Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Australia earn Cricket World Cup glory as Travis Head ton spoils India’s party

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As Pat Cummins and his players basked in the afterglow of a sixth men’s World Cup title for Australia – a contender for their greatest, no question – thousands of Indian supporters poured out of this giant cricketing coliseum in a state of utter disbelief.

Gone was the notion of this day fulfilling India’s destiny in their home tournament, a fine team with some all-time greats – Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, no less – seeing a searing run of 10 successive wins evaporate at the last. Cummins, a Blue Mountains boy in an ocean of blue shirts, had masterminded a truly famous heist.

Even after India had stumbled and scratched their way to 240 all out on a grim, slow pitch, their adoring, if chiefly reactive supporters had instant cause for hope. In a helter-skelter start to the chase that had all the hallmarks of India’s journey to this point, Bumrah and Mohammed Shami wreaked what appeared to be match-winning havoc.

But from 47 for three in seven utterly madcap overs – Steve Smith the last to fall lbw and failing to call for the review that would have saved him – two batters in Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne displayed the kind of resilience and skill that has run though Australian cricket history like the words through a stick of canary yellow rock.

Head missed the first five games of the tournament with a fractured hand but Cummins, knowing his value, did not blink. And the gamble to keep the spot open delivered the ultimate payout at the end, a masterful 137 from 120 balls – alloyed by a steadfast 58 not out from Labuschagne – reeling in the target, four wickets down with seven overs to spare.

As Labuschagne chiselled away at one end, blunting India’s spinners, the South Australian southpaw with the bushy moustache had taken on the riskier role, crunching 15 fours and four sixes. Among them was a four that greeted what felt like Shami’s pivotal return in the 24th over, Head sending it back from whence it came en route to his 95-ball century.

Head fell two short of the target but if anything, it afforded a deserved solo moment in the spotlight; a chance for the remaining supporters to pay their dues. Kohli graciously raced up to offer a pat on the back, Head having become the third Australian man after Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting to score a century in a World Cup final.

Pat Cummins with Travis Head, whose 137 off 120 balls carried Australia to the finish line. Photograph: Matthew Lewis-ICC/ICC/Getty Images

The coup de grace instead came from Glenn Maxwell, following what had been a mighty 192-run fourth-wicket stand by slogging his first ball off Mohammed Siraj square. Cue a rush of teammates on to the field as Sharma men initially stood there slightly stunned. Handshakes followed, naturally, but this scene was very much not in the script.

If Head and Labuschagne were the toast of Australians around the world – the spark for a dazzling light show that only heightened the agony for India – then the fingerprints of Cummins were all over this one. In a year that saw him lift the World Test Championship mace and retain the Ashes in England, this feat – walking into India’s supposed home coronation and snatching the crown – surely tops the lot.

Cummins had raised a fair few eyebrows first thing when, following an overhead display of aerobatics from the Indian air force’s 52nd squadron, he won the toss and made the two-fingered seam-up gesture to bowl. Those thoughts only increased further when his opposite number, Sharma, put on a bit of show himself, booming three sixes in a 31-ball 47 before a combination of Maxwell and Head’s sparkling tumbling catch cut it short.

Still, Sharma’s early raids had previously sparked an avalanche of Indian runs in the tournament and the crowd expected a repeat. But Cummins held his nerve superbly here. He marshalled his resources shrewdly, not least spotting when one of the balls started reversing and thrust it into the hands of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. The pair were sublime, sharing five wickets as Cummins claimed two for 34 himself.

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Among them came one of the countless times the ground turned into the world’s biggest library, with Kohli, having settled in to reach 54 from 63, hearing a backfoot defence cannon on to his stumps. India’s icon had seen his record-breaking haul of runs at this tournament halted at 765, taking what felt an eternity to drag himself from the middle.

It came 29 overs into what had become a painstaking crawl for India, an 80-run powerplay of 12 boundaries replaced by a tortured 40-over grind that produced just four more. Australia once again delivered a livewire fielding display, Josh Inglis became the first wicketkeeper to claim five catches in a World Cup final, and Adam Zampa claimed his 23rd wicket of the campaign to equal Muttiah Muralitharan’s record for a spinner.

The struggle for India, which pretty much set in after Cummins knocked over Shreyas Iyer third ball in the 11th over, was summed up by a 107-ball 66 from the usually fluent KL Rahul that saw just one four struck. A late flourish might have followed, only for the old ball excellence of Starc and Hazlewood to repeatedly peg things back.

A score on the board and Australia’s past shortcomings against spin on the subcontinent still gave India an even chance, the pendulum even swinging their way when David Warner, Mitch Marsh and Smith were swiftly vaporised. Australia, trying to break the back of the chase early on, were all over the shop initially, summed up by Smith’s error.

But an Indian team that had mulled (but ultimately resisted) drafting in Ravichandran Ashwin for this moonscape surface overnight failed to create another meaningful chance. Instead, Head and Labuschagne calmly constructed a partnership and a victory that will enter their country’s folklore, joining the triumphs in 1987, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2015.

All that was left for India was to collect their runners-up medals and look on as their prime minister, the man whose name adorns this giant ground in Ahmedabad, handed the World Cup to the deserving Cummins. At the end of what had appeared to be a 46-day procession for the hosts came a reminder that in sport, nothing is preordained.

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