It was 12 months ago last Friday that Pat Cummins, in the immediate and painful aftermath of Australia’s failure to reach the play-off rounds of a home T20 World Cup, pronounced the year ahead loomed as “career-defining” for him and his players.
Fast forward from that disappointment and the national men’s teams he has led can lay claim to a World Test championship, a successful Ashes defence in the UK and now an against-all-expectations ODI World Cup triumph against raging favourite India playing on their home decks.
But perhaps what’s most remarkable about Australia’s annus mirabilis is that when Cummins sat down with cricket.com.au last November to air his aspirations for the unprecedented year ahead, he had yet to captain his country in a 50-over match.
He now finds himself in esteemed company among others to have led their country to the quadrennial ODI prize – Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting (twice) and Michael Clarke from Australia, as well as the likes of Clive Lloyd (West Indies), Kapil Dev (India) and Imran Khan (Pakistan) – but admits he was understandably toey prior to yesterday’s play-off at the heaving Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.
“I always like to say I’m pretty relaxed, but I was a little bit nervous this morning just pacing around waiting for it to get started, seeing the sea of blue in the hotel getting nearer the ground and seeing the sea of blue, walking, making its way to the ground,” Cummins said in the wake of Australia’s six-wicket win.
“All the cars parked with their selfie cameras out, you kind of knew you were walking into something pretty special.
“And then to walk out for the toss and just see 130,000 blue Indian shirts, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
“Awesome day, and the good thing was they weren’t too noisy for most of it.”
The deafening silence that increasingly settled upon the crowd that was officially revealed to number 92,453 first manifested when India’s batting talisman Virat Kohli had his stumps rattled by Cummins shortly after posting his ninth score of 50-plus from 11 innings in the tournament.
Cummins revealed the eerie quiet that accompanied the former India skipper’s reluctant departure was noted in the team’s celebratory huddle, largely because Kohli had seemed destined to live out the pre-game Bollywood script of a heroic hundred.
But while describing his removal of Kohli as “satisfying”, Cummins and his men took even greater fulfilment in knowing his decision to bowl first upon winning the toss would be vindicated if Australia could keep India under pressure and expose their bottom-half batters who had barely faced a ball during their team’s preceding 10-game winning streak.
“We were kind of umming and aahing right up until the toss really, but I thought (there was) half a chance of the wicket getting better tonight,” Cummins said of the decision to field first which was met with shock and scepticism by pundits worldwide.
“In a World Cup game you can make a mistake bowling and it doesn’t really matter too much, but if you make a mistake batting and you’re under pressure it can be fatal.
“So I just felt like it was the right time to go out and have a bowl.
“We made it really clear in the group we’re all-in on making sure we weren’t the team that stood off today, we wanted to take the game on play the way that got us to the final.
“Maybe that comes from playing other finals before, also maybe missing out on some other finals in different tournaments but the group today was as confident going to final as I’ve seen the team.”
From the moment Mitchell Starc took new ball in hand and Cummins deployed fielders in mildly unorthodox though carefully planned positions, there was no sign of the profligacy Australia believed could be covered over with the bat if needed.
Even in the face of rival skipper Rohit Sharma’s blazing assault that yielded 47 from 31 balls at the top of India’s innings, Cummins – with but a handful of ODI games in charge prior to the tournament starting – not only held his nerve, but led from the front.
He made regular bowling changes, sometimes making a switch after a solitary over, because Australia felt it was one of the few options available to them other than setting ‘whacky fields” to prevent India’s batters from finding rhythm.
And it was that “sequencing” of well-drilled bowling plans and non-stop variety of deliveries contained within that reduced India’s vaunted batting array to just two boundaries from the start of the 11th over until the penultimate delivery of the 42nd.
By contrast, Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne found or cleared the rope 19 times during their game-defining 192-run stand forged during the equivalent phase of Australia’s innings, with six of those boundaries coming from the first ball of an over to ensure the heat remained on India’s bowlers.
“Not just the fact that they (Australia) used seven bowlers,” India coach Rahul Dravid said post-match, confirming par score on what he described as a “pretty good” pitch was around 280-290 and his batters had therefore finished around 40 runs shy.
“I thought the way that they bowled was really good.
“They bowled very straight, bowled straighter lines, used the slower ball really well, used the larger, big size of the boundary really well and didn’t let us get away with many boundaries in that middle period.
“We’ve been a team that’s been hitting a lot of boundaries in that period.
“We were rotating the strike, but we weren’t able to hit those boundaries.
“And there was a conscious effort to try and take the game deep, but we kept losing wickets.”
While the scorecard undeniably shows the partnership between Labuschagne and Head – the second-highest in a World Cup final after Ponting and Damien Martyn’s unbeaten 234 against India in the 2003 play-off – was decisive, Australia’s bowling and fielding proved of equal significance.
And Labuschagne identified Cummins’ 10-over stint with the ball that yielded 2-34 as one of the more masterly exhibitions of white-ball bowling he’s been privileged to witness.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a middle-overs fast bowler’s sequencing as good as it was today,” Labuschagne said after the game.
“It almost felt like he just bowled every ball at the right time – bowled a bouncer, bowled off-pace, top of the stamps.
“He was creative with his fields and with his options.
“He knew what we wanted to do with Shreyas (Iyer), put the field there and got him stuck in the crease then nicked him off and that probably changed the momentum of the game, because then Virat (Kohli) dragged it back because they couldn’t afford to lose another wicket.
“You had (Ravindra) Jadeja at the crease who hadn’t batted the whole tournament… and that’s almost the negative of (India) playing too well over a ten-game stretch.
“Your big players like Jadeja, they don’t get much of a hit and when they’re required, it’s a big moment. … (whereas) all our batters had to bat most games, we had to play a part.
“But Pat’s spell was unbelievable, on a wicket that didn’t have too much for the quicks and especially when he bowled after the swing left.
“Just the sequencing, bowling right balls at the right time, it was a pretty special effort.”
Cummins, who revealed his preparation for the final on match eve involved a “very chilled’ team meeting before engaging in half an hour or so of the video game ‘Call of Duty’ against some of his more committed teammates, had other reasons to reflect on what has proved an epochal 12 months.
It was during Australia’s four-Test tour to India earlier this year – the one major assignment that did not bring the desired trophy – that he returned home prematurely to be with his ailing mother, Maria, who died during the fourth match of that series in Ahmedabad.
As a result, the Modi Stadium held poignant significance for the Australia skipper and his teammates who left the daunting stadium earlier today in vastly different spirits to last March, although their captain stopped short of proclaiming his team to now be back atop the world standings in men’s cricket.
“That’s probably for others to judge, but I couldn’t be prouder of the team for the last few years,” Cummins said.
“We’ve had some tough series but we’ve won some amazing series as well, and everyone stood up and we feel like we’ve got a great red-ball team and the white-ball team has won two trophies in the last few years.
“So things are looking pretty rosy.
“I’ve obviously had a really big year.
“I know my family at home was watching, and got a message from Dad saying he’s had a lot of not going to bed until 4am, so he’s as pumped as anything.
“You sacrifice a lot to play for Australia and everyone in the team has, we’ve spent a lot of this year away, but we do it for these moments.
“You only get a shot at (ODI World Cup) every four years, and even if you have a ten-year career you might only get two chances at it.
“The whole cricket world stops with this World Cup, so it doesn’t get any better.”
2023 ODI World Cup Finals
First semi-final: India beat New Zealand by 70 runs
Second semi-final: Australia beat South Africa by three wickets
Final: Australia beat India by six wickets