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Prem Panicker: The boys in black have a bit of growing up to do, yet

By Prem Panicker, for Rediff.com
March 29, 2015 16:14 IST
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'That was the key to a game where, on paper, there is nothing to separate the two sides: Intensity. From the first ball of the innings to the run out of Southee, the Australian bowlers and fielders buzzed around like predatory yellow-jacketed wasps.'

'Adding teeth to the bowling and relentless fielding is the captaincy of Michael Clarke, leading in his last one day international. His body may require an entire college of medical specialists to maintain, but his mind is scalpel-sharp, cutting through the complexities of the game to hit on simple solutions.'

Prem Panicker -- the finest cricket writer around -- on the World Cup Final.

 

Michael Clarke played a captain's knock in his last ODI game for Australia. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images 

Image: Michael Clarke played a captain's knock in his last ODI game for Australia. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

 

A story dating back to the 3rd century BC tells of a Chinese guy who had a sword and a shield to sell. His sword, he boasted, could cut through any shield. His shield, he also boasted, could resist any sword.

From that story was born a word, máodùn, and an enduring paradox: What happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object?

With four wins in ten tries including a hat-trick spanning the Cups of 1999, 2003 and 2007, Australia has been the irresistible force of the global competition.

In the final on Sunday, March 29, they went up against a passionate, combative New Zealand side led by Brendan McCullum and sliced through their trans-Tasman rivals with the sharp-edged savagery of a Goro Masamune samurai sword.

The story of the final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is encapsulated in two moments that, appropriately, book-ended the Kiwi innings.

At the start there was Mitchell Starc who, as recently as December 2014, was deemed too 'soft' for the highest level and who, starting with Moeen Ali's wicket on February 14 also at the MCG, has alchemised into the golden arm of this Australian attack.

From the moment McCullum called the toss and opted to bat, Starc was always going to be the key. The course of the first half of the game would hinge on whether the tournament's most successful bowler could bring it against the captain-opener with fast hands and fearless mind.

 

Where it all started to go wrong. Brendan McCullum bowled off the third ball of the final by Mitchell Starc. Photograph: Brendon Mallon/Reuters

Image: Where it all started to go wrong. Brendan McCullum bowled off the third ball of the final by Mitchell Starc. Photograph: Brendon Mallon/Reuters

 

The contest lasted for all of three deliveries, none of which McCullum was allowed to touch. The first from Starc to the Kiwi captain was the third ball of the innings -- a 149k delivery bolt on a very full length, angling outside off and swinging back in late to beat the edge of the driving bat by a whisker, and the off stump by maybe two whiskers.

The second ball was the real engagement. McCullum charged the bowler in a bid to stamp his authority. Starc spotted the move, followed the batsman as he made room and beat him for pace, swing and length -- that is, as comprehensively as a bowler with skill can beat a batsman with intent.

The third ball, the fifth of the Kiwi innings, finished off the contest. The ball was faster than its predecessors, with voluptuous swing and toe-threatening length. McCullum, yet again, was beaten by pace, length and movement; this time the ball was on target, and the stumps lit up as Starc cut loose with a feral scream of triumph.

The other moment that defined the game came off the last ball of the 45th over and, as it turned out, the last ball of the Kiwi innings. Trent Boult defended Mitchell Johnson out to the on side. Tim Southee, the non-striker, briefly thought about the run that wasn't there.

Glenn Maxwell, at a shortish square leg, fielded. With the spatial awareness that characterises the very best fielders, he saw the opportunity and gunned the stumps down at the bowler's end before Southee could retrace the three or four steps he needed to be safe.

The score, just before that ball, was 183 for 9; Boult and Southee were the last pair and Australia was right on top.

The run-out didn't matter, it can be argued, as much as say the sensational take by a diving Brad Haddin to take out Ross Taylor just when he and Grant Elliott had revived New Zealand with a 111 run partnership (137 deliveries) and had taken the power play.

But that is sort of the point: By then, the Kiwi innings was a bleeding ruin, and yet Maxwell's intensity, like that of his mates, was at the same level it was at the beginning.

That was the key to a game where, on paper, there is nothing to separate the two sides: Intensity. From the first ball of the innings to the run out of Southee, the Australian bowlers and fielders buzzed around like predatory yellow-jacketed wasps (which, I learnt, belong to the family Vespidae, genus Vespula).

 

Kane Williamson walks back after being dismissed by Mitchell Johnson. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Image: Kane Williamson walks back after being dismissed by Mitchell Johnson. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

 

The first half of the game was a demonstration of what a perfectly balanced bowling attack can bring to what rumor says is a batsman's game. There was the swing at pace of Starc; the lazer-guided line and lift of Josh Hazelwood; the speed and bounce of Mitchell Johnson and the many variations of James Faulkner, who seems to have almost as many deliveries from the back of his hand as he has when his wrist is behind the ball.

It's a strong attack that, against the powerful batsmanship of the Kiwis, can provide cover to the alleged off-breaks of Glenn Maxwell and does not need more than an over or four of that muscular enforcer, Shane Watson.

Adding teeth to the bowling and relentless fielding is the captaincy of Michael Clarke, leading in his last one day international. His body may require an entire college of medical specialists to maintain, but his mind is scalpel-sharp, cutting through the complexities of the game to hit on simple solutions.

Clarke's bowling changes seemed to be the result of reading the batsman's minds, and his field settings were plotted along the fault-lines of each batsman's failings. He knew when to rope the dope with the containing bowling of a Maxwell, and when to go hard for the opponent's glass jaw with a Starc, a Faulkner, a Johnson.

Again, there was a moment that summed up the many moments when Clarke bossed the game. Matt Henry was batting and, as tailenders will, he kept backing off to try and slash through space on the off. Clarke put fingers to mouth and whistled, as he is wont to when he wants the attention of his fielders.

Johnson switched to round the wicket to narrow the angle; Starc responded to his captain's whistle and trotted into the ring from his sweeper position. The next ball was full, outside off, and Henry slashed it off the toe of the bat straight to Starc. Plan, execution, done.

The Kiwi innings suffered from losing wickets in clusters. The opening burst saw Martin Guptill, McCullum and Kane Williamson dismissed inside the first 12 overs; the Haddin catch turned the Kiwi power-play into a disaster that accounted for Taylor, Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi in the space of 12 balls for the cost of one run.

Grant Elliott (83 off 82) was the only batsman to play with freedom and form, maintaining a run a ball rate in the teeth of the carnage. But the blood-letting in the first two overs of the power-play proved too much even for one of his calm assurance.

The necessity to hit even harder than he was coupled with the deception of Faulkner -- who has as many different varieties of the slower ball as the great Andy Roberts had bouncers -- proved too much, and he he touched off to Haddin.

 

James Faulkner celebrates getting Corey Anderson's wicket. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images 

Image: James Faulkner celebrates getting Corey Anderson's wicket. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

 

The Kiwi total of 183 all out raised brief -- and meaningless -- memories of the 1983 World Cup final. And that flashback underlined the pointlessness of nostalgia -- our longing for 'back then' don't allow for changed conditions. 'Back then,' 183 was a challenging score where, today, it is just about par for the last 15 overs of an innings.

In his first over, Southee demonstrated why in this tournament Aaron Finch has been all hat and no cowboy. And in the next over, Boult finished the right handed opener off with an inswinger so late it tied Finch up in knots, and with such a heavy load on it that the edge onto pad ballooned the ball all the way back down the pitch to the bowler on the follow through.

David Warner changed the game around in the 5th over when he crashed Southee for three successive fours -- a crunching cover drive to the first ball, a wild swat that powered the ball over mid on off the second, and an edge that flew wide of the lone slip to the third man fence off the third.

Two of those three fours were strokes without control, but it showed where the Kiwis were vulnerable -- with a paucity of runs, even McCullum couldn't give his bowlers the sort of umbrella cordons that had made everyone sit up in previous games, and that meant that the large acreage of the MCG was an invitation to plunder.

 

Trent Boult celebrates with Daniel Vettori after dismissing Aaron Finch. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Image: Trent Boult celebrates with Daniel Vettori after dismissing Aaron Finch. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

 

Warner kept swinging; enough connected, sometimes fluently and at other times not, to power him to 41 off 44 and the Aussies to 59 in 12 before Matt Henry took him out. Confronted by a short ball immediately after a fielder was placed deep at square leg for the hook, Warner took up the gauntlet but was caught in two minds -- to hit through for four, or up for six. He holed out to the man placed exactly where he was expected to hole out to, and another Warner innings ended the way it often does -- by the same sword he had lived by.

Despite the two wickets and aggressive use of his strike bowlers by McCullum, nails remained unbitten and sphincters stayed unclenched thanks to the assured ease of Aussie number three Steve Smith and the fluidity of Michael Clarke.

Freed from the worry of having to save his back for the next game, Clarke began with shots that explored all the edges of his bat and, once he got his eye in, with shots of scintillant brilliance.

 

Steve Smith congratulates Michael Clarke after the skipper scored his half century. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Image: Steve Smith congratulates Michael Clarke after the skipper scored his half century. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

 

On a pitch sapped its sustaining juices and against a line-up of bowlers increasingly shackled by the underwhelming target, Clarke stroked off front foot, controlling the chase and with the finish line in sight, opening out in a blistering attack that saw him take four successive boundaries off Southee in the 31st to power towards the target.

Had Clarke batted through to the finish, the euphoria of the win would have stolen the spotlight away from his last moments as an ODI player. But cricket's scriptwriting ability is spot on when it comes to the big moments. In the over immediately following that blitz, Henry got a slower ball to deceive Clarke (74 off 72) and find the edge of his cut onto the stumps.

The Kiwis ran up to shake Clarkes's hand and pat him on the back, the 90+ thousand crowd at the MCG stood to the departing batsman as did the Australian dressing room, and Clarke got the send-off he deserved.

The ease of the chase had stripped the game of any emotional edge, though, and once the crowd settled down after Clarke's exit, Smith duly completed his own 50 (his fifth score of 50 or more in succession) and, deservedly, closed the game out with a boundary off the first ball of the 33rd to seal the seven wicket win.

You felt for McCullum and his young side that had lit up this competition with aggressive, edgy cricket. But the climax of a global competition separates the men from the boys as surely as the sentient Sorting Hat parses the inmates of Hogwarts.

And when the sorting was done at the MCG, the eleven men wore gold edged in green while the boys in black proved to have a bit of growing up to do, yet.

 

Michael Clarke acknowledges the MCG crowd after he is dismissed. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Image: Michael Clarke acknowledges the MCG crowd after he is dismissed. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

 

 

PREM PANICKER ON THE WORLD CUP!

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