In October this year, mid-way through the second leg of the Indian Premier League, Aaron Finch was recovering from a knee surgery, while his opening partner in the Australian team, David Warner, was reduced to waving the flag from the stands after being benched by the Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH). Meanwhile, Australia had left Bangladesh on the back of five consecutive T20I series defeats with little clarity over the starting XI for the World Cup following COVID-19-related withdrawals, which caused personnel changes across different tours.
And yet, just weeks later, Finch’s Australia powered to an eight-wicket victory over New Zealand to win the Men’s T20 World Cup for the first time. Australia’s T20 success under Finch and head coach Justin Langer will go down as one of its greatest achievements in limited-overs cricket. And as the mind wanders back to the November 14 final at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, and the moment when Glenn Maxwell reverse swept Tim Southee past short third for four to give Australia the T20 title, the obvious question to ask is: how did the team do it?
The truth is that you would be forgiven for saying you didn’t see this coming. Australia did not come with the sort of expectations as tournament favourites England and West Indies — what with 50-over World Cup and the two-time T20 winners both drawn in their Super 12s group. But everything fell spectacularly into place, catalysed by a mix of team spirit and talent within a group of players with a hunger to win.
Resurgence: Australia’s David Warner won the Player-of-the-Tournament award, finishing as the second-leading run-scorer at the World Cup, with 289 at a strike rate just under 150. After a rickety IPL campaign with SRH, Warner’s form at the World Cup defied logic. – AFP
Chief among the reasons why Australia won was Warner. After a rickety IPL campaign — 195 runs from eight matches — with SRH, Warner’s form at the World Cup silenced sceptics. He won the Player of the Tournament award, finishing as the second-leading run-scorer at the World Cup, with 289 at a strike rate just under 150. His innings of 53 off 38 balls in the final, after scoring 49 off 30 in the semifinal against Pakistan and 89 not out off 56 against West Indies, bookended Finch’s assessment that “Warner is one of the all-time great batters and he’s a fighter.”
There were tactical moves that paid off handsomely. Mitchell Marsh’s elevation to No. 3, the use of Matthew Wade and Marcus Stoinis as finishers and the switch to a four-man bowling attack were the most decisive ones.
With leading players withdrawing from the tours of West Indies and Bangladesh, Marsh was promoted to first drop. “We see him as a bit of an enforcer up there, he faces fast bowling as well as anyone around the place,” Langer had said at the time. “He hits the ball with brutal power, and we’re looking forward to giving him a chance at the top of the order.”
Marsh vindicated Langer with his 77 not out off 50 balls in the final, his career-best T20I score. “I feel like a lot of people say this, but I don’t really have words right now,” Marsh said, on collecting the Player of the Match award. “What an amazing six weeks with this group of men. I absolutely love ’em to death — and we’re world champs.” This, after Marsh was dropped from the XI following ordinary returns against South Africa and Sri Lanka. But he was promptly back in the side and helped Australia seal crushing wins against Bangladesh and West Indies to confirm qualification for the knockouts.
Mission accomplished: Mitchell Marsh, left, was Australia’s highest scorer in the final and was awarded the Player of the match. He celebrates with his teammates after Australia clinched its maiden T20 World Cup in Dubai, UAE. – AP
Following the win against New Zealand, Finch spoke about Australia’s decision to play aggressively even if it didn’t guarantee success all the time because “we know that’s when we play our best.” A reason why Marsh and Warner were able to maximise the PowerPlay overs was because of the cushion of Stoinis at No. 6 and Wade at No. 7.
Stoinis and Wade open for Melbourne Stars and Hobart Hurricanes, respectively, in the Big Bash League, and are used to facing quality pace up top. An example of their finishing prowess against genuine pace was on display against Pakistan in the semifinal where both batters launched an assault on the opposition quicks after trailing Babar Azam’s men for the most part of the run chase. Wade smashed an unbeaten 41 off only 17 balls, while Stoinis finished 40 not out off 31. Their remarkable stand of 81 in 6.4 overs carried Australia home with an over to spare. Their form also made up for the lack of big runs from Steve Smith and Maxwell.
Yet, pinning all the success on the batting undercuts the expertise and skills of the bowling attack. Marsh’s emergence meant Australia turned to all-rounders for filling in as the fifth bowler. Maxwell did the bulk of the duty though, sending in 14 overs in seven matches for 100 runs and two wickets at an economy rate of 7.14. Leg-spinner Adam Zampa stood out. His T20 World Cup campaign was studded with 13 wickets at a staggering economy rate of 5.81. He was ably supported by the three quicks Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. Hazlewood was the pick of them, his figures of 4-0-16-3 in the final, where his teammates went for more than six an over, is a testament to the quality and variety he brings in T20s. Australia ultimately relied on a Test-hardened pace attack to succeed in a format that is antithetical to the five-day game.
The toss played its part as well — Australia lost the toss only once in the World Cup — with Finch admitting as much. “It did play a big factor, to be honest,” Finch said. “I tried to play it down as much as I could because I thought, ‘at some point in the tournament, I’m going to lose a toss and we’ll have to bat first’. But it did play a big part. You saw out there at the end there the dew factor: the slower balls weren’t holding in the wicket as much. I don’t know how I did it [win six tosses] — maybe it was just fate.”
For the first time in six years, an ICC trophy was in Australia’s hands again, presented to Finch in the middle of the stadium, under the floodlight and in a shower of gold glitter. Australia will now go into next year’s T20 World Cup on home soil as the defending champion. Five years without a men’s T20 World Cup, but Australia will tell you it was all worth the wait.