A 50-over contest is rarely decided by the fifth ball of the game. The day’s first dismissal doesn’t often get referred to as the turning point of the contest. Seldom has the sight of shattered stumps broken so many hearts. All that happened in the first over of the World Cup final at the MCG. That early Aussie blow put New Zealand on the ropes for the rest of the day, and reduced a potential epic battle between old rivals to a no-contest witnessed by a record 93,013 cricket fans.
For Kiwi supporters, the story of the final was simple. Brendon McCullum couldn’t bring his bat down in time to a Mitchell Starc 148 kmph yorker-length ball. That minor error, that micro-second delay, meant New Zealand’s time hadn’t come yet. After jumping across the fence and challenging the neighbourhood bully, the little brother limped back home defeated and deflated. Once again, the nice guys finished second.
The Aussies too couldn’t stop talking about McCullum b Starc 0. Even though, late into the night, they were also recalling James Faulkner’s 9-1-36-3, the nation’s new leader Steve Smith’s beaten 56, outgoing leader Michael Clarke’s 74 in his dream ODI farewell, and their 7-wicket win. Australia has now won five World Cups, four of which were one-sided finals.
At the Federation Square on Sunday morning, the city centre where fans gathered to march to the MCG, even the most optimistic weren’t talking of a cakewalk. There were anxious faces at breakfast tables, not sure they would be clinking champagne flutes in the evening. “50-50, mate,” was the common answer from both sets of fans.
Inside the stadium, well before the toss, there were hardly any empty seats. When two girls in gowns — one black, one gold — took turns to stand in front of the mic and strain their vocal chords singing the national anthem, the fans could have walked on fire for their teams.
The day’s first big face-off was between Starc and McCullum. Not quite the peas from the same pod. Not too long ago, Starc was seen as the talented bowler without the aggression of a pacer. Shane Warne called him soft and didn’t approve of his “nonchalant post-delivery presence”. In other words, Starc didn’t stare or sledge, he was so ‘un-Aussie’.
The ‘McCullum scare’, meanwhile, is the kind that can make pacers lose sleep the night before, and lose line and length when they see him from 22 yards away. Today was a big day, the stands were screaming, the world watching. It so seemed that Starc might just do a Zaheer Khan from the 2003 final.
On the fourth ball of the game, the two would meet. The opener would do his usual two squats before settling into his stance. Like a blur, the almost 150 kph ball would zoom past McCullum. It was a blow to the ego of a batsman known to treat pacers like pests, and in the habit of swatting them out of the ground and out of attack.
Thus far in the tournament, McCullum had four scores of 50s and a strike rate of over 100. So the next ball, he wanted to make his presence felt. He came dancing down the track but Starc wasn’t intimidated, tailing the ball towards him. The ball would pass between bat and pad, but miss the stumps.
Starc, after the match, would talk about his Mcullum plan. “Me and our bowling coach Craig McDermott have been working on a plan for the last few days. But to bowl as planned in front of a packed MCG is different,” he said. Full and fast, what the ‘soft’ pacer had been told do. That’s what he did on the final ball of the first over. It was to be McCullum’s last. “It was a real quick one,” the defeated captain said later. The off stump rocked, the red neon lights came on. Gone was the man on whom so much depended.
Over the last few days, McCullum had been the centre of attention. The Aussies said that the sprawling lawns of MCG were too big for the man from the tiny island. He would get caught on the fence, they said. The Kiwis were hurt. Till late in the night on match eve, they threatened every Aussie in sight with McCullum masks and cut-outs. The weight of the nation was on McCullum’s shoulders and bat. So heavy was it perhaps, that when Starc bowled full and fast, McCullum’s bat couldn’t come down in time. And once he was gone, the Kiwis couldn’t rise up in time.