The 2015 World Cup was being hailed as the saviour of one day international cricket by the time the quarter-final places were settled. That first month of the tournament had seen regular close finishes, control of other games swinging dramatically from one team to the other (and occasionally back again). The associates had shown themselves to be competitive, with Afghanistan snatching a victory against Sri Lanka, who bizarrely opted to rest Jayawardene on a day his calm batting could have made the difference.
There were stories of renewal: the West Indies, four months after leaving India mid-series, their players and Board in dispute, dealt their erstwhile hosts a further snubbing with one of the most comfortable victories of the group stage. For India, this was a solitary defeat of a strong opening phase.
Alastair Cook also found vindication leading England to a record five World Cup victories on the trot, as well as being leading run scorer for his country. Defeat to India in the quarter-finals left England’s performance indeterminate – not poor enough to require a clear out, nor strong enough to dispel doubts.
Amidst the drama and excitement, Australia exuded a sense of calm and purpose. Wickets taken, their batsmen reaching milestones, even victories were greeted with handshakes, slaps on the back and simple acknowledgements to the crowd. There were no extravagant celebrations or reveling in the misfortune of opponents. They approached the tournament as a campaign, conserving energy, pacing themselves and, of course, bearing the burden of the loss of Philip Hughes.
India, who had already shown unexpected toughness in the Test series in Australia that preceded the World Cup, looked Australia’s most likely adversaries. Their semi-final opponents, Pakistan, had played scrappy, wasteful cricket. Somehow they wrought disorder on India’s smooth progression and in a tight game of mini-collapses and lower order rallies, Pakistan were in their element and squeezed into the final.
The following day, in the other semi-final, Australia neutered South Africa. Michael Clarke played that match – the first time in the tournament he had appeared in consecutive Australian fixtures. His back, his hamstring and his energy levels needed to be managed. By playing alternate matches in the group stage, Clarke was kept in one piece for the knockouts.
Australia faced Pakistan in the 49th match on the 43rd day of the tournament. Pakistan batted first. A steady start was on the verge of spectacular acceleration as Misbah launched an assault reminiscent of his innings in the 2nd Test against Australia in November. Only five months ago, but feeling to Australians to belong to a different era. But it wasn’t to be a throwback as Misbah slipped, aiming for a fifth six, and buckled the stumps with his back leg to be out for a rapid 46. The innings closed on 282 – a total that Australia had exceeded four times already in the tournament, although never needing that many when chasing.
Warner and Finch opened with a partnership of intense, high-energy cricket. Seeking to score off every ball, but not with their characteristic boundary-clearing shots, they upset Pakistan’s calculations. By the 15th over, the score was 90 when Finch, finally challenging the boundary fielder, was caught off a lofted pull.
The bowler was Saeed Ajmal. The off-spinner was a major focus of pre-tournament conjecture. His new action had been cleared by the ICC in the weeks leading up to the tournament. His team’s own misgivings about the impact of that change were apparent when he didn’t make the eleven for Pakistan’s first two matches. But thereafter, he settled into a groove that made him the most economical bowler at the tournament. Ajmal limited himself to off-breaks and arm-balls, but batsmen, if no longer mystified by his variations, couldn’t find a method to collar him.
Finch’s dismissal derailed the innings. Over the next twenty overs, Australia lost another six wickets while runs were extracted painfully. Misbah made manifold bowling changes, seeming to disorientate the Australian batsmen. The most dizzy and out of sorts of all, was the skipper Clarke. Yet, he had enough tenacity to hold onto his wicket. If he was hoping for calmer times, harmony wasn’t to be his saviour. Instead it came in the form of a James Faulkner hurricane.
Hitherto in the tournament, Australia’s serene progress had meant Faulkner’s muscular batting was always kept in reserve. But at the Final, with his team finally knocked off its axis, he had license to let rip. Faulkner hit more boundaries in three overs than his side had in the previous 35. Ajmal was mauled with three successive slog-swept sixes. Faulkner found the freedom, which had eluded all batsmen in the tournament so far, to clobber the Pakistani spinner.
With only three wickets in hand and fifty still needed off seven overs, Clarke called for steadiness from Faulkner and took the lead role as they stepped down from the latter’s assault to a more measured and calculated approach.
Into the final over and Australia required eight runs to win. Misbah brought back Saeed Ajmal. Faulkner erupted onto the second delivery. Flat batted and batted flat it hurtled between two legside boundary fielders for a four. One of the required four runs came the next ball with an under-edge sweep to short fine leg. Michael Clarke was now on strike.
Ball four, Clarke shimmied outside leg and met the ball on the half-volley. He drilled the drive straight in the direction of the long-off boundary, but with one obstacle in its way. Ajmal’s left wrist took the blow and intercepted the ball, knocking it to the ground, where the bowler pounced and stayed down until the physio appeared next to him to apply analgesic spray.
Ball five was the inside edge mishit that wins so many matches, but not this one as Clarke’s left ankle deflected the ball bobbling past his leg stump and through to Sarfraz Ahmed.
Clarke and Faulkner met mid-pitch, perhaps hoping to drift inconspicuously to each other’s station. Pakistani players, led by Misbah converged on Ajmal, who turned his back and waved away his teammates. Misbah, arms outstretched, face contorted, begged his bowler’s attention. Ajmal was full of quiet rebellion.
Clarke returned to the crease. He marked his guard, then stepped away, looked up into the ring of night sky framed by the MCG stands, inhaled and readied himself.
Ajmal stood thirty yards away, flexing his left wrist, bruised or worse by Clarke’s drive and flicking the ball with his bowling hand. The Pakistani fielders had retreated to their positions, shifted this way and that by their captain, but ignored, thought irrelevant by Ajmal.
Umpire Llong looked over his shoulder and mouthed ‘play’ to the bowler. Ajmal shuffled to the wicket. As he entered his delivery stride, Clarke stepped lightly across his stumps and his left foot began to stretch forward. Ajmal pitched his torso back, appearing to hesitate for a moment with his right hand lost to the batsmen’s view at the base of his spine. Lithe and loose his arm rotated upward, propelling the ball towards Clarke, who had lowered his body behind his front pad. The Australian’s bat swung from the off-side to fetch the ball heading for his off-stump. As the bat swept through its arc, the ball dipped. It pitched in line with Clarke’s intended point of contact. The bat’s true swing intercepted the trajectory of the ball’s travel, but the ball deviated left from the pitch, passing through to Sarfraz who parried the ball to the ground with his right glove.
Clarke, choosing to play a shot on one knee was left bowed at the moment of defeat. Ajmal raised his arms above his head, taking his turn to gaze at the Melbourne night sky. Sarfraz stood looking at the ball on the ground, two foot outside off-stump. Faulkner gesticulated, flexing his arm at Umpire Llong, who looked across at his colleague Dharmasena, seeking an answer. Llong moved his hand to his earpiece, where off-field assistance could be found, then lowered it again and carefully lifted the bails from the stumps. Clarke and Faulkner slumped. Misbah, in an echo of his bowler’s action seconds before, hesitated as he began to run to Ajmal, then pitched forwards to acclaim his bowler and banish doubt in Pakistan’s triumph.