Preview: Trans-Tasman rivalry takes centrestage in World Cup final
Melbourne, March 28 (IANS) Much more than the World Cup title will be at stake when co-hosts Australia and New Zealand square-off in the final of the quadrennial event at the majestic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) here on Sunday.
After six weeks and 48 matches among 14 teams, the game pits four-time champions Australia, the numero uno side in One-Day Internationals (ODI), against their trans-Tasman rivals and maiden finalists New Zealand. The Black Caps had faltered in the semifinals six times previously but overcame South Africa to enter their first summit clash.
If familiarity between the two sides has not quite bred contempt, several highly competitive clashes in the past, including the underarm-marred match in the 1980s, will make Sunday's game a fierce contest. Australia, with a balanced side and having experience in dealing with big occasions, will have the home advantage even though they will be up against an in-form side.
New Zealand are on an eight-match unbeaten streak and have 13 wins from their past 14 ODIs. Their victory over Australia in the group stage will give them a lot of confidence going into the match.
However, this will be the first time in the tournament that the Kiwis will play away from home. Moreover, many former players are saying that their habit of playing at small grounds at home will be a hard reality to overcome when they take the field at the massive MCG in front of a hostile crowd.
In the last 11 games played at the 'G', the team batting first has won eight with the highest successful run chase being 297. One thing going for the Kiwis is that five of them played at the MCG in 2009 when they defeated Australia, the last time the two teams met in an ODI in Australia. In their last 12 ODIs at the MCG, Australia lost only twice and are unbeaten in their last six encounters.
In the man-to-man match-up, Australia look a more balanced side. They bat deep, going all the way down to No.9 and 10, with all-rounders Shane Watson, Glenn Maxwell and James Faulkner adding versatility to the team. David Warner, Aaron Finch, Steven Smith, Michael Clarke and veteran wicketkeeper-batsman Brad Haddin will have the responsibility to provide stability to the batting line-up.
So far in this World Cup, New Zealand have been spot on -- be it with the bat or the ball with each and every player stepping up when the situation demanded. Skipper Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill have provided good starts with vice-captain Kane Williamson, experienced middle-order batsmen Ross Taylor and Grant Elliot consolidating on the platforms provided by the openers.
All-rounder Corey Anderson and wicketkeeper-batsman Luke Ronchi have also been crucial in their dual roles.
The Blackcaps' bowling trio of Tim Southee, Trent Boult and left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori, 36, have been key to their success. Left-arm seamer Boult is the leading wicket-taker of the tournament with 21 scalps while Southee and Vettori have 15 scalps each. Former captain Vettori, with experience of 294 ODIs, is still New Zealand's go-to-man in tough situations.
On the other hand, Australia have fearsome quicks and should have ascendancy with the ball. Left-arm seamers Johnson, Starc, Faulkner and right-armer Josh Hazlewood are difficult to score off and New Zealand batters will have to be at their best.
So far, Johnson has taken a backseat with Starc accounting for 20 wickets in eight matches while the former has only 12. Considering the importance of the match, Johnson may rise to the occasion.
The match will also see an intriguing battle between the two of the most attacking captains in world cricket. Clarke has long been known for his innovative field placements, but he needs to match McCullum, who has employed as many as five slips in a Test-match style field at certain stages.
It will be wrong to bill the match as a final as the two best sides with tales of long-standing rivalry face off for cricket's biggest prize. Come Sunday, it remains to be seen whether the sport gets a new title holder or will Australia vie for their fifth title and reassert their supremacy.