Trans-Tasman battle to decide cricketing domain

Jaideep Ghosh

clarke_australiaThe drop in decibel levels in and around Sydney and Melbourne is almost a living thing now, as the thousands of Indian supporters, stunned into the silence of defeat and exit from the ICC World Cup 2015, leave the battlefield to the co-hosts to decide who will rule the ODI world for the next four years.

It will not be the same without India. The sheer enthusiasm and belief of an average Indian fan, his ability to travel vast distances, rough it out in the most basic of accommodation and keep cheering his side till the end is what makes cricket the sport it is today.

Maybe it is time that a chapter is written for the Indian fan, the most unsung and unappreciated star of the game. To an extent that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has banned players from even signing autographs! But that’s another story.

Right now, the stage is set for the co-hosts, Australia and New Zealand, to thrash out their traditional rivalry on the vast stage of the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 29.

The contest throws up some very interesting snippets. This is from the first time, since Australia and England met at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata in 1987, that both the finalists are from outside the sub-continent.

This is also the first time that New Zealand has made it past the semi-final stage of the World Cup, in seven attempts.

The Australians, on the other hand, are a ‘been there, done that’ team. Though not too many of the current crop know the feeling.
So that brings us to the match itself. On the face of it, this one looks like being in the bag for Australia.

One very specific reason for this is the match they played in the league stages. Australia collapsed to Tim Southee in spectacular fashion, but clawed back equally spectacularly through Mitchell Starc to almost snatch it.

It took some steely nerves from Kane Williamson to keep that one in the Kiwi camp.

But what it did was to establish in no uncertain terms that this Australian side can do almost anything. That, given with the fact that the current contest will be on their own turf, makes them overwhelming favourites.

New Zealand and skipper Brendon McCullum’s tactics have been straight – attack from the beginning, be it with bat or ball. But while that works fine on the smaller grounds like Auckland or Wellington, Melbourne is a different kettle of fish altogether.

The shots that land in the third row of spectators in Wellington, will land inside the field in Melbourne, so McCullum’s strategy of hitting out won’t be easy to implement there. Which would also mean that there would be much more emphasis on keeping the ball on the ground and finding gaps.

Plus, while McCullum and Martin Guptill have come good, the rest of the batting has been patchy. Grant Elliott has one good inning, Williamson another, while Corey Anderson delivered on one occasion. Ross Taylor has been struggling.

The Australian batting too has been tested. David Warner and Aaron Finch have still to stitch together anything consistent, while skipper Michael Clarke and Shane Watson are on thin ice.

Glenn Maxwell is a hit and miss player, and James Faulkner is just a finisher.

But then there is Steve Smith. He has made the Australian batting a winning machine. The man has had the most awesome year and there is no reason that he can’t sign off with a flourish.

In the bowling department too, Australia is collectively more consistent. Starc is in paramount form and India’s poor tactics in the semi-final showed how they hadn’t prepared for any of the others, especially Mitchell Johnson and Josh Hazlewood.

Johnson came steaming in, buoyed by his swinging batting, while Hazlewood, straight of the Glenn McGrath school of bowling, was accurate enough to deny India.

New Zealand will feel that heat too. They will have to deal with Starc and Hazlewood beginning things, and then negotiate Johnson, with Watson and Faulkner adding their own little bits.

On the other end, Trent Boult, the top wicket-taker in the tournament, has been in good form but Southee, barring that assault on Australia, has been average. Matt Harry came into the semi-final out of the wilderness and was impressive. Anderson always chips in.

But all said and done, the pace attack is better west of the Tasman Sea.

Spin is where New Zealand may have an edge. No one else has Daniel Vettori after all.

Vettori returned from retirement to play a crucial role for New Zealand with the ball, as was seen against Australia and others, and bat too, as was seen against South Africa in the semi-finals.

Melbourne may be perfect for him. It is just too big for any batsman to try and hit him out of the attack and that should work for him. Also, Australia’s answer to spin is some odds and ends stuff from Maxwell, and its a no-contest when it comes to quality.

In essence, New Zealand may have to try weapons they haven’t used yet. The likes of Williamson to come in and support Vettori with slow stuff from the other end. That could be an interesting ploy.

No changes are expected. No one changes a winning combination. A pity for some of the Australian reserves, especially the likes of George Bailey – started as captain and ended as drinks carrier. Cold professionals, these Aussies. But that’s what makes them champion material too.

Expect a good contest, but don’t expect New Zealand to win, just because the Australians are our worst enemies at the moment.