Australia stand within a single victory of the one major cricketing trophy to elude them, a development few would have expected when they arrived in the United Arab Emirates before the T20 World Cup with little fanfare or recent match practice. But what started with a low-key warm-up game against New Zealand and will end against the same opponents in very different circumstances has not so much been a campaign as a transformation.
The first thing that seems to have built since that day is spirit. T20 cricket is increasingly data-driven but Australia seem to tread a different path, guided by attitude and camaraderie as much as statistical analysis. “The team and the way we’ve been getting on, and the way we’ve been with each other, and the confidence we feel about how we play, it’s as good as I’ve had in a long time,” Marcus Stoinis said on Friday.
Take, for example, the partnership between Stoinis and Matthew Wade, which has now seen the side home in two crucial matches – their first, against South Africa, and their semi-final against Pakistan – and is built on a friendship formed at state level with Victoria. Other than in those games Stoinis has faced only 11 deliveries, while across the tournament Wade has been at the crease with only one other batter.
“We did have a laugh, because we haven’t had to do too much through the tournament, and the couple of times [we have] the pressure’s been on,” Stoinis said on Friday of their semi-final-winning partnership. “He was my captain at Victoria when I was there for six years, so we know each other very well, we’re having fun out there as well as being serious, so you draw on a lot of things. It’s brilliant because that gives us confidence, and it builds that little bond that we’ve got going there.”
But beyond the bromance there has been a more fundamental shift in the Australia side since the evening just a fortnight ago when they crumbled to humiliating defeat against England. It was an ideal time to lose a game, forcing them to reset a mindset that had delivered meek batting displays in two of their first three matches and giving them a chance to embed a new approach before the knockout stages.
Having experimented with an extra bowler for the England match, Australia immediately returned to a bat-heavy selection and have coupled that with aggressive intent and a willingness, given the safety net provided by the depth of their batting, to take risks. This contrasts with England, who despite also fielding a batting-heavy side seemed to play freely only in matches that already felt won. As the dust settles on their departure it feels as if they taught Australia a lesson that they themselves never grasped.
“It’s one thing to talk about fearlessness, and it’s almost like every T20 team will use that word,” said Justin Langer, the team’s head coach, “but the first time I’ve really seen it was when we had that Bangladesh chase [their first game after the England defeat, when they reached their target of 78 two balls into the seventh over] and I think it’s a real blueprint for this tournament and also into the future for Australia’s white-ball cricket.
“So when Marcus Stoinis, the ball after [Glenn] Maxwell’s wicket, hit six off Shadab Khan – I mean, that’s what you call fearless cricket. And if we’re going to win this tournament, we’ve got to continue on with the way we played from Bangladesh. Bat first or second, that fearless and aggressive batting is going to be crucial.”
Over the last two years seven of the eight teams that qualified automatically for the Super 12s have scored between 8.33 and 8.89 runs an over while Australia lagged behind on 7.97; across their last three matches that figure has been 9.98. But for Australia’s adoption of this approach to feel complete they will have to deal in full with its implications.
Foremost among them is the fact that Steve Smith’s particular skillset is probably no longer required. He wears his team’s new style as he might platform shoes and a metallic silver codpiece – very awkwardly. The result is innings like the one he played on Thursday, in which he attempts to impersonate a completely different cricketer and almost immediately top-edges a slog-sweep to deep midwicket.
On the other hand, David Warner has probably never felt more at home. There was a moment in the semi-final which perfectly summarised new-look Australia: Mohammad Hafeez completely muffed his first delivery of the night and as the ball bounced gently down the track Warner unhesitatingly attacked, remorselessly pulverising the ball into the stands. “Oh my gosh, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in the game of cricket,” said Langer. “I can’t believe anyone would have the instincts to do that, and then to have the talent and ability to hit it for six. Unbelievable.”
In the final, a newly daring Australia face a bowling-heavy side constructed specifically to stamp out this kind of behaviour. For all the Kiwis’ qualities, the one thing they should really fear is fear itself.