“If you think Australia will make the semis, well then bud, I have a bridge to sell you.”
The quote above is fictional. But let’s be honest, we all felt this way prior to the World Cup. And truth be told, this line of thought was completely justified.
Heading into the World Cup, Australia had lost 11 of the 15 T20Is they had played in the calendar year. 8 of those losses came against Bangladesh and West Indies, both of whom trounced the Kangaroos 4-1 and 4-1.
Of the 52 countries to have played T20Is in 2021, only 11 other teams had a worse W/L ratio than their 0.363. Or, to make it sound more dramatic, Australia had a worse W/L ratio than Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. And yes, just to reiterate, the sport in question here is Cricket.
But it was not just about the losses they suffered. This was a side that entered this tournament a broken unit. For all the off-field drama, Pakistan still were a settled T20 side. But not this Australian team. It was a mess.
For one, they’d played literally no cricket together. Australia last fielded a proper ‘full-strength team’ 18 months ago against South Africa, a series which they won 2-1. It was so long ago that, back then, hardly anyone knew Covid was a thing.
This, though, was the least of the Aussies’ problems heading into the tournament.
They had a skipper who was not only out of form, but also short on match fitness, having not played any cricket since undergoing knee surgery back in August.
His partner at the top, David Warner, meanwhile, was in the midst of his worst ever run as a batsman, and also entered the competition down on form, morale and match-practice, having been dumped by his IPL franchise altogether.
The management didn’t know who the team’s middle-order batters apart from Maxwell were, and also had little idea who the first-choice wicket-keeper was. The bowling unit, in comparison, was settled, but most of the individuals entered the tournament carrying scars from the tours of West Indies and Bangladesh. Then there was the odd-man-out Pat Cummins, who hadn’t played any professional cricket since May.
So many problems and we’ve not even touched upon the players’ broken relationship with head coach Justin Langer.
Now you know why pretty much no one backed this team to make the semi-finals. That too from the supposed Group of Death.
But well, here we are.
“Simply qualify? That’s for noobs. We would like to enter the semis as the third most dominant side in this World Cup, thanks,” is what Australia have responded with.
A champion-side, wearing yellow, filled with match-winners and supposed ‘finished players’ subverting expectations and making a whole bunch of people eat humble pie. Does it ring a bell?
Luck, Quality and Experience - the secret of Australia’s success
Before we rave about Australia’s performance in the Super 12 stage, it is important to acknowledge that they are a side with many flaws. They are, let’s say, closer to South Africa than they are to England.
Now that we’ve gotten this out of the way, let’s get to the crux of the matter.
Luck has played a significant part in Australia’s charge in this World Cup, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. In fact, Finch’s men got lucky even before the World Cup began. The Aussies were the only side in Group 1 to not have been allocated a single game in Sharjah, which, make no mistake, turned out to be significant.
The Kangaroos, as we witnessed in Bangladesh and West Indies, dread playing on slow and low wickets, and dodged a huge bullet by escaping Sharjah. All of South Africa, Sri Lanka and maybe even Bangladesh would have fancied beating Australia in Sharjah, but Finch’s men instead played all their games in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, two grounds where the bounce is almost always true.
Then, come the tournament, luck arrived in the form of toss. Finch remarkably won four of the five tosses, and, surprise surprise, Australia won each of those four games. They chased in all the games they won the toss and ended up winning most of those games comprehensively. And yes, they got trounced in the only match they were asked to bat first.
Take nothing away from their performances, but certain results could very well have turned out different had they batted first.
That being said, however, luck can only take you so far. Ultimately, what matters is how you make the most out of it.
Barring the nervy start to their campaign against South Africa - and, of course, the hammering against England - Australia hardly put a foot wrong.
The foundation of their success was their bowling. Australia, along with England and South Africa, turned out to be one of the best bowling sides in the Super 12 stage, and much of it was down to the clear role-definition the bowlers were assigned.
Hazlewood was their ‘powerplay man’ and he delivered big time: ‘Big Josh’ picked up six wickets in the Super 12 stage inside the first six overs, the most by any bowler in the competition. Hazlewood striking up-front almost always gave the team a head start.
Cummins, in comparison, was used everywhere and thrived bowling with the older ball, while Zampa was the team’s middle-order trump-card. The Zampa move, at least, worked out to perfection as the leg-spinner picked 11 wickets - all between overs 7-15 - to end the Super 12 stage as the highest wicket-taker.
What was really interesting was the usage of Mitchell Starc.
Someone who generally swings the new ball a lot, Australia split the overs of Mitch Starc as 1, 1 and 2 (one powerplay, one middle and two death) or 1, 2 and 1 depending on the stage of the game. Only twice in the entire Super 12 stage did Starc bowl more than one over inside the first six.
And the move worked. Starc conceded at just 7.4 in overs 7-15 and picked three wickets, and also essentially won the Sri Lanka game for the side. The Lankans were flying at 86/2 at the halfway mark, but a double-strike from Starc turned the game on its head.
If it was ‘quality’ with the ball that enabled Australia to dominate, it was the ‘experience’ on the batting front that got the side over the line in most games.
There was extreme scrutiny on both Warner and Finch post their failure against South Africa in Australia’s first match of the Super 12 but, as it turned out, the duo, two most experienced batters in the side, finished the stage as the first and second-highest run-getters for the side.
In a way, you could say that it was Warner and Finch who, on the batting front, dragged the side into the semis.
Warner scored two crucial half-centuries that helped seal points against Sri Lanka and West Indies, while Finch’s cameos against both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh eventually ended up making a huge difference to the side’s NRR.
But not just these two. Smith, Marsh, Wade and Stoinis all played valuable little hands, and it was ironically Maxwell, the team’s best T20 batter, who did not make an impact in the Super 12 stage. Australia wouldn’t mind that at all, for the narrative, prior to the tournament, was that they were a one man (Maxwell) team.
For all the talk of Australia not being progressive enough with their selection in T20s - and it is true, make no mistake - it is the oldies who ended up carrying the side with the bat.
The similarities with CSK are a bit eerie, aren’t they?
How Australia pipped South Africa to make the semis
As ridiculous as it sounds, the only reason Australia find themselves in the semis is because they hammered Bangladesh far more ruthlessly than South Africa did. It may sound absurd, but it is as simple as that.
Both the teams knocked the Tigers over for a sub-100 total, but while Australia chased the target down in the 7th over, South Africa nearly took 14 overs, granted it was on a different wicket. Ultimately, that encounter turned out to be a tie-breaker of sorts. A format of fine margins, as they say.
Because really, South Africa couldn’t have done more. They were exceptional with the ball and were better than their opponents with the bat in every game but the Australia one. They did not get clobbered in any game (like Australia did) and heck, even beat the best team in the competition. They registered 4 wins. You cannot ask for more.
And yet they find themselves heading back home, all thanks to NRR. And they will, no doubt, look back on that Bangladesh game, wondering if they could have been more proactive with the chase, even if it meant them losing a cluster of wickets. Because remember, in that Bangladesh clash, three wickets was all South Africa had lost in the first 13 overs.
If there is one thing the Proteas can learn from Australia, though, it’s that you will always have a better chance of being successful if you pick your best players. Most of Australia’s senior players made themselves unavailable for tours prior to the T20 World Cup, but that didn’t stop the selectors from picking them anyway. Because they knew that quality, and not loyalty, will win matches.
South Africa left out Faf du Plessis - who smashed it in IPL 2021 in UAE - but the move ended up backfiring, with their openers flopping.
CSA, now, can only wonder ‘what could have been’ had they swallowed their ego and actually picked Faf, the most in-form and the best opener in the country.
If the board indeed think that they can attain success by constantly alienating their best players, well then, I have a bridge to sell them.