So it all comes down to this. It will be the Trans-Tasman rivals and tournament co-hosts Australia and New Zealand who will lock horns in the final of the 2015 World Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Sunday.
It is a clash that promises to be a real cracker, as games between these two sides usually are. Just a month ago, they played out a thrilling low-scorer in a World Cup group match at Eden Park in Auckland with New Zealand scampering home by one wicket.
This has been the only defeat for Australia in the tournament, whereas New Zealand have so far been unbeaten, winning eight straight games.
However, New Zealand played all of their matches at home, where most of the grounds are evidently much smaller than the MCG. The final will be the first time in the tournament that they will be playing in Australia.
In fact, it has been more than six years since New Zealand last played an ODI in Australia – which is a real shame. Furthermore, the two teams have not played a bilateral series in the last five years, with their only encounters coming in the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and the 2013 Champions Trophy.
Australian captain Michael Clarke and his New Zealand counterpart Brendon McCullum during a photoshoot on the eve of the World Cup final (source – yahoo.com/gettyimages)
This dearth of fixtures between the neighbours has been hugely disappointing, especially given the fact that they have provided some compelling ODI cricket over the years.
The Chappell-Hadlee Trophy – which used to be an annual ODI series of at least three matches until five years back – will also be at stake on Sunday along with the World Cup trophy. The current holders are New Zealand, who won it in the above-mentioned game earlier in the tournament.
Speaking of the ground size, a lot of talk has been going on with many predicting that New Zealand will find it difficult to adjust in Melbourne, especially since the Black Caps have not played here of late.
But one look at New Zealand’s recent form will suggest that they will be far from intimidated. They have been in remarkable form for over a year now and their winning run in the World Cup was largely expected. Australia start as favourites, but only slightly.
History and conditions favour Australia
Australia will be playing their seventh World Cup final – no other team has played more than three – while New Zealand will be playing their first. Australia have won four titles and if they win on Sunday, they will achieve an amazing record of winning five World Cups in five different continents.
Furthermore, Australia have won 24 out of their last 26 ODIs at home and enjoy a 14-4 record over New Zealand at the MCG. Head-to-head in the World Cup, they have won six matches to New Zealand’s three.
Australia have also won their last six ODIs at the MCG. New Zealand however have won three of their last five ODIs here, including the most recent one. But this most recent match came back in 2008-09, which means that Australia will be much more conversant with the conditions.
The last time Australia lost the final of a major ICC ODI tournament was back in 1996 when they lost to Sri Lanka. Since then, they have won three World Cups and two Champions Trophies.
Road to the final
Australia and New Zealand played out a thriller in the group stage at Auckland last month, with the hosts winning by one wicket (source – gettyimages)
Many were tipping Australia and New Zealand to be the two finalists before the tournament began, and both the teams proved over the course of the last six weeks that they were indeed the two best units in the fray.
Australia started by easily dispatching England at the MCG, before their match with Bangladesh at Brisbane was abandoned. After a two-week break, they narrowly lost to New Zealand at Auckland despite having to defend a low total.
They ended the group stage with three powerful wins over Afghanistan at Perth, Sri Lanka at Sydney and Scotland at Hobart. In the quarterfinal at Adelaide, they overcame some spirited Pakistani bowling to chase a moderate total before scoring a convincing win over India in the semifinal at Sydney.
New Zealand resoundingly beat Sri Lanka in the tournament opener at Christchurch. A scratchy win against Scotland at Dunedin followed, after which they mauled England at Wellington. Then came the thrilling win over Australia at Auckland.
Afghanistan too were easily beaten at Napier, but the Black Caps had to sweat before seeing off Bangladesh at Hamilton. In the quarterfinal at Wellington, the West Indies were put to the sword while in the semifinal at Auckland, South Africa were pipped in an epic contest.
Players to watch out for
Mitchell Starc has been outstanding throughout the tournament, collecting 20 wickets at an average of just 10.20 so far. The left-arm quickie has already shown his class against the Kiwis, having taken 6/28 in the Auckland game. His potent yorkers especially at the death makes him the biggest threat to the New Zealand batsmen.
New Zealand’s answer to Starc is left-armer Trent Boult, who is one of the best swing bowlers in the world at the moment. He is the tournament’s highest wicket-taker with 21 scalps at 15.76. Boult ran through the Australians to finish with a match-winning 5/27 in the Auckland game, and he will no doubt relish the prospect of having another go at them.
Captain Brendon McCullum has been one of the biggest factors in New Zealand’s recent resurgence. His buccaneering hitting at the top has given New Zealand many a positive start, none more so than the 26-ball 59 he scored in the semifinal against South Africa. He has treated the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn with disdain, and will be gunning for glory yet again.
Trent Boult is the tournament’s highest wicket-taker, followed by Australia’s Mitchell Starc. Boult took 5/27 in the group match against Australia (source – ap news/ross setford)
Steve Smith has had a magnificent summer and has established himself as Australia’s middle-order lynchpin. He enjoys batting at number three, and his rich vein of form just does not look like stopping. His chanceless 105 in the semifinal against India laid the foundation of a winning total, and his team will expect him to repeat the dose in the final as well.
The swansong men
Australian captain Michael Clarke and New Zealand veteran Daniel Vettori will both be playing their last ODI match. While Clarke announced the news a day ago, Vettori had made it clear before the tournament that he will hang his boots at the end of it.
Clarke has been an inspirational leader, both on and off the field, in what has been a testing summer for Australian cricket. He will be looking to become the fourth Australian after Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting to lift the World Cup.
He will also personally look to deliver in his last match, having enjoyed a healthy ODI career since he debuted in 2002-03. He has scored just one fifty in six outings in the tournament, and the final will be the perfect stage to get a big one.
Bespectacled left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori has been a constant in the New Zealand side ever since he made his debut back in 1996-97. He fought back injury to play in the tournament, and has performed splendidly with 15 wickets at an economy rate of 3.81.
He will enjoy bowling at the MCG, where the vastness gives him an incentive to be more attacking. He sparked off Australia’s collapse in the group game, and there is no reason why he cannot replicate that in the final.
Second World Cup final at the G
The MCG will host the World Cup final for the second time. The first instance was in 1992, when Pakistan triumphed over England in front of 87,812 people. This remains the highest officially recorded attendance for an ODI match, and this number may well be surpassed on Sunday.
While Australia will of course have their partisan home crowd cheering for them, New Zealand will not be too short of support either with a large number of Kiwis and neutrals expected in the stands. The pitch is expected to be conducive to the batsmen while it will also have some bounce and carry.
It remains to be seen whether the toss proves to be a big factor or not. In most of the matches in Australia in this World Cup, the team batting first has seemed to have a clear advantage. In the four matches at the MCG, the team batting first has won handsomely with the scores reading 342-231, 307-177, 332-240 and 302-193.
While the heart is firmly with New Zealand, the mind is a bit tilted towards Australia. Whoever the winner may be, here’s hoping for a memorable match to mark the end of what has been an enjoyable tournament.