For the second successive World Cup the joint hosts will contest the final. Australia against New Zealand, a final of which the organisers might have dreamt once the commercial imperative of India had been taken out of the equation.
Whether it is cricket, or both rugby codes, or indeed any form of competition, there is no stronger rivalry in sport, much as the English like to revere the Ashes. These are the two best teams in the 2015 competition, the one unbeaten, the other beaten only by their final opponents in one of the matches of the tournament. Both are playing cricket in a style that has resurrected the ODI format in the public eye to one in which the thunder of T20 can be incorporated into the terrific narrative that is largely absent from the shortest format but can unfold over 50 overs.
A dispassionate assessment (not easy for an unashamed Kiwi-ophile, who regards the country as a second home) would say that this ought to be Australia’s match. That they have an outstanding team from top to bottom, with destructive batsmen and quality pace bowling, almost goes without saying. This is Australia’s seventh final and they are seeking to take the title for the fourth time in five World Cups: if it is Michael Clarke and Shane Watson alone who played in the last successful final, in Bridgetown eight years ago, then the legacy of that counts for something: unlike their opponents, the Australia team are not heading into uncharted waters.
Then there is the Melbourne Cricket Ground to factor in. Since the last World Cup, Australia have won seven of the eight games they have played there, including the past six: they know it and its vagaries rather well. On the other hand it is six years since New Zealand played there, and won a low-scoring game by six wickets, although six of the team who played in the semi-final against South Africa played in that game too (and a seventh is in the squad) which if nothing else says a deal about continuity when picking from a relatively small pool.
Nonetheless, it is unsurprising to hear that Mike Hesson and Brendon McCullum brought the Black Caps (although not Grant Elliott, here in that team in 2009, at that stage) across the Tasman well before the tournament specifically to visit the ground and experience its magnitude.
This time there will not be the level of passionate support for the Black Caps at the game that quite possibly made the difference between the two sides at Eden Park in the group game. Many supporters who want to get here are finding that available flights are scarce and expensive. But it will be interesting to see whether the organisers’ predictions of a record crowd (topping the 91,000 who made it to the Boxing Day Test against England 15 months ago) materialises: one viewpoint suggests that Indian supporters have purchased significant numbers of tickets in advance and will not now bother to attend, although they are not putting the places up for resale.
Still, the very nature of home advantage will help Australia just as it has done for New Zealand, whose first venture away from their country this will be.
Now we enter the realms of the intangible. To have been a journalist in New Zealand this past couple of weeks, unencumbered by all that went with the presence of the England team, was an exhilarating experience. If the sports sections of the papers in Australia still carry news of the national team, then the World Cup itself has been pushed back to make room for the football codes.
Across the water there was been little but the tournament, increasing as the momentum of the Black Caps has taken them forwards. Cricketers have featured almost every day on front as well as back pages, and many of those inside too. Human-interest stories arise: Elliott unable to attend his sister’s wedding now; Matt Henry thrust straight from domestic cricket into the biggest match his country had played for a quarter of a century, and thriving. The last thing the squad will have seen as they boarded their flight in Auckland were signs saying Go Black Caps. The noise of Eden Park may not be there for the final but the force of the country will be.
So New Zealand cannot be discounted. In each of their previous semi-finals they had been plucky underdogs but not now. They have a team that has been nurtured, carefully constructed, and has a direction. McCullum is without question the most accomplished captain in world cricket, and quite possibly the best I have seen. He is superbly briefed but proactive with it. His brain never takes a breather, but every move is done for a purpose rather than for the sake of it. He attacks constantly, and even if four slips and a gully do not bring the wickets one might expect (not too many slip catches have been taken despite what the field settings might suggest) it is the intent that registers.
His players draw strength from his example, and the confidence he gives them – when Henry came in to the side he gave him attacking fields as he would his other pacemen – filters down. Each plays for the team, and if one fails another has stepped seamlessly into the breach. Even the fact that it was Elliott and Dan Vettori who saw them home in the semi-final tells something of the familial feel to it all: although the insistence is that Elliott was always in the mind, he was not in the original squads, while Vettori came out of international retirement, and got himself fitter than he had ever been, for what will now surely be a fitting finale to the career of the finest left-arm spinner of his time.
This is a mighty Australia team though, swaggering, confident, well-led, and staggeringly well-balanced, with a thumping top order, a young batsman in Steve Smith who is reeling off centuries as if shelling peas, and dynamism in the form of the remarkable Glenn Maxwell, and James Faulkner. The pace bowling overall is superior to that of New Zealand, with three left-armers in the Mitchells, Johnson and Starc, and Faulkner; and the excellent Josh Hazlewood. With the biggest boundaries of the tournament at the MCG, spin is less of a risk, but Maxwell covers that base and with the bat can take a game away from the opposition in a handful of overs in a manner that only McCullum can do from the minute he arrives at the crease.
Man for man, on paper at least, the Australians have the superior side. If both teams play at their maximum, then they will win. Games are not played on paper though, but in the pressure cooker of hopes, dreams and fulfilment. The biggest occasions, carrying with them the greatest level of expectation, can overturn predictions. New Zealand are not in Melbourne to make up the numbers and have more than a fighting chance. What would a cricket and rugby World Cup double do for the sporting prestige of a small nation?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010