After a campaign featuring injuries, a doubt-inducing defeat, rain and the overwhelming expectation of a nation, Australia produced a near-faultless performance in the T20 World Cup final to sign off as five-time champions in front of an electric home crowd.
Just prior to the toss, Meg Lanning stood in the middle of a sun-drenched MCG hardly believing she was there. Things could have been so different, and she knew it.
Just 72 hours prior, Lanning had been staring out toward a very different looking cricket ground, pondering her side’s slipping tournament prospects as each drop of rain hit the SCG turf. An abandoned semi-final would have seen them bundled out, irretrievably punished for one poor performance against India.
But the rain somehow, inconceivably, stayed away long enough to earn a gritty win. And just like that, the pressure that seemingly defined their campaign appeared to lift. All the pre-tournament expectation centred on them getting to the MCG.
They had to be there come on Sunday afternoon – this was the not-too-discreet non-negotiable. They were the guest of honour at a party that demanded their presence.
So as Lanning stood beside Indian skipper Harmanpreet Kaur on Sunday, she knew the hardest part of the tournament was, weirdly, already done. Now was time to entertain. But more importantly, to win.
After calling correctly, she had no hesitation in deciding to bat. The Aussies wanted to lay an early marker on the clash and lead from the front like their male counterparts did on the same ground five years ago in another World Cup final. Back in 2015 it was Mitchell Starc who laid the first telling blow, so it was apt his wife did the exact same five years later.
Alyssa Healy and Beth Mooney grinned from ear-to-ear walking out in front of 86,174, an indication that the Aussies’ mantra of enjoying the day wasn’t just a nice sound bite for the press.
Three boundaries in the first over signalled Healy wasn’t going to die wondering. Mixing power with touch she imposed herself like few others can, and when Shafali Verma dropped a relatively straightforward chance off her at cover, there was an immediate realisation that it may just cost India.
And it did – 66 more runs in her next 35 balls, to be exact.
While Healy’s frenzied attack at one end sent India reeling, the ever-aware Mooney understood her place at the other. That was to tick things over and hand the strike to her explosive partner. Mooney herself offering a caught-and-bowled chance in the fourth over and that too was put down. Retrospectively, India’s final was done at this moment.
The pair’s smile grew wider as the array of shots grew even more impressive. Healy plundered one 83 metres over long-on (the tournament’s biggest) and shortly after brought up her 50 off just 30 balls, the fastest ever in an ICC final – men’s or women’s. Three consecutive sixes, the last of which an outrageous pick-up over extra cover, would elicit a huge response from the crowd.
Mooney herself then picked up the pace, on several occasions dancing down the track, getting inside the line of the ball and check-driving aerially over cover. These were strokes that made cricketing purists weak at the knees, shots that should render extinct the remaining reptiles who degrade and devalue the skills of elite women’s cricket.
Eventually Healy would depart, but her damage was done. Australia had one hand on the World Cup trophy, and the grip continued to tighten even after she reached the dugout as Mooney picked things up. She would anchor the innings to finish 78 not out off 54 balls – a performance that later sealed not only the the player of the tournament award, but a world number one ranking.
If Australia had one hand on the prize in the innings break, four more fingers grasped the trophy when the destructive Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues and Taniya Bhatia (retired hurt) were all back in the dugout inside the opening two overs.
Regular wickets fell and the contrast between the two became increasingly stark. Where India were sloppy in the field, the Aussies were clinical. Where India’s pitch map saw a host of deliveries either too short or overpitched, Lanning’s bowlers hit a length from the get go.
Such was the Australian dominance, the final became a procession early in India’s innings – a countdown to when celebrations could begin.
Post-mortems rarely matter for victorious sides, but if coach Matthew Mott was to run the rule over Australia’s performance on Sunday evening, finding faults might be a hair-splitting exercise. They expertly countered the threat of Poonam Yadav by playing her deep in the crease, abandoning the tactic of using their feet as they had to their detriment in the first game. Even the running between the wickets, something that was sub-standard against South Africa, was decidedly better.
When asked if she’d pondered what might have been had the rain continued to fall in Sydney on Thursday night, Lanning turned to Healy in the post-match press conference and laughed.
“We keep thinking about it and talking about it,” she said. “It poured for two hours after that game. We definitely got some luck.”
They did. But their performance on Sunday had little to do with luck. Rather, it was the result of hard work, meticulous planning and a brave, aggressive approach that makes this side not only the best in the world, but one of the best sides in the world to watch. And no, there’s no gender rider on that statement.
It remains to be seen what impact Sunday might have on women’s cricket but one can assume it might be significant.
Cricket Australia deserved enormous credit for driving the professional game forward in this country. Leading the way, it’s now up to the others to catch up.