And the Aussies have done it again, for the sixth time to be precise, in the history of ODI (one day international) World Cups.
After dominating the tournament with an undefeated streak of 10 wins, India lost by 6 wickets to Australia in the final of the 2023 Cricket World Cup, and the star of the show was the left-handed opener, Travis Head, who scored 137 off 120 balls on a slow pitch in Ahmedabad.
With India picking just 3 wickets, this was actually the first instance of Indian spinners going wicketless in a match in this tournament.
But this seemingly comfortable victory could not have been that comfortable. Chasing 241, Australia was 47-3 at the end of the 7th over. In fact, when at 23.3. overs, both teams were at 126-3.
What made the difference, therefore, is the middle overs partnerships from both batting line-ups, that is, the Virat Kohli-KL Rahul partnership from the 11th over to the 29th over (67 runs), and the Head-Labuschagne one from the 7th over till the very end (192 runs).
Head Displayed Calculated Aggression, Indian Batters Didn't
The Kohli-Rahul partnership was 67 off 18.3 overs. That is 111 balls, extraordinary for a World Cup final and even more extraordinary for a team whose last four scores before the final are 397, 410, 326, and 357.
Fans, analysts, and impartial viewers would agree that neither Kohli (54 off 63) nor Rahul (66 off 107) really tried to take any risks. But this is where India's batting depth got tested. This is where Hardik Pandya becomes so important (the seventh batsman/extra bowler trade-off).
Remember when, against Australia in 2017, Pandya entered when India was 87-5, and his 83 off 66 took the team to 281, with India going on to win that game? There are many such examples where Pandya has rescued the team from being restricted to a small total.
Perhaps Kohli and Rahul chose to not take risks because of this lack of depth. After them, there were only Jaddu and SKY.
Rohit Sharma, on the other hand, facing Starc and Hazelwood with the new ball, went on a rampage as he smashed 47 runs in 31 balls before being dismissed by Glenn Maxwell due to Travis Head's screamer of a catch.
On that note, back to Head and what he got right.
Facing Bumrah, one of the best bowlers in the world, Head really did not hesitate to take him on with an aggressive approach, driving our opening bowler for 4 twice in the first over. But after being on 8 off 4 balls at the end of the first over, he slowed down considerably, being on only 10 off 21 at the end of the 9th over (2 runs in 17 balls).
Now, take note of what he said in the post-match presentation when he was awarded the man of the match: "Really glad to contribute, the first twenty balls I played gave me a lot of confidence and yeah, I was able to carry through."
He took 20 balls to get set and comfortable on a weird pitch, and after that, just like how Kohli plays when he is chasing, Head displayed calculated aggression.
Consider Head's scores after the end of overs after the 9th over.
10(21), 19(26), 21(29), ..., 35(42), 40(47), ...49(56), 59(67), 69(72), ... 84(79), 88(88), 100(95), 107(99), ...125(111), 127(113), 130(116), ...137(120).
These are not the numbers of a batsman hitting three boundaries per over. But they are also not the numbers of a batsman scoring 1 or 2 runs off every over.
A More Rohit-esque Batting Was Needed From India's Middle Order
Indian batters, on the other hand, barring Rohit, either got out cheap or spent most of their innings trying to get set, leading to only four boundaries after the 10th over till the last ball of the Indian innings. An astonishing stat.
Here's another one: KL Rahul's strike rate of 61.68 is the lowest among the 157 50+ scores in this World Cup, and he is the only one of the 157 not to score more than a single boundary in his innings.
Kohli too, after punching Mitchell Starc for three consecutive 4s in the first three balls of the seventh over, seemed to lose his confidence in his ability to score boundaries, dealing mostly in 1s, and sometimes in 2s.
Head, on the other hand, hit fifteen 4s and four 6s. He pulled and flicked our seamers, or simply lofted the ball over the bowler's head for 4. He shimmied down the track with the spinners, hitting Kuldip for consecutive boundaries in the first two balls of the 34th over, with the second boundary not even coming from the middle of the bat.
The point is that Head truly played the game like an ODI final. Like this was it. All or nothing. High risk, high reward. Indian batters (barring Rohit), the way I saw it, took minimal risks, not even appropriate risks. That is where we lost the game.
After all, with the dew factor, for a day-night ODI with a considerable batting lineup doing the chasing, a target of 241 was never going to be enough. Head and Labuschagne hardly showed any discomfort after the seventh over.
A word here on Marnus Labuschagne, who scored 58 off 110, providing the perfect support to Head. Like in all good partnerships, one attacked while the other held on and prevented a new man from coming to the crease (Maxwell-Cummins from the Afghanistan game).
A more Rohit-esque batting from India's middle order may have added 40-50 more runs to its total, a huge addition given the slowness of the pitch. But that is where Australia's tight bowling and exceptional fielding counted. Cummins won the toss and chose to bowl, surprising commentators. But he trusted his bowlers who got the job done.
There was also a difference in mindset. India chose to play defensively (a different approach, perhaps due to the pressure of the big occasion), while Australia, like always, played aggressively. After losing 3 wickets in seven overs, at 47-3 chasing 241, one would have thought that they too would choose to play out a few overs.
But they continued to attack fearlessly.
I guess that is why it is often said that there is something about Australia in World Cup matches. They have that extra edge that no other team has.