For me, it all came down to five overs that cost New Zealand the chance of glory in the ICC Cricket World Cup final. Yes, the start was terrible, and when you are 39/3 against a side as good as Australia then you are always up against it. But Ross Taylor and Grant Elliott then maneuvered the side into a position that you would take in a final every time: 15 overs to go with 150 on the board, seven wickets in hand, two set batsmen, the Powerplay to come and expansive players in Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi to follow.
From that situation you would fancy scoring a minimum of 250 and probably quite a few more, so to lose a wicket to the first ball of that Powerplay was a shattering blow. The wicket of Taylor was the turning point of the match. It negated the Powerplay and when it became two in three deliveries and then three in eight, the Black Caps found themselves in a position from which they never recovered. There may be those who will criticise Brendon McCullum for getting out in the first over after looking to be positive from the outset but I will not be one of them. After all, you cannot have it both ways.
Yes, it was an excellent first over from Mitchell Starc but if the captain had given his side the early initiative – just as he had done on so many occasions earlier in the tournament – then it might have been a different game entirely. McCullum’s approach propelled the side forward throughout the journey to the final and he was lauded for it so you cannot suddenly say he should have played in a different way just because it did not come off this time. I would rather give Australia – and Starc in particular – credit for the way they bowled, but the frustrating thing from a New Zealand perspective is that, having weathered the storm at the top of the innings, it all fell to pieces when a platform had been laid.
My overriding emotions in the immediate aftermath of the match were pride at the way the team performed throughout the tournament as they really have put cricket front and centre again in the country and that is a fantastic achievement. But mingled with that, and putting myself in the minds of those in the dressing room, I also feel disappointed for the players and staff because they will have sat down afterwards knowing they chose the final to put in their worst performance of the past three months, stretching right back to the start of the year and matches ahead of the World Cup against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It is especially sad for Daniel Vettori not to end up with a World Cup winner’s medal after his yeoman service but he did look like he was struggling in the field and was obviously carrying some sort of niggle. And he will still, I am sure, look back at these last few months as an absolute career highlight.
I will also take comfort from the fact that I believe this is the best one-day squad New Zealand has ever produced. The Black Caps now have 15 or 16 players who, under McCullum, have gelled to become an excellent and consistent side. That defeat was their first loss in 11 and only their third in 17 completed One-Day International this year. That is impressive by any standard. In Trent Boult they had one of the outstanding performers of the tournament, Martin Guptill came into his own with two hundreds and his 237 against the West Indies was a highlight of World Cup history, let alone the 2015 edition, Grant Elliott deserves praise for the unflappable way he went about his business, especially in the semi-final and final, and McCullum started brilliantly and always led from the front. Most of the others chipped in and it was a genuine high-quality team effort that took the side to the final.
On that basis, it was New Zealand’s misfortune to come up against an Australia line-up that just got better and better as the tournament went on, but as to whether this is the best Australia World Cup-winning squad ever, that is hard to say. I played against the sides that won three successive tournaments in 1999, 2003 and 2007 and they were all exceptionally strong units with different qualities but I will always take comparisons across eras with a pinch of salt, especially as the game is now evolving so quickly. What I can say with certainty is that this Australia team is a very powerful unit and fully deserves its title as World Cup winners. They play the game at pace, always looking to take it forward rather than sitting back, their quick bowling is aggressive and excellent and they have batting power right down the order.
Having players such as Glenn Maxwell, James Faulkner and Shane Watson nestling in the middle order is a headache waiting to happen for any opposition captain and although, if you were being picky, you could say their openers have not delivered consistently, the moving of Steven Smith to three in the order over the past season has been the final piece in the jigsaw towards this triumph. The way Australia’s squad has come together made me believe beforehand that although I felt New Zealand could win, I also thought the Black Caps would have to play the game of their lives to do so. They came up short in that ambition and while that will be a source of regret for the players it is nothing to be ashamed about. They have put New Zealand cricket on the map and raised awareness of the game and the players both within the country and across the world to new heights. So, while it is sad they could not go that extra mile, the challenge now is to use the experience gained from this campaign to go forward and see this as the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.