Australia have grown on road to final
On August 8, in the tranquil suburb of Wynnum on the shore of Moreton Bay in Brisbane, Australia Under-19s were playing a World Cup warm-up match against Scotland. They had been beaten by West Indies on the Sunshine Coast the previous day, and had lost a three-match series to Pakistan on the Gold Coast a week earlier. Stuart Law, the Australia coach, said Pakistan had looked like a well-knit outfit that had been playing together for a while. At the time, he'd been in charge of Australia for a little over a month, and they had decided on their captain only two or three weeks before the tournament. Some of their competitors had had better lead-ups.
On the morning of the eve of the World Cup final, it was Australia's William Bosisto waking up bright and early to go to the top of Castle Hill for the captain's photo call with his Indian counterpart Unmukt Chand. Australia won the right to compete on August 26 with as clinical a performance as can be expected from teenagers who are still discovering their own games. They won all their group games, and got past Bangladesh and South Africa, who were among the strongest teams here, in the knockouts.
"Our boys have improved with each game, we have got better, we're very tight as a unit," Law said when asked about the changes in the players and team between the start and now. "I think that [helps] in a final as well, if you're very tight. We're getting better - this is one tournament, if we went into another one in a month's time, we'd even be more improved. So the more cricket you play at this age, the better it is.
"They've become a bit more attuned to what professional cricket demands of them. There have been guys who have stood up, and to see players perform under extreme pressure is a pleasing aspect. I think having the national talent manager [Greg Chappell] here; it has been great exposure for these young kids to be performing under that pressure, in front of such a highly influential person. Hopefully they go away from this and understand that the hard work hasn't been completed. It has only just begun for them."
And Australia did face pressure on the road to the final. Against England, they were 30 for 3 chasing 144 with tall quicks charging in on a fast and bouncy pitch at Tony Ireland Stadium. In the quarter-final, Bangladesh had made a solid start to their innings, and then Australia were 33 for 4 in pursuit of 172. Against South Africa in the semi-final, Australia were 3 for 2 chasing 192. They found people to steer them out of all of those situations.
For runs, they have relied on their opener Cameron Bancroft and No. 3 Kurtis Patterson, and on Bosisto to shore up a wobble and take the team through to the target. At least one of them has delivered a decisive performance in every game. There are a couple of concerns - opener Jimmy Peirson and No. 4 Meyrick Buchanan have aggregated 89 runs in nine innings - but Australia have persisted with them and are likely to do so for one more game. At this age and in these conditions, Law said a couple of blips in the top order were common across teams.
"We're not the only team that has been struggling with our top order," he said. "The wickets, up here particularly, have been pretty bowler-friendly with the new ball. So yeah, it's a concern but not just ours, but everybody's."
Australia's bowling group is up there with the best in the tournament. Their three main quicks - Joel Paris, Mark Steketee and Gurinder Sandhu - have conceded fewer than four runs an over, and newcomer Alex Gregory, who was a late inclusion in the squad, has gone for less than three. All four of them have been among the wickets and they've built tremendous pressure on batsmen, which has helped offspinner Ashton Turner attack rather than defend and take 10 wickets at an economy of 3.90.
"I think we bowled very well as a group, it hasn't been one guy getting five wickets every time. Everyone's been chipping in and picking up wickets at crucial times," Law said. "The seamers, they're starting to learn from and listen to one of the great Australian bowlers, Craig McDermott. He has taught them well, taught them how to swing the ball, put the swinging ball in the right areas and reap the rewards. What has been pleasing is that the spin of Ashton Turner has come to the fore as well, he's our leading wicket-taker in the competition."
Before the knockouts, after Australia had won their group, Law had said he wanted his team to improve in little areas. He mentioned they hadn't run out a batsman yet, and bowled too many wides. In the quarter-final, Bancroft threw down the stumps to run out Litton Das and break Bangladesh's half-century opening partnership, and in the semi-final against South Africa, Turner ran out Murray Coetzee, who had just celebrated his 50, with another direct hit.
"Those run-outs that we affected in the last two games, they came at the right time as well," Law said. "We really needed a wicket so ... Very pleased with the way we've played as a whole, [it would] just be nice to put it all together on the final day."
The wides are still an issue for Australia - there were 36 in the two knockouts - but Law said that was another issue most teams were struggling with and that largesse wasn't hurting Australia yet. He said they would work towards not giving India that advantage in the final.
On the surface, Australia does not appear to have a significant chink that is not shared by India. They'll be telling themselves that all they need to do is stay cool, which is no mean feat against opponents who are well-seasoned when it comes to the pressures of a final.
"I was thinking about that the other day," Bosisto said, when asked if this was the biggest game of his life. "There's going to be a lot more people watching than in any other game I've played in my life, whether that makes it the biggest game in my career … Yeah it probably does. But in terms of preparation I don't think anything changes; as everyone says it's just another game of cricket and we've just got to go out and execute our processes and do what we can."
There's usually another ICC photo call with the World Cup on the day after the final. Only one captain will be invited, though, and Bosisto's hoping it's his hands that are on that trophy.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo