Five years ago, Meg Lanning sat in a press conference in the media centre at Derby, barely able to hold back the tears after Australia’s elimination from the 2017 World Cup at the hands of the Harman Monster.
They seemed not to be tears of sadness so much as of disbelief: a woman for whom everything had always gone so right, could barely understand where it had gone so wrong.
A thousand journalist have written a thousand pieces about how Lanning and Australia used that moment to pivot to another level, but it wasn’t clear until today just how high that level was.
Australia’s 356-5 is not the highest total ever made – not by a long stretch – but of the 15 games above it in the all-time list, almost all are horrendous mismatches between a top side and a minnow – England’s own 373-5, against South Africa in the group stages of the 2017 World Cup, being the most glaring exception to prove that particular rule.
But to have made that total in a final, with all the weight of expectation and history upon them, was the pinnacle of all this side has achieved since that day in 2017, including two T20 World Cup wins, and two Ashes triumphs.
No one doubted going into this World Cup that Australia were the best team on the planet, but others had ambition to match them, at least on their day, as India had done when they broke their record 26-match winning streak last September, or New Zealand did in the warm-ups.
But once the competition-proper started, Australia never looked even remotely vulnerable. Their victory against India was a fascinating case-study in how in cricket there can be lies, damned lies, and scorecards. It looks close in the book – Australia winning by 6 wickets with 3 balls remaining – but in reality it was a cakewalk. They might have cut it a little fine, but the end result was never in doubt. Then in the semi-final, they carved up the West Indies – lest we forget, the team that beat them in the World T20 final as recently as 2016.
But still there was hope for England, after they steamrollered South Africa in their semi-final. Their Ashes defeat was ancient history, and they were on a roll with 5 wins on the bounce. It was a long shot… but it was, at least, a shot.
Winning the toss was a bonus for England – they were in control, and they chose to insert Australia. It was a brave decision, but it won’t have been a spur-of-the-moment one – Heather Knight, Lisa Keightley, and the rest of the management team will have given it careful thought and concluded that bowling Australia out and then chasing maybe 250 represented their best chance of winning the game.
It was a gamble, but it didn’t come off as England’s opening bowlers went wicketless in the powerplay once again. Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole have been such a formidable opening partnership for so long now, pulling so may rabbits from so many hats, that it’s hard to remember there was ever any alternative; but the Australians know them too well now. The rabbits have fled the hat, and Alyssa Healy and Rachael Haynes navigated the remaining empty hats with ease. Nat Sciver, who has taken Healy’s wicket 5 times since the last World Cup, was brought on, then Charlie Dean and Sophie Ecclestone had a go… but none could break the opening partnership until very-nearly the 30-over mark, when Haynes finally played a rash shot off Ecclestone and was caught by Tammy Beaumont.
It was a chink of light for England – Australia were only 160, and England could still have wrapped them up for 250 and gone on to win the game. It was the next partnership that killed them. Employing the “left-right-left” tactic, they sent in Beth Mooney ahead of Meg Lanning, and her and Healy proceeded to put on another 156, while England were reduced to the roll of mourners at their own funeral.
Healy’s dismissal with 5 overs remaining was largely academic, as were the 3 additional wickets that fell – Australia could have declared* on 316-2 and England still wouldn’t have won.
And though I’ve been quick to criticise England in the recent past, it wasn’t because they batted particularly badly – they came out and gave it a go. Tammy Beaumont, who has been starting out quite circumspectly of late, hit the gas from the off, as did Heather Knight. Five of England’s top 6 finished with Strike Rates of 100 or more. England were ahead of the worm for almost their entire innings, and the 285 runs they made would have won every other World Cup final in the competition’s history by a country-mile.
On any other day, against any other team, Nat Sciver’s century would have resulted in a winners medal and the Player of the Match award.
Just not on this day, against this Australian team, in this mood.
Because today wasn’t really about England – it was about Australia.
Two years ago at the MCG, in front of 80-thousand people, Alyssa Healy’s 75 off 39 balls blasted Australia into the stratosphere in the T20 World Cup final against India. How do you top that? By scoring 170 off 138 balls in a 50-over World Cup final – that’s how! If Healy’s innings was not the greatest of all time (and I don’t think it quite bettered the Harman Monster, played under more pressure given the match situation when Harmanpreet came in that day in 2017) then it was certainly a close second, and guaranteed her not only Player of the Match, but also Player of the Tournament, after also making a century in the semi-final.
Mooney we’ve already mentioned, but Megan Schutt with two early wickets, and Alana King who broke through Sophia Dunkley and Katherine Brunt to expose England’s tail, both played vital roles; as did Jess Jonassen who cleaned up the tail – catching Charlie Dean, and taking the wickets of Kate Cross and Anya Shrubsole to close-out the game. Australia’s bowling attack has perhaps partly surfed in the wake of their formidable batting line-up recently, but like Bob the Builder, working together they get the job done, and there is no better example of that than the 10 wickets they took today.
Meg Lanning has longed for her Australian team to be considered a “great” team, but there has always been a question mark. Because for all the winning streaks and Ashes and T20 World Cups, they hadn’t won a “proper” 50-over World Cup. Now they have, and no one can argue any more. Australia joined the greats today, and there wasn’t anything England, or anyone else, could have done about it.
* Obviously they couldn’t “legally” have declared, despite what that dog on those ads keeps seeming to suggest! (I’ve no idea what the ads were for, but… cute dog!)