Ricky Ponting believes Australia are overwhelming favourites to win their fifth World Cup when they take on New Zealand at the MCG on Sunday. Speaking exclusively to ESPNcricinfo, he said he doesn't think Brendon McCullum's men "can win if Australia play as well as they can".
"They are both very good teams, but if you just saw them on paper and if you try and see weaknesses in the Australian team, I am not sure where you find one," Ponting said. "Their top-order batting is brilliant, their new-ball bowling is brilliant, their allrounders are some of the best in the world and they are going to play at the MCG, where they know the conditions really well. That's not saying New Zealand can't win, we have seen how good a brand of cricket they can play, but I've just got a feeling that the Aussies won't let a moment like a World Cup final at home slip."
Ponting has played in five World Cups, reached four finals and won three times, twice as captain, and he believes the opposition's eagerness to do "something extra special" was the reason for them to "come undone" while Australia were focused on playing to the level they were capable of.
"When Tiger Woods used to turn up at the majors, he had most of the guys beaten before he started because they knew they had do something extra special to try and beat him because he was that much better," he said. "I think that's what happened with us on a few occasions in a World Cup. Australian teams will play to their capability in a World Cup final and if this current team do that then I think another big score is on the cards. I don't think we've seen them play at their best in this World Cup yet. That's the scary thing for me with this team, they haven't played at their best yet and they are still winning quite easily."
While Australia will be in their seventh final, New Zealand will play their first. Under McCullum, they have shown a compelling brand of cricket and arrive in Melbourne on the back of an eight-match winning streak in the tournament. Watching their progress from the sidelines, Ponting has been impressed and expects them not to be overawed by the occasion.
"They are known as Australia's little brothers, they want to prove a point and say 'hang on, we are as good as Australia and we are going to prove it here today', that will be their mindset," he said. "As long as the Australian team plays New Zealand on skill, don't get too involved in the emotional side of things, they will win. New Zealand are a very good side, [Trent] Boult and [Tim] Southee are exceptional bowlers and if McCullum comes and does what he does at the top of the order, anything can happen.
"I think it's opening batsmen versus opening bowlers. If New Zealand can keep [Mitchell] Starc, [Mitchell] Johnson and [Josh] Hazlweood out and McCullum gets off to a flyer, it gives them a great chance of winning. If [Aaron] Finch and [David] Warner can get on top of Boult and Southee early then that will expose their third bowler, Matt Henry, who is relatively young. If he has to bowl against some of those powerful Australian middle-order batsmen when they are set, that's going to be hard work for him. I think that's where the game will be decided."
One of the running themes through the tournament has been the ultra-aggressive tactics employed by McCullum, often placing as many as four slips for his new-ball bowlers. Ponting is of the view that the New Zealand captain has chosen this route as the one-day game has fundamentally transformed under the new rules.
"If you break down the modern game, I think there's actually two games within one 50-over game," he explained. "There's 0-35 overs, which is one game and there's the last 15 which is another, almost completely different game. What Brendon's trying to do with his bowling is that he's trying to break the opposition's back before the 35th over. So he's going all-out attack, trying to take all the wickets he can in the first 35 so teams can't score really heavily at the back end with wickets in hand. That's been New Zealand's tactics so far and it's worked because Boult has been successful while the ball has been swinging. I don't think it will swing as much at Melbourne, so they might have to do things slightly differently."
"I think there's actually two games within one 50-over game. There's 0-35 overs, which is one game and there's the last 15 which is another, almost completely different game"
Among Australia's key figures in the final will be Steven Smith, who has been in red-hot form throughout the summer and produced a match-winning hundred in the semi-final against India. Ponting believes Smith has all the makings of an "all-time great" on the evidence of his performances over the last few months.
"He is making batting look so much easier than other players around the world right now," Ponting said. "He's a little bit unorthodox in the way he does things, picks his bat up a bit different to most top-order batsmen but the positions he gets himself into are really, really good. His timing, composure and the way he's gone about his cricket in the last 12-18 months suggests to me that he could be one of our very best players till the time his career is over.
"Whenever extra responsibility has come his way, he has grabbed it with both hands. You look back at when he was made captain of the Test team in the summer and how he played with the bat. More importantly, how he handled himself and the team. As a young guy, I thought he did a great job with the captaincy side of things and his batting speaks for itself. I actually spoke to him after the semi-final and he is so keen just to have one more big game and finish off what's been a remarkable summer for him."
Ponting also expected Michael Clarke "to stand up" in the final if he gets the opportunity to bat earlier than he did against India on Thursday. And should Clarke lead Australia to victory on Sunday, Ponting, who quit as one-day captain following Australia's defeat to India in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final, thought there would be "no better time" for him to retire from ODIs. Sentiments that Ponting had also expressed in a column last month on ESPNcricinfo.
"I was basing that on how I think his body might hold up," Ponting said. "Everything he was saying was based around wanting to play more Test cricket and I thought the best way for him to be able to get more longevity for his career was to not play one-day cricket. The rigours of one-day cricket, not just the games but the travel that goes with it, you don't get much time between games. For someone who has had back injuries and those sort of issues, getting on and off planes everyday and sleeping on different hotel beds, that sort of thing is not good for you. My basis to that statement was that if he wanted to play Test cricket, he might have to consider retiring from one-day cricket. If you end up winning the World Cup, there'll be no better time."