The Guardian

Australia embrace underdogs tag at India’s thunderdome

The five-time winners have recovered after a difficult start to the competition but their toughest test awaits

Ali Martin Ahmedabad World Cup final

After two wildly contrasting World Cup semi-finals in the traditional centres of Mumbai and Kolkata comes the grand finale at the ground that India’s board – and its government, certainly – hopes will become the beating heart of cricket in the country.

Since its £80m construction three years ago, the hulking saffron-seated thunderdome that is Ahmedabad’s Narendra Modi Stadium has staged two Indian Premier League finals, three Test matches and, among its four fixtures so far in this global tournament, seen arch-rivals Pakistan swatted aside by Rohit Sharma’s poster boys.

But, to the outsider at least, it feels affection for it among India’s cricketing public is yet to truly take root and certainly pales in comparison with the likes of the Wankhede Stadium, Eden Gardens or Bengaluru’s Chinnaswamy Stadium. Tomorrow, with a six-figure full house expected, could nudge things a fair bit here provided Sharma’s currently unbeaten Indian machine doesn’t malfunction.

The most common question during this World Cup has probably been whether any team can prevent India fulfilling what appears their destiny. It requires the suppression of a batting lineup that is now averaging 61 runs per wicket, 18 clear of the next best in New Zealand. And in turn, this side’s batters will have to prevail against a mouthwatering masala of pace, swing, seam movement and spin, both traditional and unorthodox.

Well, if there is an answer other than simply “er, no one” it can now only be Australia. Yesterday afternoon Pat Cummins and his players – plus a small army of support staff – cruised through a sea of camera phones at Kolkata airport, next stop Ahmedabad. They looked pretty chipper after the three-wicket win over South Africa the night before, one set up by a fabulous, Test-standard new-ball burst from Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. Australia are a popular bunch in these parts, with Glenn Maxwell the most common name among the knock-off, non-india shirts in the stands. David Warner is very much the favourite on the boundary’s edge, however, after carefully, slightly unctuously cultivating his own Indian fanbase over the years. The Hollies Stand it has very much not been, even if the love for the 37-year-old’s dancing may be briefly paused this weekend.

And as confident and form-rich as India’s players appear, there can be no complacency here. For one, Australia have already given the hosts a bloody nose, reducing them to an alarming two for three in their tournament opener in Chennai (even if Virat Kohli and KL Rahul doused those particular flames for a comfortable win). And then there is that innate, enviable Australian trait: the kangaroo that starts boxing come the knockouts.

In England, even considering this year’s seventh-placed flunk, a pioneering white-ball generation which won the 50-over World Cup in 2019 and then united this with the T20 belt last year has been rightly lauded. But should Cummins and co poop the party this weekend and take the trophy, it will be a third in limited-overs cricket for the core of the current set-up after the 2015 World Cup and its T20 equivalent in 2021.

And though the second of those titles came with a fair few sideways glances about the influence of the toss in the United Arab Emirates, going all the way here would have no such asterisk. Having avenged the early loss to South Africa at Eden Gardens this week, beating India would mean Australia having overcome all nine teams along the way.

Rewind to the start and this possibility looked remote. Australia lost their opening two games, dropped their wicketkeeper after the first and, with Adam Zampa struggling as the lone frontline spinner, the mood was foreboding. And yet what seemed an imperfect side for subcontinental conditions has grown, be it through Warner and Travis Head’s powerplay pyrotechnics, Zampa’s 22 pelts, or fielding standards that have been elite.

Considering 2023 has seen a good number play four Tests in India, a Test final and an intense five-match Ashes series in England, and then take on a two-month World Cup tour, starting with warm-ups in late September, this speaks volumes about their mental fortitude. Nasser Hussain was recently lampooned in Australia for stating England were tired; a less febrile reaction would have been to realise what this actually said about their own men.

The final leg looks by far the toughest. This mighty India side will have a wall of sound behind them at the Narendra Modi Stadium, such that Australia are a weird mix of playing their eighth World Cup final, eyeing their sixth title, and yet the underdogs. Deny the ground its intended place in folklore and there is a case to say it would top the lot.

As confident and form-rich as the hosts’ players appear, there can be no complacency