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April 27, 2007
Aside from his tidy new haircut, the only thing that was different about Ricky Ponting's demeanour on the eve of the World Cup final was his guarded acceptance of the challenge that lay ahead. For seven weeks and counting, Australian press calls have been as mesmerically self-assured as a TV evangelist's sermon - "We are the greatest, deny it and be damned, hallelujah." Now that the gates of heaven have been reached, however, the bombast has quietly been shelved.
"It doesn't get any bigger than a World Cup final," a reflective Ponting said on the eve of the match. "For guys who have been around quite a while like myself, this is the reason you still play the game - to be involved in contests like this one. Whoever settles best and earliest in the game is probably going to win, because it's about execution and skills on the day and being able to execute your skills under the biggest microscope in this game."
It was a far cry from the fury with which Ponting, who is arguably the most driven player in the world, had conducted the early stages of Australia's tournament. In the group stages in St Kitts, and on through a rampant Super Eights campaign, opponents fell by the wayside as if blinded by the Aussie aura. On five occasions they batted first and posted scores in excess of 300; on five occasions they bowled first and lost no more than three wickets in the course of a comfortable run-chase. The world has not been enough for a team that has not lost a World Cup fixture for eight years and 28 matches and, in the words of their captain, has set out to make a statement in every game that they have played.
Now, however, there is only one statement that matters - the one that reads: "Australia, World Champions 2007" - and Ponting is no longer fussed about how they get across the line. "Not once in the last seven-and-a-half weeks has this unbeaten run even come up among the team," he said. "It's just about us preparing and giving ourselves the best chance of playing well. If we happen to win the game we'll have to talk about these sort of things afterwards but we've got 100 overs of cricket to play first.
"A lot of our players have been there and done this before in big games and I think that's extremely important going into games such as this. I think we saw a bit of that in the semi-final against South Africa the other day. The know-how in this team - of how to approach big games and, more importantly, how to get the job done in big games - is right there for us. That's why I'm so excited."
Ponting, along with Glenn McGrath, was a part of the team that fell at the final hurdle to Arjuna Ranatunga's Sri Lankans in 1996, and the memory of that rare blot on his CV has surely steered the Australian thinking 11 years on. The side back then was guilty of over-confidence against an eager but unproven team that, in Mahela Jayawardene's opinion, were "like amateurs". This time, under the authoritative guidance of the double World Cup-winner, Tom Moody, this is a team of very serious professionals.
And they are professionals with a razor-sharp edge to their bowling attack, something of which Ponting and his team-mates were keenly aware as they repositioned their bowling machine to ping angled inswingers from a height of five feet, and big-ripping wristspinners from around the wicket. Thanks to some controversial yet brilliant team tactics in the Super Eights contest in Grenada, the threat of Lasith Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan (and Chaminda Vaas for that matter) is not something the Aussies have encountered in this competition. It's an issue Ponting shrugged off at the time, saying he "didn't care" what his opponents did, but one senses he'd rather have had a sighter.
"We probably felt a little bit let down that they weren't playing their first-choice side [in Grenada]," Ponting said, "but in tournaments I guess they can pick whoever they like to play any game. Malinga's action is pretty unique and I've been doing a bit of top-up work on my skills, in an attempt to get some sort of simulation about what you're going to come up against. We haven't played a lot against him, but we've all had a chance during this World Cup to have a good look at him and he's obviously done a good job for them."
After missing three matches with an ankle ligament injury, Malinga showed absolutely no ill-effects on his thrilling return for the semi-final against New Zealand, reducing Ross Taylor to such a prodding, poking wreck that he even raised his bat in celebration when he finally laid wood on leather. "He had most of their top-order batsmen in trouble," Ponting said. "We've got to play well against him, but they have a number of really good bowlers who can be dangerous on their day. It's about us starting the game well."
After the campaign Australia have had, it would be wrong to suggest they are anything less than confident. And yet, they go into the game with the knowledge that one poor day will undermine everything they have so far achieved. Who knows? Maybe such a threat to their hegemony will make them even more dangerous than ever.
Pataudi Jr caught a young English fan's fancy for his princely ways and his heroic batting