No team, apart from West Indies in the early editions of the World Cup, has dominated the tournament quite like Australia did over two editions: 2003 and 2007. Australia fans may add 1999 there, but that’s not quite fair.
In 1999, Australia were hardly all-conquering in ODIs. They could have crashed out of the tournament any number of times. That they didn’t, of course, is a testament to their resolve and ability. But were they the best team in the world then? Hard to say. South Africa must feel they were as good.
Ditto for 1987, when Australia won the World Cup for the first time, against all calculations. But win they did, in 1987 and in 1999, and then in 2003 and 2007, twice more than West Indies and India have.
1987: The out-of-turn champions
Allan Border had taken charge of the Australian team at possibly the worst time, quality-wise, in their history, in 1984-85 after Kim Hughes’s tear-drenched resignation. Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rodney Marsh had retired and a number of players were serving bans for having toured South Africa. The squad wasn’t the best, and through 1985-86, the losses piled up. So bad was the situation that Border even threatened to resign. That he didn’t was because the Australian Cricket Board (later Cricket Australia) staunchly backed him, and they brought in Bob Simpson as the team’s coach to help Border along.
The Border-Simpson association started well with the tied Test in Chennai, part of the drawn series in India, but the Ashes loss pushed Australia back again.
So, when they went to the subcontinent for the 1987 Reliance World Cup, it wasn’t with a lot of hope. Still, they won.
The team certainly had the personnel – David Boon and Geoff Marsh, the openers, scored 447 and 428 runs respectively, Dean Jones scored 314, and Mike Veletta, down the order, pitched in with crucial knocks. Then there were the young allrounders – Steve Waugh and Simon O’Donnell – who added key runs and picked up important wickets.
And Craig McDermott, who topped the charts with 18 wickets. There also was on display a trait that we have come to see, in big matches over the years, as quintessentially Australian: Winning key moments. In the first match of the tournament they played, for example, India were well on course to chasing down the 271-run target till, right at the close, Australia effected two run-outs and Waugh went past Maninder Singh’s defences to clinch an unlikely one-run win. The final, then, when Border brought himself on and got Mike Gatting to reverse sweep a catch to Greg Dyer behind the wickets is another case in point.
Luck, yes, sure. Pluck too.
And we had the second of three successive unlikely champions of the World Cup, sandwiched between India in 1983 and Pakistan in 1992.
1999: Summit after teetering on the cliff-edge
True, Pakistan emerged out of nowhere to win the 1992 World Cup, but Australia’s entry into the final of the 1999 tournament was just as unexpected.
To start with, after beating Scotland, Australia slipped to a five-wicket loss to New Zealand and then a ten-run loss to Pakistan. The format of the World Cup worked in their favour, with wins over Bangladesh and West Indies enough to take them into the Super Sixes, but it was still a bit sticky for them.
So, when it came to the last Super Sixes game, Australia had to beat South Africa. That’s when we had the ‘You just dropped the World Cup, mate’ moment, and Australia were in the semifinals, where they met South Africa again. The match was tied as South Africa messed things up in the last over – the birth of the C-word – and Australia, having won the earlier game between the two sides, went through to the final, where Pakistan were made to wipe the floor in an eight-wicket result.
It was the start of the Australian domination, but hardly the stuff of world champions. More than once in the group stage, then in the Super Sixes when Herschelle Gibbs dropped Waugh, and then in the semifinal when Allan Donald ran himself out so mindlessly, Australia survived because of huge slices of luck.
Yet, luck alone cannot help a team win seven matches in a row.
Geoff Marsh, the coach at the time, has been credited widely for scripting the turnaround, despite being away in the back room. The entire batting order came to the party at different stages – Steve Waugh the champion among them with 398 runs, including that unbeaten 120 that took Australia to the semifinals. And there was the Shane Warne-Glenn McGrath combine, which ended with 38 wickets.
The core of a fantastic one-day unit was clearly taking shape.
2003: The team that won everything
Ricky Ponting and John Buchanan inherited the team Steve Waugh and Geoff Marsh had built. Marsh had quit soon after the 1999 World Cup, and Waugh played a big part in Buchanan coming in as his replacement in spite of little first-class experience as a cricketer. There was a fair bit of criticism then, but Waugh liked the quiet worker. Buchanan went on to oversee a glorious run for Australian cricket.
Then again, how could anyone really go wrong with Gilchrist, Hayden, Ponting, Martyn, Lehmann, Bevan, Symonds, Hogg, Bichel, Lee and McGrath? Remember that withdrawn from that 2003 squad for various reasons were Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie and Shane Watson.
That winning run, of seven games that had started in 1999 stretched to 18 by March 23, 2003, as Australia won all their games, the two-wicket win over England with two balls to spare the only time they had been stretched.
Warne might have said then, and later, that the role of a coach was only to ferry players from the hotel to the ground, but Buchanan, by all accounts, played a key role in that team becoming as good as it was. He need not have bothered about talent and skills, and he didn’t, but he, quietly, did the one thing a team of champion players needed so desperately: Managing the men; ‘man management’, a term that wasn’t even in the cricket lexicon till Buchanan, and his laptop, hit the scene.
2007: Ponting’s Invincibles
The sequence of wins went from 18 to 30 in a bit of blur as Australia again won every single match they played in the Caribbean in the 2007 World Cup – three in the group stages, seven in the Super Eights, and then the semifinal and the final.
The squad had changed, but only a tad, and the changes only seemed to make the unit stronger – Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke among the men to have made the step up in the four-year gap. As in 2003, in 2007 too, Australia were a league or two ahead of the next best, so far ahead of the pack that they were, really, No. 1 in a field of one.
Like Clive Lloyd’s West Indians of the 1975 and 1979, Ricky Ponting’s Australians were the best cricket team in the world in both formats in 2003 and 2007. They had the best opening batsmen in the world in Hayden-Langer (Tests) and Hayden-Gilchrist (ODIs), the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world in Gilchrist, a top-notch middle order with Ponting as the pivot around which everything revolved, the best spin bowler in the world, Warne, and the McGrath-led pace attack that was the envy of the rest of the world.
When it comes to a squad that good, the trick is probably in ensuring there are no ego clashes or mistakes. Really, what else do you need? Injury management, maybe. And suchlike stuff. Nothing a professional set-up can’t address.
Twice they won the World Cup when they weren’t anybody’s favourites, and twice they won when there were no other favourites. At their best or not, it’s impossible to count out Australia among the top favourites in 2015 – played at home, even if they flopped so miserably the last time the World Cup was played Down Under, in 1992.
They are, after all, the winningest team in World Cup history, and a team that knows how to win can always be counted upon to dig just that bit deeper, find just that one extra man to put his hand up, create a moment of magic from somewhere … strut their stuff on the biggest stage of them all.