Personally, I never doubted them for a second. Although in the interests of strict transparency I suppose I should make clear that that first sentence is technically only true if you don’t count any of the seconds that took place in the six months or so before the World Cup final.
Yes. I am on record as saying that Australia had no hope. I thought they had no hope long before the tournament. I thought they had no hope as they stumbled through the pre-tournament games. I thought they had no hope when they lost their first two games. I thought they had no hope when they won their next eight. I was utterly convinced that of all the no-hopers who ever had no hope, no no-hoper had ever had less hope than these ones.
I will also say this though: my belief that Australia simply could not win the World Cup was not due to a particularly low opinion of the team. Unlike many, I had no great problem with the squad that was selected, nor with the teams that were picked throughout the Cup. Aside from the unfortunate but unavoidable absence of Ashton Agar, I thought this was pretty close to the best side Australia was capable of putting out – and that it was, all in all, a decent team.
But just a decent one. Not a great one. Not one capable of matching it with the current Indian side. For that matter, I didn’t think them likely to be able to match it with South Africa either. England and New Zealand, too, I thought were probably a level above Australia at this time – and in Indian conditions I thought Pakistan and Afghanistan would probably be a big test too.
The first couple of games confirmed my suspicions. Knocked off by India, demolished by South Africa. Like all Australians my heart sang as England turned out to be far less than I’d expected, but it still seemed that our lads would be very lucky to sneak into a semi-final.
The tournament went on. New Zealand, after a turbo-charged start, fell away. Australia began to win. A semi-final loomed as more likely than not. That was gratiifying. But winning the World Cup seemed as unlikely as ever. India were laying waste to oppositions like Genghis Khan sweeping across the plains. Australia edged out tough foes: India nuked them.
There were grand moments of triumph. Victory against the Kiwis was sweet, a neat kicking of the English even sweeter. The Maxwell Miracle against Afghanistan was glorious, and it gave me a lovely warm feeling to know that the 2023 World Cup would give us one truly magnificent memory to take away, in the absence of the trophy that Australia continued to have utterly no hope of acquiring.
The semi-finals came. I thought South Africa was too good, but that it didn’t matter anyway, as they were playing for second. Unexpectedly, Australia won. Ah, good. Second it is, I thought. Very creditable, really – given the talent available, and the late stage of many of the players’ careers, coming second to an all-time Indian lineup would be far from disgraceful. We could only pray that a decent fight would be put up in the final, and the poor tired Aussies would not be detonated the way several others had been throughout the Cup.
What I’m trying to say is, Australia had no hope. None. To be honest, since before the World Cup began I was sure that nobody had any hope but India. They were so damn good in every department, and they were playing at home, and they were all in such dazzling form, and they had a nation of over a billion behind them, and everything was arranged, and, well, the story of their victory seemed to practically have been written already.
Australia? Well they were just a cricket team. A pretty good one, but no match for a juggernaut. Maybe in Australia they could’ve challenged. Maybe five years ago these same players would’ve had it in them. But here and now, it was India’s World Cup, and second was the best we could possibly hope for.
So why was it that, when the final started, I felt a sudden and irrational surge of optimism? Why was it that as the players took the field, I was filled, against all expectation, with the odd sensation that…well…maybe…?
Funnily enough, I think the initial bullishness came from the fact that Pat Cummins had decided to bowl. This seemed to be a decision made against all common sense – I myself had thought before the game that if there were even the tiniest sliver of hope to be had for victory, Australia simply had to bat first – and yet it soothed me strangely.
On reflection, the decision to bowl first fortified me precisely because of its apparent madness. I do not see Cummins as a reckless or experimental soul, nor is the Australian dressing room filled with flamboyant mavericks of irrepressible artistic temperaments. If they made a surprise decision at the toss, I half-consciously reasoned, it cannot be because they’ve had a psychedelic flight of fancy. It must be because what they’ve seen – in the pitch, in the air, in the forecast – gave them reason to think it was a good decision.
That’s no guarantee of anything, of course, and as Rohit Sharma began his usual pyrotechnics, there was cause to believe that one of two things was true: either the decision to bowl was the wrong one; or India was so superior that it didn’t even matter.
Then Rohit got out. And then Shreyas Iyer got out. And then Kohli and Rahul…didn’t get out, but didn’t exactly seem to be all that happy to be in, either. The gigantic crowd was poised, ready to let out volcanic roars every time the batters found the boundary…but they didn’t. They couldn’t. Every time it looked like they would, Marnus Labuschagne would leap like a salmon, or David Warner would swoop out of thin air to cut it off. Over and over passed without release.
And I was believing. I knew it couldn’t last. I knew India could not be beaten. I knew that they’d still pass 300, and that Australia’s batting lineup would not be able to top 300 against these bowlers. But against all my good sense, I was believing. Because what the Australians were doing – bowling with uncanny precision, fielding with relentless ferocity – was extraordinary.
So extraordinary, in fact, that the busting of the dam never came. Kohli passed fifty and Cummins cut through him. Rahul never found his extra gear. Jadeja lost his Australia-destroying kit. The legendary SKY swung and swatted and found no way through an impenetrable jungle of hurtling yellow-clad fielders and agonisingly slow bouncers.
And all of a sudden the innings was over and the irresistible force had been resisted. All out for 240! What nonsense! But I didn’t just believe they could – I believed they WOULD.
And then they came out and lost three wickets in the blink of an eye and Australian fans everywhere sighed and said, “Fun while it lasted”.
Except that somehow, I still felt fine. I should’ve felt awful. To have hope dangled before my eyes and to see it snatched away by a depressingly familiar top-order collapse? Sickening.
But I didn’t feel sick. I felt like we were going to win. And by “We”, of course I mean “they”. They were going to win. They had never had any hope of winning, and yet I felt that they were, quite definitely, going to. Nearly 200 runs still to get? Three top batters already in the shed? Bowlers with tails up, ball swinging round corners and 100,000 Indians shaking the earth with their passionate calls for the killing blow to be applied?
Nah. It was going to be fine.
And so, indeed, it was. The third wicket was India’s last shot. Australia didn’t just sneak home, they cruised. They brought India to their knees and then hammered them deep into the Ahmedabad turf. And somehow, despite spending the last six weeks completely at peace with my knowledge that it was impossible, on the day itself it had seemed quite feasible from the get-go, and almost certain for much of the time.
Why? Why did this confidence come upon me?
It began with that call at the toss: bizarrely reassuring by means of its very counterintuitiveness. It wavered a little early, but it rebounded with Head’s catch of Rohit, surged with Cummins’s dismissal of Shreyas, and positively overflowed when the same man rattled Kohli’s stumps. By the time the Indian innings whimpered to a close, it was unstoppable, and not even the wild slashes of Warner and Marsh or Smith’s unprecedented respect for the opinions of others could hold it back.
This is the magic of this Australian team. You might call it the Power of Pat, and in fact I urge you to do so. There are many measures of a great cricket captain, but one of the most fundamental is that they mould a team in their own image.
That is why this is a team that smiles, and laughs, and throws itself about like a bunch of teenagers. That is why this is a team that plays through pain, shrugs off doubt, charges again and again at walls that have repelled it, marches through fire and ice to follow its leader, and has the most fun anyone ever could doing so.
This is a team that makes miracles happen, because when the players in this team look at their captain, they see what everyone else sees: a man who approaches both possible and impossible with the same attitude: well, let’s come up with a plan, give it a go, see what happens, eh?
It was inevitable, in the end: I could hold onto my certain knowledge that Australia could not win the World Cup all I wanted to, but this is Pat Cummins’s team, and sooner or later they were going to make even me believe.