On one side of Sunday’s upcoming World Cup final is the inevitable. In 50-over cricket, the Australians march on like Darth Vader: more machine now than human, twisted and evil. You could argue that’s overstated, but they do have an imposing relentlessness. After having their world record winning streak of 26 matches broken back in September, Australia immediately set about building the next one. It currently sits at 11, including an unblemished eight wins through this cup campaign. Their semi-final against West Indies was a thrashing.
On the other side of the coin is the unlikely. A few months ago the defending champions were expected to challenge for this prize, but England wobbled through the Ashes like a one-wheeled tricycle, lost their first three World Cup games, then stumbled backwards into two of the wins they needed to make the top four. Their semi-final was against South Africa, a team running hot whose only loss in the tournament was a competitive one against Australia. But when the South Africans dropped Danni Wyatt five times, England’s opener had almost no choice but to make a match-winning century.
However debatable their merit, and however poor their recent years against Australia, England are in the final. The beauty for an underdog is that it only takes one anomaly to take the prize. A core of players have experienced the occasion before. Now that Wyatt has replaced the underperforming Lauren Winfield-Smith, there have been runs through the tournament from most of the batters, though England persist with the delusion that wicketkeeper Amy Jones is doing the job at at five, and that seamer Katherine Brunt is a No 7.
With the bowling, Brunt now operates on reputation more than reality, still talked about on commentary as a speedster when she’s more likely to use back-of-the-hand slower balls. Her new-ball partner Anya Shrubsole looks little like the player who bowled England to victory in 2017, though there were glimpses of that swing and zip in her semi-final spell. With Nat Sciver as the only bowling option in the top six, and Charlie Dean still finding her way, much relies on the class of spinner Sophie Ecclestone and the accuracy of seamer Kate Cross. But the Australians looted Ecclestone for 77 runs last time they met, and Cross for 62. Neither took a wicket.
That’s the thing about Australia. If Alyssa Healy doesn’t get off to a blazing start, like the hundred in her semi-final, then Rachael Haynes will compile 80 to bed down the innings. Or Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry will get together for that partnership that over the years still averages nearly a hundred runs a pop. Failing that, Beth Mooney comes in with the ability to play any role required, fast making the case that she is now the best batter in this team. Ash Gardner floats about waiting for her chance to launch for the fence. Tahlia McGrath is the most improved in the world in the last year and might not get a shot until No 7.
In the unlikely event that Perry’s back spasms keep her out of the final, Annabel Sutherland will slot straight in, an all-rounder who bowled that nerveless spell to save the Ashes Test in Canberra in January. Gardner and McGrath both bowl. Megan Schutt still swings the ball a mile, Darcie Brown fires it down faster than anyone at the tournament, Alana King frightens players differently with leg-spin, and Jess Jonassen’s left-arm darts still have her ranked the second-best bowler in the world.
These are the things that have created such a gulf between the teams as they stand. England shorten their batting lineup to squeeze in an extra bowler and still have an attack with less variety and quality than Australia, who bat down to nine. Where England quickly look short on options when one bowler is taken down, Australia can turn to another, then the next.
Most of all, where England have stuttered and mis-stepped through the last few months, they have looked unsure of themselves on and off the field. The Australians have not. Where England have talked about hoping to come good, Australia have simply been good. Where England have talked about peaking at the right time, Australia have peaked every time. It has been that way from the start of this World Cup, and it will take something very special to stop it continuing right to the end.