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CHAMPIONS! Head's heroic ton, bowling brilliance sees Aussies crush India for SIXTH - and best - World Cup win

19th November, 2023
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19th November, 2023
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Australia’s clash with India in Ahmedabad for the World Cup final was their 997th ODI.

But none of their 605 previous wins in the format can hold a candle to a stunning six-wicket triumph over the previously undefeated hosts and red-hot favourites, in a decider that had become an utter rout by the time Glenn Maxwell hit the winning runs to secure a sixth title in the prestige tournament.

Perhaps the only thing not fitting about the glorious triumph was that neither Travis Head, whose incredible 120-ball 137 immediately entered the pantheon of great Australian limited-overs innings, nor Marnus Labuschagne, who finished unbeaten on 58 having steered the team from the rocky waters of 3/47 to the brink of victory with a 192-run partnership, were there to finish things off.

By the time the Australians as one mobbed Maxwell and Labuschagne after the winning two was struck, in almost total silence as the Narendra Modi Stadium stared in stunned disbelief and their beloved Indian team fought back tears on the field, the win – perhaps Australia’s finest in coloured clothing – was surely sweet enough.

Whether with the bat, the ball or in the field, this was Australian supremacy at its finest: from Mitchell Starc, whose likely final World Cup match featured three wickets and menace aplenty, to David Warner, who managed just seven with the bat but saved thrice that many wit his brilliance in the field, this was a victory to cement the legacy of a champion team.

For captain Pat Cummins, whose bold decision to elect to bowl first after winning the toss was vindicated by his team’s display in all facets, it’s the crowning proof that, having endured criticism aplenty for his leadership and tactics since taking over the role in Tests in late 2021, he will be remembered as one of Australia’s finest skippers – and with figures of 2/34 from 10 miserly overs including the wicket of Virat Kohli, his bowling has seldom been better in limited-overs cricket.

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But it is Head whose legacy was enhanced more than all others in Ahmedabad: having looked in danger of missing the entire tournament after fracturing his hand against South Africa in September, his return has brought with it two centuries, a priceless 62 in the semi-final against the Proteas, and a place in Australian folklore to go along with his ton in the World Test Championship final win over India earlier this year.

From the spectacular outfield catch that removed Indian captain Rohit Sharma and began Australia’s slow but inevitable wresting of control from the hosts, to every stroke from his breathtaking, near-chanceless century, his joining of Australian legends Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist as centurions in World Cup finals makes for exceptional company for a 29-year old swiftly becoming a titan of the game.

Travis Head celebrates his century during the World Cup final.

Travis Head celebrates his century during the World Cup final. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

“I’m definitely third on that list,” Head joked after being named player of the match for the second consecutive game.

“I was a little bit nervous but Marnus played exceptionally well and soaked all the pressure.

“It was a great decision to bowl first, and the wicket got better as the game went on. It paid dividends – nice to play a role.”

The first surprise of the day came from Cummins, the captain choosing to send India in after winning the toss, willing to risk an early onslaught from opposite number Sharma in the hope that evening dew would make bowling more treacherous than during the day.

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Sure enough, the Indian skipper would continue his trend of PowerPlay ultra-aggression in the first ten overs, advancing Josh Hazlewood to drive imperiously through cover for four eight balls into the innings and never relenting from there.

A shorter Hazlewood offering was smoked for six an over later, Australia’s most economical quick this tournament having been crunched for 22 off his first two overs; while Shubman Gill managed just four before pulling Starc to mid-on at the other end, it wasn’t him doing all the damage.

Not even some more spectacular fielding from Australia, continuing on from their athletic semi-final display with a series of brilliant saves in the infield, could do much to halt the carnage.

Three boundaries in succession from Virat Kohli, brimming with his trademark elegance, saw him match Sharma for strike-rate; when Rohit pumped Maxwell down the ground for six and then cut the follow-up past point, India had 76 after less than 10 overs.

Then came the flashpoint on which, it proved, the innings would hinge: going for another big shot off Maxwell, extra turn and bounce saw Sharma only succeed in skewing a top edge high over cover, where Head, running back with the flight, took a spectacular catch inches from the turf.

When Shreyas Iyer, who had begun by punching Maxwell for four of his own to take the tally to 80 off the first 10, feathered Cummins through to Josh Inglis, India, for all their explosiveness, were 3/81 with a shallow batting order to follow.

Faced with a slow, low wicket hazardous for scoring quickly, and an Australian attack with their tails up, Kohli and KL Rahul opted for a conservative approach: where 12 boundaries were struck in the first 10 overs, just two more would follow in the middle 30, and not a single six.

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With Cummins rotating his bowlers at a rapid rate – seven different Aussies would be called upon in a remarkable eight-over stretch – neither batter was given the opportunity to settle, with the scoring rate dropping below run-a-ball pace by the 18th over, where it would remain.

It was ODI batting from a bygone age, a war of attrition rather than ammunition; but having made his way chancelessly to 50 off a still-sprightly 56 balls, Kohli seemed set to cash in.

Enter Cummins: cramping the Indian maestro for room and hitting his spot just back of a good length, Kohli’s attempt to prod into the covers succeeded only in dragging the ball off an inside edge onto his stumps as silence fell around the capacity stadium.

Not even Ravindra Jadeja, so often a thorn in Australia’s side in years past, could offer India any respite, his promotion to number six ahead of Suryakumar Yadav bringing with it only nine runs before Hazlewood found a hint of reverse-swing to catch his outside edge through to Inglis.

Amid it all, Rahul held firm: the keeper-batter’s 50 coming up off 86 balls as he fought through an inspired Australian bowling performance.

Never, though, did he attempt to take the fight back to the attack, even the occasionally wayward Adam Zampa: where the leg-spinner had been clearly Australia’s least effective bowler against South Africa in the semi-final, here his 10 overs cost just 44 runs, plus the late wicket of Jasprit Bumrah to take him to 23 wickets in an excellent World Cup.

By then, India’s woes had deepened considerably: Rahul’s vigil ended on 66 as a Starc jaffa swung away late to provide Inglis another easy catch, before the wicketkeeper pouched his fourth as Mohammed Shami looked to power the left-armer down the ground but could only muster a faint edge.

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When Yadav, the last recognised batter, gloved a Hazlewood slower ball behind for Inglis’ record fifth catch of the final, India were nine down and in danger of being bowled out: the 14 runs last pair Kuldeep Yadav and Mohammed Siraj mustered in the final overs before a last-ball run out, including an imperious straight-driven boundary from the latter, about all the pride that could be mustered from a troubled innings.

Through it all Australia’s fielding had been imperious: whether it was the hard yards of David Warner saving boundary after boundary in the deep with diving stops, or a rock-solid infield with Labuschagne patrolling the covers with desperate intent, there were few misfields, a pair of Maxwell overthrows after an overzealous shy at the stumps about all that could be marked against them.

Australian players celebrate after winning the 2023 World Cup.

Australian players celebrate after winning the 2023 World Cup. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Defending just 240, that India would need to bowl well to be a chance was manifest: but when Bumrah found Warner’s outside edge off the first ball of the run chase only for Kohli and Gill to fail to move as it bisected them in the slips cordon, it appeared luck might be against them.

Given the new ball for the first time all tournament, Shami would had better fortune, tempting the veteran into chasing a wide offering and providing Kohli an instant opportunity to make amends.

Just as India’s first 10 overs had featured drama aplenty, so too would Australia’s: in at three, Mitchell Marsh lofted Shami for an audacious six over long-off before edging a fired-up Bumrah behind, before Steve Smith was adjudged LBW to the Indian star’s beautifully disguised slower ball, in so doing making an error in judgement that loomed as a game-changer.

With non-striker Head offering little support, Smith chose not to review the decision, only for ball-tracker to find he had been hit outside the line of off stump.

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At 3/47, with many of those runs coming from wides and byes passing through the gauntlet of the uncharacteristically sloppy Rahul, Australia, faced with a prodigiously swinging ball and with the player best suited to navigating them back in the sheds, were in dire trouble.

And having been quiet for much of the first innings, the noise inside the Narendra Modi stadium was cacophonous.

Amid it all, though, stood Head: player of the match in the semi-final for his audacious strokeplay at the start of Australia’s last run-chase, a pair of first-over boundaries were the South Australian’s only shots in anger in the early stages as he chose to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm.

Managing just 10 from his first 23 balls, a pair of boundaries off Shami, the latter a superbly timed on-drive, saw him reassert control, with Head teaming up with Labuschagne, in the team for exactly this scenario, to steady the ship.

And steady they would, the pair finding spin pair Kuldeep and Jadeja far more agreeable than the quicks to keep the scoreboard ticking over, Head bringing up his half-century off 58 balls as the partnership surged past 50 of its own.

In a frenzy after earlier wickets, the crowd noise began to die down, replaced with the sweet sound of willow meeting leather as Head truly came into his own.

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Rohit Sharma.

Rohit Sharma. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Any width was flayed mercilessly in front of point, anything short pulled imperiously over mid-wicket, and when the fast bowlers overpitched they were met with a series of spectacularly timed drives straight down the ground.

As if to prove the worm had well and truly turned, an Indian review off a sizeable LBW shout from Bumrah against Labuschagne would add to their misery: ball-tracker found it to be clipping leg stump, but not by enough to overturn the on-field call.

With Head thwacking Bumrah over square leg for four one ball later to rub salt into the wound, normal service quickly resumed, the South Australian entering the 90s with a pair of clubbed shots down the ground off Kuldeep.

Only on 99 did nerves set in: pushing the spinner into the covers and haring off for the single, even adding a mid-pitch hesitation to add to the chaos, he would have been out by nearly half the wicket had the usually laserlike Jadeja’s throw been on target.

As if to prove it only a minor lapse, Head began Jadeja’s final over by adding insult to injury depositing him over long on for a second six; Australia’s deadliest enemy seen off with figures of 0/43 from his 10 overs, having claimed 3/28 in their group stages clash back in October.

Siraj and Kuldeep were likewise deposited into the stands as the Head onslaught reached titanic proportions, Labuschagne joining in on the fun with a delightful flick to mid-wicket to bring up his own half-century, the Damien Martyn to his partner’s Ponting in this repeat of the 2003 World Cup final.

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Victory’s certainty for Australia became clear as the rest of the team cheering from the sidelines changed as one out of training gear into their playing attire, ready to celebrate the winning runs.

A lofted drive over mid-off from Head brought the required runs down to four, and gave him the chance to finish the match, and the tournament, in fitting fashion: with just two to get, though, the glory shot would be denied him as he pulled Shami to Gill at deep mid-wicket.

Having made 137, even the partisan home crowd could find it in them to give Head generous applause as he departed; replacing him at the crease, Maxwell would need just one ball to do what he’d done in the 2021 T20 World Cup final, a pull into the deep bringing with it the winning two, and starting party time.

A World Cup final – and tournament – gloriously won, Australia the kings of world cricket once again.

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