If there were any doubts about Australia’s preeminence in cricket’s world order, those were ruthlessly banished at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday. A fifth World Cup crown in 11 editions — each achieved in a different continent, between 1987 and now — confers an aura of supremacy as nothing else. Consider that Australia has made two other finals at the game’s quadrennial showpiece event, and you get a sense of a country that produces dynamic, match-winning cricketers who pass on bloody-mindedness from generation to generation. Michael Clarke’s men were slight favourites at the start of the current edition; hardly anyone in cricket circles picks against Australia in big tournaments, especially outside the subcontinent. Given the side was likely to play a majority of its matches at home — including the semifinal and final at Sydney and Melbourne respectively, stomping grounds where it has historically been hard to beat — it was no surprise that the smart money was on Australia regaining the title. But being fancied is one thing. To win and do it so often that it appears inevitable, particularly in big games, is the hardest challenge in professional sport.
Australia grew in strength through the tournament, as Clarke and the influential James Faulkner returned after injury-enforced absences. The one-wicket defeat to New Zealand when the sides first met, Clarke said, was a wake-up call. But he knew, as did most who follow the game closely, that Australia had no business staying in the contest as long as it did. Other sides in the tournament took notice: the feared Australian will was apparent; all that remained was for its game rhythm to click into gear. Steve Smith and Mitchell Starc shone the brightest, the former batting with calm mastery in the knock-out matches, the latter creating chaos and panic in the opposition with searing left-arm pace. Both played vital parts in the final too, Starc removing the tone-setting Brendon McCullum and Smith ensuring that a small chase suffered no nerves. But this was an Australian side full of explosive game-breakers. Under Clarke, who left one-day cricket in a fairytale finish, the side played stirring, attacking cricket — much like the team it beat in the final. New Zealand looked like a heart-warming underdog story to the casual fan; in reality it has been the form side in one-day cricket over the last six months or so. Its vibrant, intelligent style of play established the World Cup’s zeitgeist with eight successive wins. A one-off final in unfamiliar Melbourne — after all its matches at home — proved too much, however. Australia was better on the day, as it so often is, but New Zealand proved that valour and imagination can bring the impossible within grasp.