Before the game, you had the sense that New Zealand approached the World Cup final with destiny on their side.
As good as Australia’s players might be, the men in black had been irresistible. Unbeaten, unworried, unshakeable, across thrashings and thrillers, they had surged through the tournament.
It was their first time past the semi-final stage in seven attempts. They were spurred by their country’s excitement, their own bond, and the illness of their predecessor Martin Crowe.
Trent Boult had provided the grunt, Daniel Vettori the patience and pathos, but Brendon McCullum was the talisman. Whether he was hitting four sixes from an over or installing four slips for a bowler, his on-field aggression inspired.
He took 65 from 49 balls against Sri Lanka, 77 from 25 against England, 50 from 24 against Australia, 42 from 19 against Afghanistan, and 59 from 26 against South Africa.
He took 22 in an over from Lasith Malinga, 29 in an over from Steven Finn, 25 from Dale Steyn, and 17 with one arm from Mitchell Johnson.
Mitchell Starc had been the most dangerous bowler of the tournament. In the pool game against Australia, McCullum had come down the track to smash Starc’s second ball over cover for six.
In the final McCullum tried the same trick. Starc was expecting it, firing the ball outside leg stump at the batsman’s feet. McCullum missed it, and was distracted enough to push half-heartedly at the next. It swung in and smashed his stumps.
The talisman was toppled. While we all knew that the game could still go anywhere, there was a sense then, five balls into the day, that New Zealand’s chance had vanished in a scatter of blaring red LEDs.
From then it was an afternoon for Australia’s bowlers. All of them. Where New Zealand had been starting games in a blaze of strokeplay, instead they were blocking out maidens and harvesting singles as rare as human organs.
Starc and Johnson approached 150 kilometres per hour even with short balls. Josh Hazlewood gave away nothing. The pressure told. New Zealand’s top four batsmen each fell to a different antagonist.
Martin Guptill, so recently celebrating the highest World Cup score, played around a Glenn Maxwell floater. Kane Williamson, sorely needed as New Zealand’s Steve Smith, was beaten by Johnson to bunt back a catch. Ross Taylor scraped a painful 40 from 72 balls, mostly from the outside edge, but in an age where low catches are never clear on replays, his was.
When New Zealand steadied and set course for 250 with 15 overs to go, James Faulkner bobbed up to sink them with 3/36. Nothing worked for New Zealand, because nothing was allowed to work.
The feeling in the ground was one of suffocation, all that anticipation and euphoria having the air squeezed out of it.
One thing told the whole story. There’s McCullum, with his tournament strike rate of 191.81. Luke Ronchi, with a recent 170 from 99 balls. Corey Anderson, recent holder of the world’s fastest century.
Between them, they contributed zero runs.
The same is true of Australia’s hitters, but only because they weren’t required. Even when Tim Southee looked like he might slog New Zealand past 200, freakish fielding from Glenn Maxwell ran him out at the non-striker’s end.
What was the likelihood of Faulkner, the flamboyant finishing batsman, winning man of the match in a game where he didn’t face a ball?
What was the likelihood of anyone winning man of the series without scoring a run in the tournament?
In a World Cup where batsmen made double centuries and sides made 400, these gongs went to the bowling of Faulkner and Starc.
Starc’s tournament was on another plane. While he and New Zealand’s Trent Boult shared top spot with 22 wickets each, Starc was well ahead in terms of average (10.18 to 16.86), strike rate (17.4 to 23.1) and economy rate (3.50 to 4.36).
Even applying no qualification filter, Starc was second in the tournament for bowling average (behind Jeevan Mendis, who bowled five overs), second for economy rate (behind Michael Clarke, who bowled five overs), and sixth in strike rate (behind Anderson with 36 overs, and four guys who bowled 13 overs or fewer).
Only four players have taken more wickets at a World Cup: Glenn McGrath had 26 in 2007, while Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan and Shaun Tait are equal on 23.
There are 109 players who’ve taken a dozen wickets or more in a World Cup. Starc has the best tournament average of the lot, despite this World Cup smashing records for runs scored. He has the third-highest strike rate on that list, and the tenth-best economy rate.
As recently as the United Arab Emirates tour last October, Australia’s ODI bowling was ad hoc. Players came and went without explanation. But through the home series against South Africa in November things began to take shape.
Around Johnson’s experience was built a squad of young bowlers. Starc and Faulkner blossomed, Hazlewood seized his chance, Pat Cummins is a work in progress. Eschewing a specialist spinner for Maxwell is a good trade when his batting offers 324 runs at a strike rate of 182.
When it came down to it, that bowling attack produced its best in the most important game. Emotion, momentum, destiny – in the end, pure physical potency trumped all the abstract concepts in the world.
A version of this article was first published on Wisden India.