Immortality 100 overs away as battle-hardened Australia take aim at India’s invincibles

replay of , Afghanistan vs Sri Lanka, Group B, Asia Cup 2022, Dubai, August 27, 2022
Immortality 100 overs away as battle-hardened Australia take aim at India’s invincibles

Big picture: The team of this tournament vs the team that tends to win these tournaments

It feels a little like we are in the eye of the cyclone. Over the last few weeks, this World Cup had become a furious whirl of irresistible narratives. There was Virat Kohli’s tenacious run to 50 ODI hundreds, Glenn Maxwell’s fastest World Cup hundred, then that manic 201* against Afghanistan, a timed-out dismissal sparking major controversy, New Zealand pushing the big teams close but not quite making it, Pakistan’s exit setting off major reshuffles at home, Sri Lanka nosediving into a deep administrative and cricketing ravine, Bangladesh engaging in some soul-searching of their own, and Afghanistan orchestrating the most captivating campaign of the tournament but disovering there is a ceiling for them still.

In the cyclone’s eye, because this tournament deserves a dramatic finish, and the stage seems set for one. The final really does feel like the culmination of all the events since October 5. For a start, there can be no doubt these are the best teams of the competition. India have dominated the tournament so far to such an extent that their average winning margin batting first is 175 runs, and on average they have won with 64.4 balls to spare while chasing. Only Australia’s stomping march to the 2007 World Cup final rivals these numbers.

Australia had found themselves bottom of the table after two matches, thanks partly to India having eased to victory in these teams’ tournament opener. But they have since put together a sequence of eight victories. Where India have tended to crush their oppositions from the outset, Australia have had major scares to survive (like being 91 for 7 chasing 292 against Afghanistan), white-hot spells to see out (like Tabraiz Shamsi in the semi-final), determined opposition chases to weather (like New Zealand’s in Dharamsala).

Rather than being wearied by these intense passages of play, Australia have perhaps been tempered by them. As they had lost series to South Africa and India in the lead-in to this tournament, they had not been favourites on current form, anyway. On top of which theirs has been an imperfect campaign: Mitchell Starc only really came good in the semi-final, Steven Smith has not hit top gear, powerplay wickets have sometimes been in short supply.

India have been as close to perfect as you could imagine. Twice they’ve bowled out oppositions for below 80. Of the five times they’ve batted first, they surpassed 350 on three occasions, and got 326 for 5 on another. Their fielding has been exemplary. Four of their top five have hit hundreds over the course of the campaign, and the other – Shubman Gill – still averages 50 and has struck at 108.02.

They have also fed off, rather than been overwhelmed by, their roaring home crowds, Virat Kohli directing entire stadiums like an orchestra conductor. In fact, watching India in their grand stadiums in this World Cup has at times felt like a grand, synchronous performance – every instrument in tune, every voice in perfect pitch, all the broader forces acting on the match advancing the march toward’s India’s glory.

If there is one team that might not be daunted by more than 100,000 fans in the biggest stadium the sport has, however, it is Australia. Pat Cummins has suggested as much: they will embrace the silence that has tended to fill stadiums when India wickets have fallen, or an opposition has hit a boundary. Many in their team have been part of World Cup finals before, and many have won. Five members of the likely Australia XI were in the 2015 World Cup final, and a few others still won the T20 World Cup in 2021.

And perhaps being battle-tested counts for something too. If the game gets close, Australia have had more recent experience in such situations, and have a long-term history in keeping themselves sharp and collected. For all the data that has now swept cricket, this is still a game played by human beings ruled at times by emotion.

Still, will India even let Australia get close? So far in this World Cup, India have been like the sun, and Australia like Jupiter – the next-most massive body in the solar system, but dwarfed still by the greater celestial body.

Form guide

India WWWWW (last five completed ODIs, most recent first)
Australia WWWWW

In the spotlight

Mohammed Shami has played six matches in this tournament, having only come into the team post Hardik Pandya’s exit. He’s since taken a tournament-high 23 wickets at 9.13, with an economy rate of 5.01. Three times he’s taken five wickets, and once he’s taken four. There are excellent reasons to put Jasprit Bumrah’s name down on the team sheet first, but in terms of wicket-seekers, there has been no bowler better than Shami, constantly coming at the stumps, often muddling batters’ brains to such an extent that they are forced to play wild shots. Shami is also part of the reason why India – who very arguably have the best pace attack of the competition (that they have the best overall attack is more widely accepted) – can prosper on any kind of deck, even the low, slow ones. The Ahmedabad pitch for this game is a used deck. You have to expect Shami wickets.

Pat Cummins has the chance to join the Australian pantheon of World-Cup-winning captains, something he will obviously savour. But for the neutral cricket lover, there is a more exclusive, and perhaps more impressive list: fast-bowling World-Cup-winning captains, of whom there are only two – Imran Khan and Kapil Dev.

Cummins has had a decent tournament, but perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect. He’s averaged 37 with the ball, with an economy rate of 6.05. His more memorable contributions have been with the bat. He batted out 68 balls against Afghanistan so Maxwell could play that innings, and on Thursday, his 14 not out against South Africa was an important contribution in a string of important contributions that saw Australia through to the final. When he has taken wickets, though, they have tended to be important ones – the dismissal of centurion David Miller in that semi-final a case in point.

If there is a criticism to be made here, perhaps it’s that he’s occasionally been too rigid with his captaincy. Why not bowl out Josh Hazlewood when he’s had such spectacular first and second spells, against South Africa, for example? Why give Mitchell Starc the vital last over against New Zealand, when Starc had had struggled in that game? And yet also, he has also embodied the resilience his team has shown since going 2-0 down early.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is a writer at ESPNcricinfo. @afidelf

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