28 March 2015
Australia v New Zealand Preview, Final, Melbourne
Michael Clarke’s impending ODI retirement has added subtext to what is already the biggest cricket match there is
There will be colour, there will be atmosphere, there will be emotion, there will be passion. And there will be one winner too. A five-time champion? Or a first-time titlist?
And then, there were two. The two co-hosts, the two best teams in the tournament, the two that have extended impeccable organisational skills off the park to invigorating cricket on it.
For the second time in as many editions, the final of cricket’s showpiece tournament will be a showdown between the co-hosts. India rode on home advantage in the final against Sri Lanka at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai four years back; Australia will be hoping for pretty much the same against New Zealand, its little brother from across the Tasman, at the sprawling, intimidating cauldron that the Melbourne Cricket Ground is.
An ICC Cricket World Cup final doesn’t need any subtext to lift the occasion; even so, Michael Clarke chose to present one, announcing that he would be retiring from One-Day International cricket at the conclusion of Sunday’s (March 29) skirmishes. His teammates will be desperate to send him off on the best possible note, but they know that for that, they will have to overcome the only team that has had the measure of Australia in this World Cup.
Much has been made of the fact that this is New Zealand’s first visit to Australia in six years. That, having got used to playing on the smaller grounds back home for the last month and a half, the players will be caught out by the vastness of the MCG. That, this is New Zealand’s first World Cup final while Australia have been there and done that several times.
None of this is untrue, actually. But there is more to this New Zealand side than bare, cold, clinical facts.
For one thing, there is Brendon McCullum. In two years and a bit, he has done more to lift the image of New Zealand cricket than any illustrious predecessor. This team doesn’t have one standout superstar, no Richard Hadlee or Martin Crowe, but this is a team in the real sense. If there is a string of match-winners with the captain himself in the forefront, it is because the players have been empowered, given leadership roles, given the freedom to express themselves. McCullum and Mike Hesson, the understated coach who loves the background, have pulled off one coup after another. New Zealand’s glorious march to the final hasn’t come about because of a plethora of happy accidents.
New Zealand has been pushed in two of its last three games, by Bangladesh in the final league fixture and by South Africa in the semifinal. On both occasions, the side had various individuals standing up and taking it past the finish line. Its tremendous strength lies in not being dependent on any one person more than the rest, though the team has benefited massively from the early strikes that have become such a Trent Boult trademark through the competition.
The one other time New Zealand has been stretched to the limit was, unsurprisingly, when Australia went visiting for a Group A contest at Eden Park. Boult was virtually unplayable, his left-arm swing ripping the heart out of the Australian batting which rolled over for 151. Australia, though, had its own answer to Boult, in the form of Mitchell Starc. With 6 for 28, Starc threatened to out-Boult Boult until Kane Williamson’s calmness carried New Zealand home, by the most miniscule of margins.
Both teams will take heart from that result – New Zealand, because it blasted Australia out for a paltry total and Australia, because despite being bowled out so cheaply, it almost pulled off the game. In the larger context of Sunday’s game, that result will have little bearing. For feel-good and a dose of confidence, it’s a result of great import.
New Zealand’s key to success has been the form of Boult and Tim Southee at the top of the bowling order. Between them, they have taken 36 wickets, when the ball has swung and when it hasn’t. If there is some swing on offer on Sunday, David Warner and Aaron Finch will have to watch out. Even if there isn’t, Boult and Southee bring other skills to the table. Then, there is Matt Henry, the tearaway who replaced Adam Milne in the squad and immediately fronted up for the semifinal, and Daniel Vettori, the ageless wonder who missed long stretches of international cricket after the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 though there is no indication at all that he briefly swapped playing with a coaching role at Royal Challengers Bangalore.
McCullum and Martin Guptill are the tone-setters in the batting, the captain a dasher who knows no fear, who knows only one way to bat. His annihilation of Dale Steyn in the semifinal is one of the highlights of the World Cup. In Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Johnson, he will confront a challenge of a different kind; few men relish a challenge more than McCullum.
Australia hasn’t been as commanding in its progress as New Zealand, but in the semifinal against India, it comprehensively reiterated its champion credentials. The early part of its campaign was about easing into the scheme of things, working out combinations to arrive at the best XI, waiting for key members to recover from injuries. By the time the league phase was done and dusted, things had fallen in place. The final piece of jigsaw came together with the inspired move to push Steven Smith up to No. 3 and keep Shane Watson down to No. 5. It lends a terrific balance to a versatile batting group – firepower at the top through Warner and Finch, stability in the middle through Smith and Clarke, and explosiveness thereafter in the form of Glenn Maxwell, James Faulkner and Brad Haddin. Watson is the joker in the pack, who can either steady the ship or cut loose depending on what is needed.
This won’t be a home game for New Zealand, but the MCG won’t just be a sea of green and gold either. There will be colour, there will be atmosphere, there will be emotion, there will be passion. And there will be one winner too. A five-time champion? Or a first-time titlist? Not long now for the answer.
Australia (likely): David Warner, Aaron Finch, Steven Smith, Michael Clarke (capt), Shane Watson, Glenn Maxwell, James Faulkner, Brad Haddin (wk), Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood.
New Zealand: Brendon McCullum (capt), Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Grant Elliott, Corey Anderson, Luke Ronchi (wk), Daniel Vettori, Tim Southee, Matt Henry, Trent Boult.
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