious strife at 39/3, with their best in-form batsmen (with the exception of Grant Elliott back in the pavilion). The hero of the semi-final against South Africa, Elliott entered the crease and started playing the ball in an assured and composed manner, a manner well reminiscent of the calm and collectedness characterizing his knock against the Proteas. Runs however were being accumulated in trickles and drabs with the occasional boundary thrown in. The game got its second accidental six when Elliott top-edged Starc 72 meters over the leg side boundary. The duo raised their 50 partnership in the 24th over with New Zealand in a precarious position. The half century stand injected some purpose and confidence into the batting and soon the two batsmen began opening up their arms and essaying some cracking strokes. Elliott in particular displayed ingenuity when he deftly placed a ball just flying past a diving Haddin’s outstretched fingers for a boundary.
When the mandatory power play was signaled by the Umpire, New Zealand had reached a position of safety having progressed to 150. Virgil, upon being questioned about adversarial circumstances, remarked “yield not to calamity, but face her boldly”. When Faulkner took the ball from the umpire to commence the first over in the power play, little could anyone have foreseen the calamities that were to unfurl. A slow ball bowled from the back of the hand, had Ross Taylor slashing hard, only to get an outside edge. A diving, nay flying Haddin caught the dying ball just before it made contact with the ground. As TV replays confirmed the catch, Taylor dejectedly moved away from the wicket. New Zealand’s misery accentuated when after negotiating his first ball, Corey Anderson was castled by a fast yorker from Faulkner. New Zealand 150/5. After the addition of a single run, Luke Ronchi perished, caught magnificently by Clarke in the slips off Mitchell Starc. New Zealand had lost 3 wickets for the addition of a single run in the span of 2-odd overs. The innings which only a couple of overs ago looked as though it was preparing to gain momentum, was now in danger of imploding from within and meekly folding up.
The wily veteran Daniel Vettori, in what will certainly be his swansong appearance in a World Cup trudged to the stumps as a horrified Grant Elliott stood transfixed in a state of mental paralysis watching his countrymen commit Hara-Kiri. Vettori’s was soon jolted out of his reverie and the partnership worth 16 broken when Mitchell Johnson got a ball to cannon into the pads of Vettori before going on to disturb the stumps. New Zealand 167/7 and this was the 1999 World Cup Final all over again!
With his composure compromised and confidence corroded, Elliott played a shot of sheer indignation by trying to hoick a slower length delivery of Faulkner into the Milky Way. But he only succeeded in nicking the ball to Brad Haddin, who in the company of Faulkner, proceeded to abuse Elliott in a show of impudent and inappropriate sledging behavior. Elliott however had fought bravely for his 83.
15 more runs were added to the New Zealand scorecard courtesy a couple of lusty and meaty swings by Tim Southee, before the innings came to a shuddering halt at 183 with 5 full overs yet to be played. Australia required 184 to overcome New Zealand’s challenge of having put up a score that had a nostalgic hue to it. Kapil’s Indomitable Devils had been bowled out for 183 in the finals of the 1983 World Cup only to dismiss the mighty West Indians for 140 to win the coveted trophy.
When Australia began their run chase, McCullum went all out on the attack, hoping for a miracle, banking on his two quick bowlers and relying upon a possible lapse in concentration of his opponents. His aspirations received a soaring boost when a visibly uncomfortable Aaron Finch flicked a fast Boult ball on to his pads. The ball ballooned in to the air and was cleanly and comfortably caught by the bowler himself. Australia 2/1. Finch’s departure got one of the best batsmen facing either spin or speed in the cricketing world today to arrive at the crease. Steve Smith these days seems to possess an inexhaustible degree of preternatural assuredness and this assuredness manifested itself in the playing arena at the MCG. Unfazed by the occasion and undaunted by history, Smith played every delivery off the meat of his bat and left alone, with complete detachment deliveries that were either too wide to go after.
Meanwhile David Warner went berserk in the 5th over ramming Tim Southee for 3 successive boundaries. Smith’s pull shot off a Boult shorter one was a veritable sight for the Gods. At the end of the mandatory power play, Australia was 56/1. Vettori’s early introduction within the mandatory power play did not produce any tangible results for McCullum. The left arm spinner also seemed to have injured in Achilles and, hence was less than potent. New Zealand got a reprieve, when after dismissing Matt Henry for a boundary through square leg; Warner perished spooning a hook shot into the hands of Grant Elliott. Australia 63/2.
Michael Clarke made his way into the ground for his last appearance accompanied by a resounding ovation and a reverberating cheer. Clarke and Smith soon took charge, producing an absolute master class in the art of batting in general, and playing spin in particular. Using their feet they shimmied and sashayed down the track, picking the length and trajectory of the ball with uncanny accuracy and inimitable verve. A regal straight drive over the head of Matt Henry provided ample testimony to the class, caliber and character of Michael Clarke, the champion cricketer and a star batsman. The fifty run stand was duly reached and Clarke, now visible in his eagerness to put the game to rest, began to assert his authority. First he smacked Daniel Vettori over the long-off boundary for a convincing six, before spanking an on-drive off Boult for a four. With the score on 157 and with Australia requiring a mere 26 for victory, Clarke went ballistic. Choosing to go after Tim Southee, he hammered the ace paceman by cutting, driving, slicing and stroking 4 boundaries off successive deliveries. Meanwhile, Steve Smith, at the non-strikers’ end had the best vantage point to view the massacre.
Just when the ideal romanticist was reaching out for his pen to script a fairy tale ending to a glittering career, Michael Clarke decided not to stick to the script. Trying to finish things off, he chopped a Matt Henry delivery back onto his stumps to fall for a brilliant 74. In stark contrast to the behavior of Faulkner and Haddin towards Elliott, the New Zealanders ran-up to an emotional Clarke to convey their wishes. A demonstratively moved Clarke raised his bat to a frenzied and knowing crowd before merging into the sea of his team mates. It was all over in the very first ball of the 35th over when Steve Smith reached his 50 pulling Matt Henry to the leg side boundary. As he clenched and pumped his fists and leapt in the air, his team mates spilled on to the ground to celebrate the fact that they were the undisputed champions of the world – at least for the next four years!
Australia as a team rankles many an eyebrow, stirs up many a controversy and spawns what can only be termed as a distinct counter culture. However, when Australia plays as a team, there are very few capable forces in the cricketing world who can take on their collective might let alone stopping them in their tracks. The very fact that people (other than Australians) love to hate the Men from Down Under provides a chilling testimony to the powers of their capability, endurance and sustainability. Over the past years a multitude of Australian cricketers have birthed, nurtured, honed and preserved a sporting culture which as at its core the habit of winning. And as the most often quoted cliché goes “greatness is contagious”. Michael Clarke has not only inherited this legacy but has also added his own precocious dimensions to it. Now that legacy needs to be inherited. Whether the baton will pass on to Steve Smith or George Bailey, one aspect is crystal clear –Australia will forever fight and stand up for the count. This is the only way that they have known to play their cricket and this is precisely how they will continue playing it, oblivious to the collective chagrin and disgruntlement of the rest of the cricketing nations.
Right now, at a place where space and time cease to be of any import, a 26 year old Australian lefthander’s face will be beaming with a beatific smile!