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Inevitable but unpredictable, India and Australia have been two trains on a collision course

The two powerhouses of 21st-century cricket were tipped to meet in this year's World Cup final, and they made it there in contrasting styles

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
The contrasting routes these two teams have taken to the final have mirrored the circumstances of their leaders  •  ICC

The contrasting routes these two teams have taken to the final have mirrored the circumstances of their leaders  •  ICC

Nothing is inevitable in sport, and in that lies its appeal. The tension, the knots in the tummy, the anticipation, the hope and the foreboding, and the final euphoria or heartbreak, all come from deep longing for an outcome but not knowing if it will come to pass. There can be no spoilers in sport; no match is over until it's over.
You might argue, with hindsight, that this World Cup final has bowed to the inevitable by bringing the two pre-tournament favourites together in the summit clash. In that, it is a departure from the norm. Starting from 1983, when India defied 66-1 odds to dethrone West Indies, World Cup finals have provided a joyous deviation from the script: Sri Lanka have made it to three finals and won once, New Zealand to two, and Australia and Pakistan were far from being the favourites when they won in 1987 and 1992. This year, apart from the truth that India and Australia were the soundest bets for the final when the tournament began, very little about their paths here has been predictable.
It feels like a lifetime has passed since their first encounter in this tournament. Having called that game the final before the final before it was played, I was feeling sheepish within a week as Australia, after two resounding losses, appeared underprepared and undercooked and unsure about their best XI. By the second game, they had ditched their first-choice keeper-batter; their main spinner, on whom lay massive middle-over responsibilities, was looking lost; two of their pace-bowling allrounders, the ones who gave the team the appearance of mighty depth, had mostly looked unable to buy a run all year; their game-breaking opener was still recovering from injury; and their captain felt like the weakest link in their bowling attack.
Even when they were stringing together a series of wins, their powerplay bowling remained remarkably flaccid, their mid-innings batting not particularly imposing, and but for an innings of outrageous freakishness, their qualification for the semi-final would have gone down to the wire.
It was the marginal things against South Africa - half-chances, line calls - going their way that got them through the final. In its lack of swagger, pomp and certainty, it wasn't the typical Australian march to yet another World Cup final, but it was very much one in its bloody-mindedness, in the way they seized vital moments, and in their winning knowhow.
For India, however much in-the-groove and well-oiled they looked as a team at the start, not even the most devout optimist would have foreseen a waltz like this. Not since the Australians in 2007 has a team stridden across a tournament with such oomph and aura. Batting first, they have won by an average of 175 runs, the highest ever by a team in the history of the World Cup; their chasing margin has been an average of 6.4 wickets and 64.4 balls, the best by a team in this World Cup.
With bat and ball, they have bossed the powerplays with such authority - they have been No. 1 by a distance on all parameters: batting strike rate, batting average, bowling economy and bowling average - that most opponents have played the rest of the innings in retrieval mode; India's batting has been put under the cosh only twice, and only New Zealand made them dig deep while bowling. Their lower-order batting, their only weak link, has been exposed only once, and even a debilitating injury setback to their lead fast-bowling allrounder has only seemed to make them stronger: so good have each of their five bowlers been that the absence of the sixth option has felt like a blessing.
No team has so far managed to dismiss both Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli cheaply in the same match, and in the only match, the semi-final against New Zealand, in which Jasprit Bumrah's radar faltered, Mohammed Shami made up in spectacular fashion. Most dauntingly for Australia, India have no player with two successive failures, a remarkable achievement in a tournament as long and arduous as this one has been, which points to a team at the peak of its collective prowess, one in sync and harmony within and in their response to the demands of every situation.
In some ways, the contrasting routes these two teams have taken to the final have mirrored the circumstances of their leaders.
Rohit has led with swagger with the bat, sacrificing personal runs in favour of setting a ferocious tempo for his team and easing a path for the batters who follow him. He has displayed tactical acumen gathered over many years of IPL leadership, during which he has combined meticulous planning with situational awareness. He has learnt to respect data, but not at the cost of intuition.
Pat Cummins, on the other hand, has had to learn on the job, having had no real experience of white-ball captaincy, and like his team, he has got better the deeper into the tournament his team has gone. He has had in his favour the unequivocal support and respect of his team-mates. Australia under him are not the snarling battlemongers of yore, which disappoints a section of the Australian cricket community, but they are, by all accounts, more united than many of their formidable teams of the recent past. And while Rohit has laid the foundation for many Indian wins with some of the fastest innings of the tournament, Cummins has helped close out games with some of the slowest, played with composure and game awareness.
What they have in common is the way they have fostered an environment of trust and transparency, built though communication and honesty. No Indian player in this team, including those on the bench - and perhaps particularly those - has been left wondering about his status and role. Cummins won his team over by publicly taking a position in their support after the rancorous departure of Justin Langer, whose ferocious intensity as coach wasn't for everyone. The value of a happy dressing room is intangible to most of us but priceless to those inside it.
Neither played in the last World Cup fixture between their teams at the venue for their next game. Rohit narrowly missed out being in the 2011 World Cup squad, and Cummins would only make his Australia debut later that year. The Motera ground bore a much more modest air than its gigantic successor, but it was here that India ended Australia's 12-year reign as ODI world champions by beating them for the first time in a knockout game.
So here we are at last, a tournament that has tested endurance and resolve as much as it has skills and ability, and that has, barring the first few days, seen vibrant throngs at the grounds and record audiences, is now primed for a fitting denouement. At times it has felt too long and arduous, but for that very reason, for its scale and the physical and mental challenges it has posed, winning it will bring a massive sense of fulfilment for the players, and leave abiding memories for the fans.
India and Australia, two vastly contrasting nations, two of cricket's powerhouses, who have built the fiercest, most competitive, most absorbing rivalry of this century, which has produced some of the greatest matches in recent memory, and are, equally crucially, the most successful teams at the ODI World Cup over time, feel like the worthiest claimants for this edition's prize. India have looked invincible so far, but winning titles is in Australia's DNA. World Cup finals haven't always produced the greatest contests, but given the teams involved in this one, we have the right to expect one for the ages.
Sport wouldn't be what it is if it were to follow predictable scripts. And we wouldn't be lovers of sport if we were to stop dreaming. It would be a miracle if, in terms of drama and twists, the climax this year is a redux of 2019. But we'd happily settle for second place if tomorrow even comes close.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal