T20 World Cup 2021: Australia rise above recent turmoil to reiterate undisputed champion credentials

For the first time in recent memory, Australia went into a global tournament unshackled by the weight of favouritism. Oh calamity!

This was the side that had won five 50-over World Cups and two Champions Trophy titles. This was the team that knew not how to take a backward step, that was always competitive but so especially on the big stage when the big boys gathered on a single platform.

Yet, the lack of overwhelming backing at the T20 World Cup wasn’t without basis. Australia’s T20I form was less than impressive, following series defeats in New Zealand, the West Indies and Bangladesh in 2021 alone. That hat-trick of away losses meant Australia had gone five consecutive series without victory, winning just six of 21 games.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, another giant cloud hung over the camp. A regulation end-of-season review, whose findings were released this May, warned that unless Justin Langer changed his coaching style, he might be hard pressed to continue in his role. Several of the 40 players and support staff interviewed had said in their ‘strong and straightforward feedback’ that they were dissatisfied with his intensity and mood swings, a fallout of India’s come-from-behind 2-1 triumph in a memorable four-Test series Down Under in December-January.

The stage, it seemed, was set for an epic meltdown. Since their triumph at the 50-over World Cup at home in 2015, Australia had failed to set the world afire in ICC tournaments. They didn’t make it to the knockout stages of either the T20 World Cup in India the following year, or the Champions Trophy in England in 2017. They were upstaged by eventual champions New Zealand and India in the race for the final of the inaugural World Test Championship. For once, Australia seemed ripe for the picking.

As if all this wasn’t exacerbating enough, the weight of history also bore down heavily on Aaron Finch’s men. In six previous T20 World Cups, Australia had made the final once, losing to England in the Caribbean in 2010. They had been eliminated in the group stage of the two preceding editions, in India (2016) and Bangladesh (2014). They needed to buck checkered history and dubious current form to break their duck in T20 World Cups.

If there’s one thing you don’t do, it is poke and prod a wounded Aussie lion. Their pride had already been stung by the poor run-in to the World Cup, though some of it was tempered by the fact that for one reason or another, they were not in a position to put out their first choice, most powerful eleven on the park until the big bash. Several of their certainties were in the middle of miserable runs, not least the dangerous David Warner – first stripped of the captaincy and eventually dumped from the playing cast by Sunrisers Hyderabad – and the experienced Steve Smith, whose T20 credentials continue to be under question.

Australia’s early tournament form didn’t seem to indicate a turning of the corner. After a mixed run in the practice games culminating in a humbling loss to India, they made a meal of a regulation chase against South Africa in their Super 12 opener before being embarrassed and humiliated by a rampant England in their third game. Placed in the far tougher Group 1, the exit door beckoned until they pulled their socks up against Bangladesh and West Indies to sneak into the semis, ahead of South Africa.

There is something about the knockout stages that energises the Australians. Suddenly, they grow fangs. Nothing is beyond them, no challenge too daunting, no opposition insurmountable, middling form or not. Somehow, the knockouts inspire them to rise above themselves, to unearth heroes for every stage, every occasion. There’s a reason why they had won seven of 10 finals in ICC competitions before Sunday night in Dubai. At the root of that is their unwillingness to accept even the outside possibility that they could be second best.

Australia were pushed and stretched and questioned and probed by Pakistan in the semis. By undefeated Pakistan, by high-flying Pakistan, by a composite Pakistan driven by the energy of a clearly pro-partisan crowd. For more than four-fifths of the contest, the Asian giants seemed on course for a place in the final when, without warning, Matthew Wade exploded in a frenzied exhibition of unfettered ball-striking.

One of the noteworthy features of Australian dominance of the cricket world between, say, 1999 and 2007, was the propensity to throw up multiple heroes. In a reprisal of that era of unchecked hegemony, Wade took it upon himself to dismantle Shaheen Shah Afridi with a hat-trick of sixes that catapulted the Aussies to their first T20 World Cup final in 11 years.

This time, they weren’t to be denied, not even by a special innings from a special player. Kane Williamson played the knock of the final, an ephemeral 85 off a mere 48 deliveries. On most nights, that magical compilation and a final tally of 172 for four might have sufficed comfortably. This wasn’t most nights, not with Warner in the mood, not with Mitchell Marsh choosing the perfect occasion to showcase his outrageous skills.

Australia are at their ferocious, most dynamic and dangerous best when they take the fight to the opposition. That’s exactly what they did when they set out in quest of a challenging target. After a steady start, Warner kicked on while Marsh batted in fourth gear from the off once he got off to a 6,4,4 start to his knock. New Zealand have a potent, incisive, versatile attack but with the honourable exception of Trent Boult, they received a royal pounding. To say that Australia won in a canter would be an understatement.

Australia now have the full complement of ICC trophies, the one glaring void in their silverware cabinet finally filled. Remarkable as that alone might be, the circumstances under which this latest crown was won will send even the hard-nosed Aussie into unchecked rapture.

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