Cricket

Dismissed recently as too woke, the Australian men’s cricket team overran home-town favourites India to claim the ICC World Cup and surely the most unlikely success of the year. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Captain Planet’s team on top of the world

The Australian team, led by Pat Cummins, storm the field.
The Australian team, led by Pat Cummins, storm the field after their ICC World Cup win.
Credit: AP Photo / Aijaz Rahi

Back in February, on India’s Mars-like pitches, the Australian Test team dramatically fell apart in its first two matches. Back home, the criticism was fierce, unforgiving and hyperbolic. They were weak, pundits said, they had no spine. And they were goddamn cowards too, they said, having secretly undermined former coach Justin Langer – the only man with the bluntness and guts to forge resilience in these feckless children. Pat Cummins, for expressing modest concerns about climate change, was sarcastically anointed “Captain Planet”; Maurice Newman wrote in The Australian that “The cricket team’s embarrassing defeats in India suggest our national sport suffers a deep cultural malady ... It looks as though politics has infiltrated leadership, causing fans to wonder if they are witnessing a version of ‘go woke, go broke’.”

Similar sentiments bloomed in many columns – until they didn’t. Australia won and drew the remaining Tests in India, then defeated the same team in the World Test Championship in London, and then retained the Ashes in England. Hot takes can evaporate quickly.

But their winning the World Cup in India seemed absurd. This team has barely stopped playing cricket away from home since February. Leading into the tournament, they’d lost five of their previous six one-day matches. Then they lost their first two World Cup games.

Meanwhile, India – enjoying their supreme home advantage and an incredible depth of talent – looked unbeatable. Until the final, they’d gone undefeated in all 10 matches and were aggressively stylish. They had the swagger, aura and brilliance of the old Windies. In the final, Australia were rank underdogs.

 

In their early matches the Aussies had fielded sloppily, all greasy fingers and a porously defended inner circle. They seemed tired, indifferent. They lacked “intent” – a wildly popular buzzword with pundits. But they improved, and by the time of their semi-final against South Africa, as fielders they resembled jungle predators patrolling their respective patches. Marnus Labuschagne and David Warner were conspicuously good, in both the semi and the final itself, anticipating drives and leaping upon balls that denied countless boundaries. First in the inner circle, and then in later overs defending the boundary itself, Warner ran and threw himself with an athleticism and desire not often seen in 37-year-olds.

Cummins won the toss, thought batting would be easier in the evening, and denied conventional wisdom by sending India in. Uncowed by the circumstance, Rohit Sharma refused to compromise his style, which is – from the very first delivery – to attempt to belt the cover off the ball. It was working: India were 30 off the first four overs, before Sharma’s more docile partner, Shubman Gill, fluffed a pull shot off Mitchell Starc straight to Adam Zampa at mid-on. 1-30.

Nice start, but it only brought the imperious Virat Kohli to the crease – the tournament’s leading run-scorer, a man who averaged almost 100 over the 11 matches of the World Cup, and who, in the semi-final against New Zealand, eclipsed the world record of local demigod Sachin Tendulkar by scoring his 50th century in a one day international.

But Cummins would not let India’s batters settle into any rhythm and switched bowlers enthusiastically – he made 14 bowling changes before the 30th over and used seven bowlers altogether – and it was Glenn Maxwell’s tidy, part-time off-spin that undid the fearsome Sharma. Attempting to smash Maxwell over the heads of the inner field – and perhaps pressured to do so after the Australian fielding kept denying him boundaries – he badly mistimed the shot, splicing it high to the off side, where Travis Head took what may have been the catch of the tournament. Sharma was gone for 47 and the crowd fell deathly silent. They wouldn’t reclaim their voice for hours, and then only briefly.

In the next over, Cummins claimed Shreyas Iyer and India were 3-81 – the game deliciously poised. And so India, who had flamboyantly terrorised bowlers throughout the tournament, were now obliged to play cautiously. Thus began a long holding pattern, as Kohli and K. L. Rahul sought to consolidate the innings. The run rate dried up and more than an hour passed before another boundary. But it all seemed sensible, and if a score of 350-plus now seemed unlikely, at 3-128 after 25 overs, there was still plenty of time and wickets left for a competitive score.

But when Kohli played onto his own stumps for 54 in the 29th over, you could hear the script – written in the imaginations of 1.4 billion Indians – being miserably torn up. Kohli himself was stunned, incredulous. He stood motionless. He stared at the pitch forlornly, like a young man looks at the grave of his wife, and then inspected his bat for some phantom imperfection that might explain it.

And here, in the world’s largest cricket stadium, was the sound of silence. Again. “We did take a second in the huddle just to acknowledge the silence going around the crowd,” Cummins later said. The silence was spooky, pathetic, but inspiring for the Aussies. One voice, however, could be imagined when the camera cut to a large man in a Port Adelaide Football Club jersey pumping his fist – a lone Australian ambassador in Modi-land.

India were stunned; Australia dominant – and at this point, the Aussie bowlers were empowered further by the appearance of reverse swing. India never blazed but rather scraped together a modest – but seemingly defendable – score of 240.

For the first few overs, the crowd rediscovered their enthusiasm. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami – two of the world’s best fast bowlers – opened spectacularly but with mixed results. The ball was swinging ominously, and while Bumrah could have easily taken a wicket in his first over, he was instead taken for 15 runs. There was a strange electricity in those first few overs – Australia were scoring quickly; they were also losing wickets. When Steve Smith was out lbw, and the score was 3-47 at the end of the seventh over, 241 seemed a long, long way away.

But Australia had substantially reduced an already modest required run rate, and from here were not compelled to thrash. As India had in their innings, Australia entered a spell of consolidation – led by Head and Labuschagne. And, well, that was it. They took singles, kept rotating strike. They played modestly, cautiously, effectively. Head took the lead – scoring a century at almost a run a ball – while Labuschagne scored a half-century at half the run rate.

Australia were patiently bleeding India. And they were making it look easy. At the 30th over, a desperate captain Sharma consulted with Kohli. What were they to do? They were watching the Australians rob their predestined treasure. There was no answer, and the crowd maintained its perfect quiet. Many were leaving. After 38 overs, Australia were 3-214. And cruising.

The final overs were played in a strange spirit by India, stuck inside something like delayed grief. They knew the game was gone. With just two runs needed, Head was caught on 137 – and denied the cherry of scoring the winning runs. Glenn Maxwell did that with the first ball he faced.

The Aussies, understanding the inevitability of their unlikely triumph, had gathered on the boundary in the final few overs – primed to giddily run onto the field when victory was theirs. Head, who began the tournament with a broken hand, was named man of the match, as he was in the semi-final.

By now, much of the stadium was empty. Come the trophy presentation, it was entirely empty – and not even the Indian team bothered to stick around. As The Age’s chief cricket writer, Daniel Brettig, has written: there was little “world” in this World Cup. “This World Cup is a global event in name only. Realistically, it is a tournament staged by and for India, its cricket board, the BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India], and its all-powerful secretary, Jay Shah. Unlike virtually all global sporting events in this day and age, there is no local organising group, only the BCCI itself.”

The tournament, and the cringe-inducing interstitial clips shown during broadcasts, had resembled a giant political campaign for Indian potency and its leader. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the great populist who’d built this grand stadium in his name and ensured it was entirely filled with blue shirts, was obliged to stick around and present the trophy.

His solemnity and the crowd’s fickleness all served to fatten my schadenfreude and sweeten the victory. We may be used to cricketing triumphs, but this will surely prove to be one of the greatest and unlikeliest of them all. Take a bow, Captain Planet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "On top of the planet".

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