'We were ready for the big moments' - Ponting
If you go by rankings, and a perusal of the respective team-sheets, this should be a rout. Having trounced far more formidable opposition in the World Cup finals of 1999, 2003 and 2007, Australia are red-hot favourites to retain the ICC Champions Trophy that they won for the first time in 2006. Back then, West Indies were the surprise finalists and, in a match interrupted by rain, they were summarily brushed aside. New Zealand, who won this competition in a previous guise in 2000, could prove more prickly opposition, especially with the trans-Tasman contest having Big Brother-Little Brother undertones.
Ricky Ponting and Shane Watson were ruthless in the demolition of England in the semi-final, and the same XI is likely to be trusted to do the job in the summit clash. Australia have lost just one game [to West Indies in Mumbai, in 2006, when Jerome Taylor took a hat-trick] in a global 50-over tournament in the last five years [18 wins], and it will take a Herculean effort from New Zealand to deny them on a Centurion pitch that's been full of runs.
"I went and looked at the wicket and they've done a bit of maintenance work on it," Ponting said. "We don't exactly know how that's going to come up yet. We'll probably wait until morning and have a closer look at how the surface is. The way we've been playing the last couple of games would indicate that we don't need to make too many changes. We know the conditions here pretty well, and all the guys are in good touch. It's always nice to keep a winning combination together if you can."
There were suggestions before the tournament began that South Africa and India would be the teams to watch, having flirted with the No. 1 ranking in recent months. But neither could deal with the pressure of expectation and yet again, the overriding theme of a major tournament has been Advance, Australia Fair. "It's always satisfying when you win, it doesn't matter if you're expected to or not," Ponting said. "But it's the first time in a few years that we haven't been the No. 1-ranked team coming in. We were probably the No. 3 team in the world, and a lot of the experts probably thought that's where we'd finish up.
"But we've done everything that we've needed to so far. As I said after the England game the other night, it's been about making sure we were ready for the big moments. We were in the semi-final, and we'll make sure we're ready for the big moments tomorrow as well."
Having overwhelmed England in a one-day series after the Ashes, Australia were quietly confident coming into this tournament. "I was really encouraged by what I saw from a lot of the younger guys during the one-day series in England," Ponting said. "It just goes to show, with England making the semi-finals here, just how well we did play against them. Our first couple of performances in this tournament was very good. We had a little bit of a glitch against Pakistan, the last half of our batting, but we rectified that very quickly against England. My expectations have always been very high."
Australia had a day off on Saturday, and some of their players spent it watching the second semi-final. "I'm not a big cricket-watcher, I must admit, especially when I've got a day off," Ponting said with a grin. "A lot of the guys, though, did sit back and watch the game last night, to see how both sides played and what they were doing."
Pakistan, who took Australia to the last ball in a league game in Centurion, were heavily favoured to join them in the final, but Ponting said that it made no difference to him who they faced. "New Zealand were obviously the better team yesterday, and I think that just goes to show how hot and cold Pakistan can be. New Zealand have been good right the way through the series. They've had their ups and downs with injuries, but they keep managing to find guys that come in and fill that void."
The All Blacks may hold Rugby Union's Bledisloe Cup, but it's been all Australia in recent times on the cricket pitch. Though New Zealand managed a 2-2 draw in the Chappell-Hadlee Series earlier this year, Australia have won 18 of 27 [losing seven] games over the past five years. "It's always been a great rivalry, whether it be cricket, rugby or netball," Ponting said. "The countries always seem to have some very good clashes in sport. It's one that we're looking forward to. The thing that I stress to the guys is not to get too carried away with the size of the occasion. We just have to put up a performance and not try too hard for anything spectacular."
New Zealand have won more than a few admirers for their resolve in this competition, especially given the appalling litany of injuries that they've had to cope with, and Ponting certainly won't be taking anything for granted. "They play to their strengths and they do it very well," he said. "They're a very disciplined side and have been for a number of years. Even looking at the way [Grant] Elliott went about it last night, he calculated and worked things out very well. He played the situation.
"You know that's what New Zealand sides will do. They may not be the most flamboyant players going around, but you know that they'll always stand up and try and give their 100%. We have to match them in that department and let our skills take over everything else."
It's been a turbulent year for Australian cricket, with South Africa ending their unbeaten run on home soil, and an Ashes defeat as well. The players have been away from home for close to five months, and Ponting admitted that tomorrow's result could have a big bearing on how the overseas campaign is viewed. "We've played a lot of very good cricket," he said. "Obviously, there's the disappointment of losing the Ashes, but here in this tournament we've been focussed on building things up right the way through. We're certainly on the right track to do that.
"If we happen to play well tomorrow and win the tournament, we'll look back on the last five months as being a really good period in Australian cricket. We've introduced a lot of new guys who have now got 20 or 30 games under their belt, and 10 or 12 Test matches. They're starting to find out what international cricket is all about. If you look ahead to the next 12 months, this current group of players can take the Australian cricket team a long way forward."
Ponting himself has won every trophy there is to win, but there will be no shortage of motivation come Monday afternoon. "The other day, at the start of the semi-final against England, I was just jumping out of my skin," he said. "I think the other players recognise that as well. One of the important things I have as a leader is to show that when the big games come up, us experienced guys really stand up. I'll be exactly the same tomorrow morning. I'll be up nice and early, and won't be able to wait for 12 o'clock to come around for that bus to leave."
The last time Australia played a major final in South Africa, down the road at the Wanderers, Ponting scored 140 and Australia 359 as India were annihilated in a World Cup final. Daniel Vettori and his team will need more than an African good-luck charm or two to avoid a similar fate.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo