On Sunday, in front of a record crowd of 93,000 people, Australia overcame New Zealand in the Cricket World Cup Final – a victory which saw them crowned world champions for the fifth time. Having swept past reigning champions India in the semi-finals, and in front of a passionate home crowd, Australia faced arguably their biggest test as they came up against a side who had won all their previous world cup matches. Led by the talismanic Brendan McCullum, New Zealand came into the final off a thrilling victory over South Africa in their Semi-final in Auckland, and had thrilled cricket fans the world over with their breathless brand of entertaining cricket. However, an inspired Australian side produced one of the great World Cup performances by dismantling New Zealand with a breath-taking exhibition of devastating bowling and calculated batting that harked back to the days of Warne and Ponting. Having bowled the Black Caps out for just 183 runs, Australia strolled to their target with over 15 overs to spare with their own talismanic figure of Michael Clarke, top-scoring with 74 runs to carry them to their first title in eight years.
Everywhere you looked amidst the joyous celebrations of this young Australian team, there were sub-plots. There was the team itself, a young, promising group of players hungry for success. The likes of Mitchell Starc and Steve Smith represent the bright future of Australian cricket, having gone through years of seemingly endless mediocrity. Having surrendered their title meekly in Ahmedabad in 2011 just months after losing the Ashes on home soil for the first time in 24 years, Australian cricket was in crisis. The golden era that saw the likes of Warne, Gilchrist and McGrath deliver three consecutive World Cup titles was over and the new generation of players were just not good enough to step out of the shadows of their illustrious predecessors. Another embarrassing Ashes series defeat in England in 2013 led to many labelling that team as the worst Australia team of all-time. Surpassed by the likes of India, South Africa and England, many Australians began to lose faith in their national sport as they seemingly lurched from one crisis to another. Yet remarkably things began to change. Led by Michael Clarke, Australia roared back to reclaim the Ashes in 2014 with a thumping 5-0 series whitewash over England. A test series victory over South Africa in March 2014 saw them climb to No.1 in the Test rankings as they continued their renaissance. A home World Cup was the perfect location to complete a remarkable transformation, which now sees them on top of the world once again, with a young team full of stars capable of dominating the cricket world in the same way the likes of Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting did for years.
Secondly, there was the performance of captain Michael Clarke. Having announced his retirement from one-day
internationals on the eve of the final, Clarke was desperate to lead his side to victory in the final. A captain who has not always been appreciated by the Australian public, Clarke made the decision to retire to focus on prolonging his test career after sustaining several injuries over the last few years. Coming into bat with Australia 63 for the loss of two wickets, needing another 121 runs to secure victory, Clarke pushed his side to the brink of victory with a masterful batting performance that defied both his age and injury concerns as he top-scored for his team with 74 runs before finally being dismissed by Matt Henry. At this point – with Australia just a few runs off their target with wickets and overs to spare – came arguably the defining moment of this World Cup as Clarke walked off the field to a rapturous standing ovation from New Zealand and Australia fans alike, as all corners of the ground stood to pay tribute to a true legend of the game, who in his last ODI had finally delivered the glory he set out to achieve when he first became captain.
Lastly in many ways was Australia’s so-called ’16th man’. The death of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes in November at the age of 25, shook the sporting world to its core. For someone so young to lose their life playing the game they love was a tragedy that put all sport into perspective. Australia was a country in mourning, with a dark cloud hanging ominously over its no.1 sport, many wondered how Hughes’ international teammates could cope with such a devastating loss. For Michael Clarke especially, the loss of one of his best friends – who he claimed was like a brother to him – hit extremely hard. As captain of Australia, while others could mourn in private, Clarke had the unenviable task of coming out and speaking to the global press on behalf of his teammates. In the sudden aftermath, Clarke understandably found it very difficult to articulate his emotions after such a sudden loss, and while some Australians have come to scrutinise his captaincy, no-one could dispute the courage he showed in the weeks after Hughes’ death. Courage is often a word associated with captains for their on-field qualities and persona, yet in those weeks Clarke faced the rarest and most tragic circumstances that no sports captain should ever have to face. There would have been no shame had Clarke came out and said he couldn’t face the full glare of the media following such a personal loss. Yet by coming out and speaking on behalf of Hughes’ family, friends and teammates, Clarke did his country proud, with his emotional eulogy at Hughes’ funeral touching the hearts of people all over the globe. In those weeks, Clarke showed an incredible level of courage that arguably surpassed any of his competitive achievements as captain of Australia and transcended all sport. Following all this however, Clarke had to somehow find the reserves to lift a nation for a challenging few months. There was the emotionally-charged atmosphere of the home test series against India, where many Australian players – most notably David Warner – paid their own heart-felt tributes to their former teammate. Incredibly following such a difficult few weeks, Clarke pulled his team through to win the series 2-0 as they continued their preparations for a World Cup on home soil. Coming into the World Cup, Australia were no longer the overwhelming favourites they had been in previous years, with the likes of India, South Africa and tournament co-hosts New Zealand arguably surpassing them in the ODI pecking order. However, seemingly inspired by their ’16th man’, a young Australian team grew with every passing game, backed by a fervent home support who knew of the importance of supporting players still emotionally exhausted from the events of the past few months. Ironically, Australia produced their best performance of the tournament – sweeping past reigning champions India in a one-sided semi-final – at the same venue where Hughes played his final fateful innings. On the day of the semi-final, it almost seemed that Hughes was there in spirit guiding his nation forward to a shot at the ultimate glory. As Michael Clarke batted Australia towards a fifth title, it was somewhat fitting that Clarke’s heir apparent as captain, Steve Smith, hit the winning runs that took his country over the line against New Zealand. Having dedicated this victory to Hughes, Clarke spoke of the desire from every player within the camp, to take this title in honour of their ’16th man’. It was fitting in many ways that Clarke described him in this way as Hughes was Australia’s ’16th man’ at this World Cup. Hughes was renowned for his aggressive, cavalier style of batting as well as his deep love for the game. After his death, many who knew him came out and spoke about Hughes’ humility and generosity as a human being. So in many ways, Hughes’ legacy will be the tournament itself, with the breathtakingly entertaining brand of cricket along with the wonderful spirit and camaraderie embraced by fans, coming to symbolise everything Phil Hughes, the cricketer and the man stood for, as Australia rose from one of its lowest moments to be reborn as the cricketing force all Australians, including Hughes, have dreamt of.