According to many this is a World Cup that couldn’t have been scripted better by Shakespeare, or perhaps more pertinently, by Vikram Chandra as a follow up to his best-seller, Sacred Games, writes Abu George.
The BCCI (controlling Board of Indian cricket – and some say world cricket), which has the highest global revenues at its disposal (by some margin), is hosting the competition in which the national team boasts a plethora of generational talents.
Conspiracy theorists continue to complain about the selection of grounds and the tailoring of wickets to suit the strengths of the home team, particularly in the host nation’s semi-final victory.
It is surely, therefore, a trophy that is India’s to lose, isn’t it?
Probably, yes, but not for any of the emotional and unprovable irrationalities above, rather because they have a stunning array of in-form talent that means they can adapt and succeed on any surface, in any conditions.
In the 13th edition of the One-Day International (ODI) Cricket World Cup, 48 games have been contested with the final, most importantly, to be played later today.
For those nervously awaiting the start and looking for omens, Australia are five times winners while India has claimed the title twice.
India has hosted the competition twice previously. The last time in 2011 they won it. The time before that, in 1987, it was won … by Australia.
Both times India has taken the trophy they batted first. The only time they batted second, they lost – to Australia by 125 runs. In that match, in Johannesburg, Ricky Ponting caressed his way to 140 not out, despite Sachin Tendulkar being acclaimed the ‘player of the series’ for scoring the most runs.
The final will be held at the gleaming new Ahmedabad cricketing shrine. Seating 132,000, it ironically replaced the Aussie Melbourne Cricket Ground – a mere 120,000 – as the world’s largest.
The venue has hosted four matches in this competition. Three have been won by the team batting second - including India defeating arch rivals Pakistan in a one-sided encounter. The only exception was England batting second to lose – to Australia, despite winning the toss.
And, the last three World Cups have been won by the hosts.
Of course, you can read what you want into these facts but ultimately, they are historical.
Coming into this final India has a perfect record. In the last two games, their batters have produced four centuries and four half-centuries demonstrating remarkable consistency. The semi-final against New Zealand saw them, as they have throughout the tournament, launch a platform from which the team can steadily accumulate before hitting the accelerator later in the innings. This was despite a worrying injury to Gill, whom I hope, for the sake of his team, is not allowed to carry an injury into the game.
Australia lost five games in a row in the build-up to the tournament and were slow starters although have subsequently found a way to win. As it turned out in their semi-final against South Africa it was a good toss to lose. However, the seamers still had to put the ball consistently in the right areas, which they have failed to do beforehand. Will this have helped them find their mojo?
Man for man I would back South Africa over Australia more times than not. Given the Proteas’ history at semi-finals in this competition (lost five now, tied once), those believing the script for this competition was written many months ago would probably have selected this outcome. However, given their reaction from being 24-4 I personally believe that the traditional tag of ‘chokers’ is misplaced given their fightback that had many an Australian nervously fidgeting on the edge of their seat. That may have included many Indians too; I suspect many would prefer to face Australia in the final.
Elsewhere, in the competition, the reigning champions England languished at the bottom of the table until two victories over Pakistan and the Netherlands helped them qualify for the 2025 Champions Trophy, yet still finish so far from respectability. Has a champion team ever defended their trophy so poorly?
Afghanistan have been the surprise package. Many have known of their depth of bowling prowess for several years, although it is their batting that has surprised. It shouldn’t. If any developing cricket nation wants to learn and develop then look at what Jonathan Trott has achieved in a short time.
The importance of selecting the right coaching staff and creating the right environment is demonstrable. Eschewing the political chaos at home he has improved the technique of the top order considerably whilst also, significantly, radically enhancing their decision-making and risk-assessment capabilities.
Their first victory of the tournament came against England and was only their second ever World Cup win. The 69-run margin of victory gave them confidence to secure wins including the notable scalps of Pakistan and Sri Lanka amongst their four victories.
The greatest shock of the competition was probably the Netherlands’ 38-run defeat of South Africa while the most controversial moment (definitely not on script) was Bangladesh ‘timing-out’ Sri Lanka’s Angelo Matthews, despite twice having been asked to withdraw the appeal.
Australia and New Zealand played out the highest aggregate match in history after the Baggy Greens posted an imposing 388 and the Kiwis fell agonisingly five runs short.
Glenn Maxwell reclaimed the accolade for the fastest World Cup century (first claimed in 2015) in 40 deliveries against the Netherlands only two weeks after Aiden Markram had claimed bragging rights against Sri Lanka.
However, for an innings described as the greatest ever, few will forget Maxwell’s knock against Afghanistan. At 91-7, I doubt I was alone in celebrating an unlikely victory for the underdogs although the Aussie, loved in India for having married Vini from Chennai, fought through cramps and a back injury to batter 201 not out from only 128 balls
It’s the first time anyone has even hit a double century while chasing a total, helping his side come back from a predicted win percentage of 0.2%!
Spare a thought also for the Kiwi debutant, Rachin Ravindra, who scored three centuries while accumulating 578 runs and also contributing five wickets.
Looking ahead to the match later, the Indian side picks itself while Australia have been a little more flexible, interchanging personnel according to the conditions.
This in itself will be intriguing – will it be a ‘Bunsen burner’ to aid the spin of the irrepressible Jadeja and Kuldeep or seam-friendly (where India are more closely matched by the Australians)?
Bizarrely, Travis Head was the more threatening spin option in the semi-final with Zampa, despite his 22 competition wickets (more than any player other than Shami), offering too many loose balls, which were easily dispatched.
If the wicket is slow then could Stoinis replace Hazlewood? If it’s batter-friendly, knowing they now have Head as an option, could Stoinis replace Zampa? I personally would pick Stoinis as I feel he provides more options.
If asked to select a best-combined XI I would, controversially perhaps, not select a single Australian batsman in the top six! That would only change if I wanted to provide some bowling options at which point Head becomes an option if it’s a turning wicket. India’s top five have averaged 67.63 across the tournament; no other team is close, while Australia’s equivalent has only managed 39.48.
I like batsmen who can judge the conditions and adapt their style accordingly. Maxwell is, therefore, a shoo-in, also bringing all-round capabilities.
Virat Kohli, the sole survivor of India’s title-winning team in 2011, has amassed a tournament-leading 711 runs and passed 50 in 8 out of his 10 innings. In the process, he scored his 50th ODI century with 117 in the semi, taking him past the legendary Sachin Tendulkar. For context, the Little Master took 451 innings to get there; Kohli needed only 277 to match him and another two to go past.
More incredible, perhaps, is that 27 of these have come while chasing a total. Tendulkar is next on the list with 17 while India’s captain, Rohit Sharma, follows on 14.
India will hope for a strong start from the skipper who has 550 runs in the competition to date and that he adds to his solitary ton.
Another real differential for the hosts is KL Rahul. It’s incredible that he is even participating in this competition. No stranger to injury, a complete quadriceps tear in the IPL against his hometown team of Bangalore meant odds were against him even making the World Cup.
A revolutionary and tailored recovery programme allowed him to produce strong performances in the Asia Cup, way ahead of schedule.
He also used this recovery period to evolve his mental and strategic approach; most batsmen are comfortable batting at one speed while some have two gears. KL appears to have three or four. In the context of this injury, his performances behind the stumps have brought a remarkable 15 catches including several one-handed leaping down the leg side.
Australia’s leading batsman has been David Warner with 499 runs, including two centuries and two fifties. Hugely experienced in Indian conditions after 14 years in the IPL, fans may be hoping to see him bring some of his famed Tollywood dancing aimed at the Telugu market developed during his seven years in Hyderabad.
In the bowling department, again Indian bowlers largely pick themselves based on recent form. None of the Australian bowlers have reached their expected levels consistently, often looking jaded, yet all have the ability to win a game with a devastating burst.
That Rohit and Kohli are in the top three statistical performances will come as no surprise. That they are separated by Shami might! Setting aside the anomalies of the cheap wickets captured by the occasional bowling of two of India’s leading batters, the hosts have five other bowlers within the top 15 tournament bowlers (based on averages). Australia has one – Zampa. You have to scroll down to 31 to find the next best, Hazlewood, who sits just above India’s worst performer (of regular selections), Mohammed Siraj.
Shami leads the competition for wickets taken despite only being selected after Pandya’s withdrawal in a forced move that heightens the debate about selecting all-rounders over specialists! Currently, they are keeping Ashwin out of the side. However, will the selectors turn to him in the final, preferring his greater control?
There’s an old adage that form is temporary and class is permanent. It’s a common belief that form is irrelevant in the pressure-cooker environment of a WC final.
While I agree that the ability to make clear decisions is of added importance and experience counts, confidence from recent performances is also a key factor that affects shot-making for batters and variations bowlers are willing to utilise.
So, based on the above, why would Australia even bother turning up?
They bat deeper than India who could struggle if put under pressure by a flurry of early wickets like South Africa were. They are yet to be really tested in this manner other than, ironically, in the group match against Australia.
In that game Hazelwood’s three wickets helped reduce India to 2-3, each of the three dismissed batsmen getting a duck. On that occasion they were saved by Kohlil and KL, but they were chasing a mediocre total.
Additionally, coming into the tournament one criticism levelled at India was that they were ‘over-conservative’; could the loss of early wickets or the pressure of a home final see them revert to a style we have not seen from them in this competition?
Also, in the field, Australia have generally proven themselves more capable of saving runs where key moments and ‘small wins’ can turn fortunes and momentum.
They also have a number of big-match players who, on their day, can win a game single-handedly. Maxwell’s knock was a once-in-a-lifetime innings but they have a number of players who can score decent runs very quickly, even down to Starc and Cummins.
This is no wallaby but a fully-grown kangaroo, admittedly ageing but experienced with it, one that knows how to punch its way through the knockout rounds – looking to land one final blow.
Personally, I can’t see past an India victory although cricket is a game that can turn (literally) on the magical performance of a single individual – like Glenn Maxwell. Or Warner, or Head. Even Zampa and any of the three experienced seamers can bounce back and take a 5-fer. That’s the beauty of cricket.
On any given day it’s anyone’s game.
I’m predicting India will win as, on paper, they are statistically the strongest and many conditions are in their favour. However, when was the last time the World Cup was won on paper?