Anirudh Suresh
19 Nov 2023 | 10:33 PM

Agony to ecstasy: how Australia turned around their World Cup campaign

Poetically, on Sunday in Ahmedabad, Australia's 2023 World Cup campaign came full circle after they beat India

Just over a month ago, Australia found themselves at the very bottom of the 2023 World Cup table, looking like a jaded unit which seemed cooked (both mentally and physically) and short of answers. Post the humiliation at the hands of South Africa in Lucknow, a semi-final spot seemed far away.

In a turnaround that’s been nothing short of astonishing, the Aussies have since managed to win nine on the bounce to become world champions yet again, the sixth time in their history. 

This triumph arguably is their most stupendous World Cup win of this century, considering they’ve not simply beaten the hosts and outright tournament-favorites India, who were looking like a force of nature that was unstoppable, but have hammered them in front of a partisan 100,000 capacity crowd to complete — against all odds —  what looked like an improbable victory. 

This is how their campaign went from agony to ecstasy.

The Fielding Turnaround 

You seldom associate ‘bad fielding’ with Australia but in their first two matches of this World Cup, the Kangaroos, by their high standards, were horrific on the field. 

They dropped 6 catches across their first two matches, including a very costly one of Virat Kohli, and after 13 completed matches, their catching efficiency of 57.1% was the worst amongst all teams. 

However, after an uncharacteristic start, Pat Cummins’ men turned it around on the field big time, registering a catching efficiency of 84.4% across their next nine games. 

Astonishingly, in the knockouts, Australia registered a catching efficiency of 100%, taking all 15 chances that came their way. Cummins’ catch of Quinton de Kock in the semis and Travis Head’s grab of Rohit Sharma in the final served as decisive moments in the respective matches.

It’s not just the catching. Post the South Africa clash in Lucknow, Australia also stepped up their ground fielding. 

Outrageous ground fielding was what helped the Aussies edge New Zealand in Dharamshala, and the same helped them overpower Bangladesh in Pune. By the end of the group stages itself, Australia’s ground fielding was at an extremely high level but they somehow took it up a notch in the knockouts. 

While Australia saved a total of 17 runs (net) in the entirety of the group stages, they saved a staggering 29 runs (net) across the semis and the final. The fielding unit, led by David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne, threw themselves everywhere and stopped at least half-a-dozen certain boundaries in both the semi-final and the final. It went a long way in choking the batting side with relentless pressure. 

Australia managed to win this World Cup with their fielding, as much as anything. 

Adam Zampa's storming comeback

For a three year period, between January 2020 and August 2023, Adam Zampa was the undisputed best spinner in one-day cricket, having taken 66 wickets in 31 matches @ 20.69 a piece. But the leg-spinner suffered an uncharacteristic dip towards the end of the South Africa ODIs, which extended into the World Cup.

Australia started their WC campaign with a pair of defeats and across both the matches, Zampa registered combined figures of 18-0-123-1. He was all over the place and looked like a shadow of his usual self, largely due to a back spasm that was restricting him.

Zampa, however, bounced back from the rut with a four-wicket haul against Sri Lanka in Australia’s third game of the WC, post which neither he nor the Aussies looked back.

From the start of the Sri Lanka game till the end of the World Cup, Zampa took a stupendous 22 wickets @ 17.81 a piece, the second most by any bowler in the competition. The 31-year-old went on a hot streak that saw him pick an eye-popping 18 wickets in 5 matches. 

Zampa didn’t simply pick ‘wickets’; he picked huge wickets. 

Against Sri Lanka, he accounted for both Kusal Mendis and Sadeera Samarawickrama, who were the nucleus of the side’s middle-order.

In the very next encounter against Pakistan, he ran through the heart of the Pakistan unit, dismissing all three of Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Iftikhar Ahmed.

He picked the decisive wicket of Daryl Mitchell in the Dharamshala clash, while against England, he removed Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali. 

The Australian seamers were not at their lethal best with the new ball in the group stages, but it did not matter, as Zampa was running through sides in the middle-overs anyway. 

A host of individuals rising up to the occasion (in different matches)

At some point during this World Cup, Australia cracked the code to win the entire competition. Which is basically this: every match, on each front, you just need one individual (sometimes two individuals) to have a great game. If enough people can merely ‘support’ these individuals, then that will get the job done. Quit the part about ‘collective team effort’ and all.

Australia did not have a single ‘complete’ batting performance in the entirety of the group stages but still ended up waltzing through it anyway.

Against Pakistan, it was the openers, Warner and Mitchell Marsh, who had good games. They were so good that it didn’t matter that none of the other batters even managed to score 25.

It was (only) the openers that shone again in the New Zealand clash (except it was Head instead of Marsh), while Glenn Maxwell took care of business in the Netherlands and Afghanistan clashes. 

Marsh had a hat-trick of failures after the Pakistan ton but then smashed 177* against Bangladesh in a chase of 307. 

You had Labuschagne (71) step up with the bat against England while Head, after going off the boil a bit post the New Zealand ton, came up with match-winning hands in the semi-final and the final. 

“There are still chinks in this Australian batting unit, they have not fired as a unit”, was what was being said after every Australia match. Turns out, you DON’T have to fire as a unit consistently to win the World Cup. All you need is individuals taking turns and having blinders. 

On the bowling front, for the last nine matches of Australia’s WC campaign, Zampa was “that” individual in 90% of the matches, but in the one game he went AWOL (in the semi-final against South Africa), Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood took care of business, registering combined figures of 18-4-46-5. 

This, right here, is the advantage of having an XI full of match winners. It’s game over for the opposition, even if a couple of them perform to their potential on the same day. 

Bold (and proactive) selection calls

When the George Bailey-led selection committee announced Australia’s squad for the World Cup, they took two gambles: one, not carrying an extra specialist spinner in the squad (using Maxwell as the second spinner) and two, carrying an unfit Head in the hope of him being available for the back end of the tournament.

They initially got chastised for both decisions. Yet, both calls got vindicated as while Maxwell had an outstanding World Cup with the ball (6 wickets at E.R 4.81), Head changed the complexion of the entire tournament post his return from injury.

Both the calls above were bold ones, but they were not nearly as bold as axing the experienced (but out of form) Alex Carey after just one game. 

Carey entered the WC extremely out of sorts, with an average of 23.12 and just one fifty in the calendar year, and started the competition with a duck against India in Chennai. Thanks to his experience, the 32-year-old had enough credit in the bank, but the management went ahead and axed him anyway, replacing the wicketkeeper with Josh Inglis just one game into the WC.

Inglis did not have the greatest of starts to the World Cup, and many questioned Australia’s decision to bring him into the XI out of the blue, but the management did not budge and kept their faith in the Western Australian. He duly repaid it by posting an invaluable, nerveless 28 in the semi-final against South Africa, batting with utmost conviction and authority on a rank turner in an extremely high-pressure situation. 

The management also, at the back end of the tournament, shied away from their ‘all-rounder’ ploy and fielded Labuschagne over Marcus Stoinis in tough batting conditions, recognizing the value Labuschagne’s technique could bring in tricky situations. 

The decision was vindicated on Sunday as after Australia were reduced to 47/3, Labuschagne stitched a mammoth 192-run stand with Head to take the Kangaroos over the line in the final. 

Captain consistent: Pat Cummins Cummins will rightly and deservedly receive plaudits for his showing in the final, but the Aussie skipper consistently impacted games with the ball throughout this World Cup, striking at crucial junctures.

In fact, it was he who started Australia’s resurgence in this World Cup with his double-strike against Sri Lanka. 

After winning the toss and batting first, the Lankans were coasting at 125/0 in the 22nd over, and Australia were severely under the pump, having already lost their previous two matches. The Kangaroos desperately needed a moment of inspiration and that came from their skipper, who removed both Pathum Nissanka (61) and Kusal Perera (78) in the space of five overs. 

From this point onwards, Cummins made it a habit of breaking important partnerships, particularly during the middle-overs. He finished the World Cup having broken a total of six 50-run stands, the most by any bowler in the competition. 

Much like Zampa, these were all decisive wickets, whether it be Virat Kohli (54), Rachin Ravindra (116), David Miller (101) or Dawid Malan (50).

The skipper led by example with the ball. Meanwhile, when it came to batting, he absorbed all nervous energy and transformed it into calmness and positive vibes when he was out in the middle. Australia wouldn’t have won the World Cup without his 12* (68) against Afghanistan and 14* (29) versus South Africa.

The ‘perfect’ performance in the final “I think we saved our best for the last” were Cummins’ first words in the aftermath of his side’s triumph on Sunday.

Australia indeed did.

Such was the monstrous form that India were in, heading into the final, that it almost seemed that the only way they could lose the cup was if they came up against a team that was completely flawless. 

Barring a frenetic three-over period with the bat in the powerplay, Australia were indeed flawless.

After winning the toss and bowling first, the Kangaroos did not put a foot wrong post the dismissal of Rohit Sharma in the 10th over. 

Every single bowler was on the money, the fielding was electrifying and the captaincy was world-class: the Aussies had meticulous plans for every batter and the planning was reflected in the quirky field placements.

India were totally tactically outclassed. At one point in the game, to avoid batters from ‘lining up’ a particular bowler, Cummins made 8 bowling changes in the span of 11 overs. 

Planning, of course, will only take you so far; ultimately, it all comes down to the execution. 

On the day, the Australian bowlers executed every single plan to perfection and barely bowled any loose deliveries over the course of the 50 overs. With the pitch playing painfully slow in the afternoon, the seamers pulled their lengths back and tormented the Indian batters by denying them any pace to work with. 

Even with the bat in hand, the batters came out with a clear plan to break the chase in the powerplay. They had to re-calibrate their plans after the loss of three quick wickets but despite being in a precarious position at 47/3, they didn’t give the Indian bowlers a sniff for the rest of the chase. 

Australia had to play the perfect game to break this Indian side, and they did just that. 

Poetically, on Sunday in Ahmedabad, Australia's 2023 World Cup campaign came full circle as after reeling at the bottom after two games, thanks to losing to India and South Africa, they stormed their way to a sixth WC title beating the same two sides.

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