Travis, the Head-line maker for Australia's moment of glory
The opener smashed 137 to hand India a heartbreak in front of 92, 453 fans as Australia won its sixth Cricket World Cup title.
AHMEDABAD: Out of all the things India had done at this World Cup, the thing that spread the most joy was the way they picked up the wickets. Batters were almost always uneasy. Stumps were flattened. They managed to catch the opposition out cold in swinging conditions. Accomplished middle-orders were made to look like raffle winners. Experienced match-winners in the top five lasted fewer than six balls.
It was ironic, then, that the last wicket they picked up at the World Cup saw no celebration from the players. There was a cursory handshake between a few of them but the faces were glum. They had long given up the ghost. The collective dreams of 15 men had evaporated into the distance long before nightfall when Travis Head's pull was pouched by Shubman Gill off Mohammed Siraj.
The damage had already been done. Head, who was a doubt for this event, survived the early spell before unleashing a counterpunch for the ages. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Across six weeks and 10 games, this Indian team had been pure theatre. Fifteen men had reduced sport to its barest but truest essence. Fun. Watching cricket was cool. They had made it that way. In this journey of theirs which began in Chennai, they had won over scores of fans, including casuals. 50-over cricket was allegedly on life support when the World Cup began. When the final had rolled around, they had infused it with so much oxygen the format was alive and kicking (even if temporary).
And, so, on to the 11th.
When the Sun rose in the city, it was hard to miss what this occasion meant to a nation that allows this sport to dictate their emotional state of being. An India win? Hook that dopamine straight to the veins. A loss? A don't disturb tag for a few days. Fans had started walking into cafes as early as 9.00 AM. By 11.00 AM, they were making their way to the Stadium. Via RTO circle, through Motera Road where the turnstiles awaited them. Even if the mercury said 30*c, the in-ground temperature was several notches higher. People were profusely sweating for a good two hours to go.
Once the festivities were done — an Indian Air Force (AIF) Airshow after the toss — it was time for an overly affable build-up to get serious. It got serious in no time as Rohit Sharma, as he has done throughout this tournament, danced down to Josh Hazlewood off the second over. He was intent on taking on both pacers and soon enough, the hosts, who were asked to bat, had the start they were looking for. Gill had departed but Rohit had forced Pat Cummins into two early bowling changes. Both changes paid dividends as Maxwell and the skipper himself removed Rohit and Shreyas Iyer.
On a strip where run-scoring became harder as the innings wore on — Australia and Head, in particular, found it easier as the dew made its presence felt — Rahul and Kohli found it hard to force the pace. They have a template for run-scoring which may appear passive but on Sunday, they found it hard. A gun bowling attack, led by Cummins, was on the money. Whenever they found the gaps, fielders found an extra set of legs to cut out the boundary.
They found the going so hard the partnership was worth 95 balls before they hit the first boundary. By the time the 40th over had come around (both Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja had lost their wickets by this point), there were only two boundaries off the last 180 balls. Till this point, India had played the middle overs expertly. On Sunday, they were in dangerous territory. In the end, the innings spluttered and stumbled to 240, a run rate of just 4 over the last 40 overs. Was it going to be enough? South Africa (129), Sri Lanka (55) and South Africa (83) had combined to make 267. However, 30 minutes in and this wasn't going to be that type of a contest.
They had lost both David Warner and Mitchell Marsh but the scoreboard said 2/41 after 4.3 overs. Soon, Steve Smith was trapped by a magic Jasprit Bumrah delivery. At the other end, Head, who had played and missed a number of balls like he had done against the same team on a slightly murky morning in the final of the World Test Championship in July, was growing in confidence. Some batters may let these things affect them. Not the southpaw, who had only recovered from a fractured hand a few weeks ago. For him, every ball is a new event, unconnected to the past.
Consecutive boundaries off Mohammed Shami, who had opened the bowling at the expense of Mohammed Siraj, bookended the powerplay. 3/60 after 10 overs. Ominous signs. With Labuschagne holding one end up, Head's role was simple. Play the aggressor, something he loves to do. The first time he did that was to Kuldeep Yadav when he went down on one knee before launching him over cow corner. He had had enough of playing the situation. There was a final to win. And with there being no seam movement off the wicket, he decided to play the percentages.
A few overs later, Shami was dispatched straight down the ground. It was audacity personified. When it really turned was how he hit Bumrah for three fours in one over. From 44 off 54, he had rattled along to 100 off 95 balls. He wasn't there at the end but it didn't matter. He had begun India's slide in the first innings by taking that fine running catch to remove Rohit.
He ended it long before he left the scene.