DUBAI: Australian players celebrate after winning the final of the Twenty20 World Cup on Sunday.—AFP
DUBAI: Australian players celebrate after winning the final of the Twenty20 World Cup on Sunday.—AFP

AUSTRALIA, the team that nobody but Australians wanted to win, lifted the 2021 T20 World Cup. What is it about Australia that makes them habitual tournament winners, even when they start unfancied? It’s a winning habit that stretches back over two decades, putting aside the unexpected win in the 1987 World Cup, and has delivered four further 50-over titles and now the World T20.

Australia play a dominant form of cricket, a game without mercy. They attack, often brutally, with the bat. They attack with the ball too, with pace and aggressive spin. But above all, they play without fear and an inner belief that they will prevail. Australia’s domination is self-perpetuating, and the challenge is clear for other teams to find a way to end it.

New Zealand, whose success in cricket with a tiny population of five million is remarkable, got off to a slow start when asked to bat in the final, and despite a phenomenal innings from their captain Kane Williamson, the target of 173 was too little on the day for the power of Australia’s batting and the ordinariness of New Zealand’s bowling.

Mitchell Marsh, in particular, and David Warner were too strong as New Zealand struggled for control. The decisive moment was the introduction of New Zealand’s spinners. It was a presumed weakness of Australia’s, one that Shadab Khan had exploited in the semi-final. But Ish Sodhi, New Zealand’s lead spinner, had a dreadful day, going for 40 runs from his 3 overs, and Australia then didn’t let go of the initiative.

In truth, New Zealand never looked like winners once Australia took guard, and they must continue their wait for a limited overs world title, as a late bright cameo from Glenn Maxwell helped Australia clinch another knockout game in the 19th over.

The fact that Australia won the toss in the semi-final and final will be a talking point, but again it was hard to see what effect the toss had? Credit should go to the skill and the mentality of Australia’s cricketers, a battle hardened group, who excelled at the right moments.

Of the great modern batsmen, Williamson is the most understated. But the statement he made in Dubai spoke eloquently of his class and temperament. New Zealand struggled to break free of Australia’s bowlers, but Williamson, however, was in no mood to lose with a whimper.

A player of Williamson’s classical technique and approach can only succeed in every format by batting cleverly. First, Williamson targeted Australia’s fifth bowler. Then, he took that impetus into picking off Australia’s most vulnerable pace bowler on the day, as Mitchell Starc went for 60 runs.

On a pitch where his colleagues failed to pick up the pace, Williamson’s timing and technique were exquisite. New Zealand’s captain raised his country’s hopes with 10 fours and 3 sixes, and the total of 172 looked defendable – just as Pakistan’s had looked in the semi-final. In a losing cause, it was a colossal innings.

In the end, though, it was Australia’s power cricket allied with their iron will that won the day. Warner, Aaron Finch, and Marsh were brave and clean in their hitting, prepared to risk failure to put their team in a position of control.

Their pace bowlers bowled a Test match short of a length, and when Starc reverted to his fuller natural length he was punished. In Adam Zampa, Australia had one of the best two spinners in the tournament, alongside Shadab Khan. Australia had one weakness, and it was in their fifth bowler, but nobody managed to exploit it decisively.

Pakistan’s formula was very similar to Australia’s, which is why their semi-final probably decided the fate of the tournament. Babar Azam’s men will look back with pride but also deep regret. The final was in their sights, but some sub-par bowling performances when it mattered, proved to be their undoing. In these circumstances, in a big game, Australia don’t need second invitations.

Challengers to Australia’s supremacy come and go. India and England continue to knock at the door. New Zealand and Pakistan have aspirations. But Australia remain the dominant force in world cricket, and the fact that this is their first T20 world title just shows how unpredictable the format is.

Australia may not have been consistently the best team in the 2021 T20 World Cup – both England and Pakistan will lay claim to that meaningless accolade – but Australia were the best team in the matches that mattered. And that is the difference between serial winners and serial dreamers.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2021

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