Australia's delusional self-belief
Little did I realise, when I wrote my most recent piece a fortnight ago, that those words would ring true the very next time Pakistan played Australia. Last night’s amazing finish to the T20 semi-final just underscored that point. In the space of a few hours, Pakistan managed to turn severe underdog status (if you believed the bookmakers at the start of the game) into a savage assault on the hitherto unchallenged Australian bowling/fielding machine and then somehow managed to transform a comfortable victory into a nailbiting, spellbinding loss. In that recent article I said "You never quite know what to expect with Pakistan but you expect to be entertained, frustrated or bewitched at every twist and turn of the game.”
To be fair, on this occasion, one can hardly level much blame at the feet of Pakistan. Other than for their slight inability to bowl at the feet of Michael Hussey at the death, this was more a celebration of Australia’s greatness than any indictment of Pakistan. When you come up against the sort of brilliance that Hussey showed, there’s probably no shame in losing, although that’s probably little consolation to Pakistan’s massive fan base. I must admit though that reading some of the comments on the match bulletin, even the Pakistani fans seem to be philosophical and gracious about this freak result. It’s almost as if everyone who understands and loves cricket, can appreciate the enormity of what Australia achieved, under huge pressure, even if their bitter disappointment still hurts like a knife in the guts (if you’re a Pakistan supporter).
Can this really be the same two teams who played out a five wicket maiden on the same ground, with roughly the same batsmen at the crease, just two weeks ago? Last time around, Australia lost 6/12 in the last three overs. Last night, Australia scored 53 runs in those same three overs, losing just one wicket and with a ball to spare. I tried going back to sleep at 5 am after the conclusion of the game but it was a futile exercise. The adrenalin rush was just too much to allow a peaceful slumber. I kept marvelling at not just Australia’s phenomenal skill level but their amazing, unwavering, almost delusional self-belief. Brad Haddin was interviewed on the sidelines when the game was slipping away from Australia and he made a typically foolhardy statement along the lines of just waiting for the last four overs and then having a dash. Listening to that, with the rate at 15 rpo, I couldn’t help but think that he sounded like a sad politician, refusing to concede defeat until the last vote had been counted. But that’s the thing about Australia’s cricket culture – even at lower club levels, you very rarely hear anyone conceding defeat until the Fat Lady has sung every last note. It's an incredible part of the national psyche.
For Pakistan, the tournament has mirrored everything I said in my last article. They were pretty shabby against England and New Zealand, cornered tigers against South Africa, brilliant for most of last night and .....and....well, I can’t really describe the finish without doing sufficient justice to Hussey’s brilliance or doing an injustice to Pakistan. It was a game that did not deserve a loser.
I’ve watched just about every game of this tournament and a few things struck me. Firstly, I think the inability of bowlers to execute yorkers has never been poorer. Even allowing for some innovation by the batsmen, the amount of low full tosses dished up have been amazing for professional cricketers who presumably practice this skill every day of their lives. Too many of the death overs have seen full tosses deposited into the grandstand. It’s hard to believe that the various bowling coaches can claim any job satisfaction from these sort of outputs.
The other amazing thing is the self-belief of batsmen now. Aided by superior cricket bats, they simply hit sixes at will. Most of the 270 sixes have not just cleared the rope but have landed way back in the crowd. Guyana and St Lucia are relatively big grounds and even the sixes at Barbados cleared the rope with plenty to spare. This tournament, surprisingly, saw nowhere near the number of “scoop” shots that we saw in England last year. I suppose if Tillakaratne Dilshan and Brendon McCullum had made more runs, we might have seen more of them but on pitches that probably allowed for more of this type of innovation, I was surprised by the orthodoxy of the slogging, most of it down the ground or in slog corner.
Finally, I can’t readily think of any run-outs that saw both batsmen stranded at one end after a complete misunderstanding. Michael Lumb and Craig Kieswetter had a moment in the semi-final but Ajantha Mendis’ hard hands reprieved them, Misbah ul-Haq sacrificed himself in the last ball of Pakistan’s innings today and Shahid Afridi was a few metres short against England but none of the real game-changing mix-ups that you’d expect to see in 26 T20 games.
In fairness to all teams, this World Cup probably got what it deserved – the two best teams of this tournament, pitted against each other. They’re pretty evenly matched in all departments, England slightly stronger in spin bowling options, Australia shading it with genuine pace and athletic fielders with strong arms on both teams. In some senses, it will be a relatively fair contest in that the conditions are unlikely to massively favour one team over another, unlike the case if say India/Sri Lanka/Pakistan was playing Australia/England/South Africa where a bouncy or spin-friendly pitch might skew the odds one way or the other.
I wonder if the fact that England hasn’t really been pushed to the brink in this tournament will count against them if it gets tight? Or have Australia used up all their emotional energy last night? It’ll probably come down to a bit of luck and a bit of self-belief when it matters most. And if it comes down to that, with no disrespect to England’s impressive form, how can you back against Australia? I'm looking forward to one last midnight tryst. My six-year old son described me perfectly last week for his school assignment – asked to use the word ‘nocturnal’ in a wildlife talk, he preferred instead to say “when the cricket’s on from the West Indies, my dad becomes nocturnal”. Sad but true!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane