Josh Hazlewood's new-ball attack rattled India in their group stage clash and he again looms key in Sunday's final
'We know the blueprint': Aussies eye India showdown
With a flawless record in their home World Cup campaign to date, India looms as the irresistible force in Sunday's final but Australia seamer Josh Hazlewood believes his team found a few flaws in the raging favourites' batting line-up when they met early in the tournament.
The previous encounter between the finalists resulted in a comfortable win for India at Chennai, where an unbeaten 97 from KL Rahul and Virat Kohli's 85 saw the hosts chase down a below-par target of 200 with almost nine overs to spare.
However, India were forced to recover from a nightmare start when openers Rohit Sharma and Ishan Kishan (filling in for injured Shubman Gill) both departed for ducks, as did No.4 Shreyas Iyer as they slumped to 3-2 inside the first two overs.
Hazlewood claimed two of those scalps – skipper Rohit pinned lbw, and Shreyas caught at short cover – and admits that while India's subsequent form suggests they have no weaknesses in their all-round outfit, the stumble at the start of that game gives Australia cause for hope.
"I think they're all across the board really," Hazlewood said in the wake of Australia's semi-final win over South Africa at Kolkata when asked about undefeated India's strengths heading into the decider.
"They've got good quicks, good spinners, good batters so they're ticking every box.
"I guess we saw a few cracks when we played them in Chennai chasing a small target, we were lucky enough to get a couple early.
"But there's no real weaknesses as we've seen."
While mystery surrounds the nature of whichever surface is chosen for the final at Ahmedabad, the character of the pitch for yesterday's semi-final at Eden Gardens that offered movement for the seamers early before taking spin during Australia's chase could prove ideal preparation.
Hazlewood noted the impact of South Africa spin pair Tabraiz Shamsi (2-42) and Keshav Maharaj (1-24 off 10 overs) that offered Australia's middle-order invaluable experience ahead of match-ups against the similar skills set of India's Kuldeep Yadav (left-arm wrist spin) and Ravindra Jadeja (left-arm orthodox).
The hard-fought three-wicket win over the Proteas provided a further fillip for the five-times ODI World Cup champions who will be competing in their eighth final because it was set up by a stunning new-ball spell from Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc that reduced South Africa to 4-24.
"It's huge, and the bigger the game the more important it becomes," Hazlewood said of the significance of landing the first blow(s) in a knockout fixture.
"We spoke about that, we seem to start really well with the ball when we're bowling second, probably more so than bowling first.
"So there was a big emphasis on that tonight.
"We talked about (Wednesday) in a meeting and jumped out of the blocks firing tonight, which was very pleasing.
"So we know the blueprint now if we're bowling first, and hopefully go again on Sunday.
"I guess that's the beauty of having so many grounds in one country that - from north to south, east to west – they're all a little bit different.
"You adapt your bowling, adapt your batting to those conditions and we saw tonight it really spun and for us it nipped around early.
"We played England at Ahmedabad and the wicket was pretty good without being an absolute flat track, so I expect probably something similar to that."
If the track for Sunday's final at Narendra Modi Stadium remains an unknown, at least until the Australia squad arrives in Ahmedabad later today, the same can't be said of their rival playing XI as India chase their third ODI World Cup (having won in 1983 and 2011).
The two teams squared off in a four-Test series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy earlier this year (which India won 2-1) then the ICC World Test Championship final at The Oval where Australia triumphed by 209 runs last June.
In the more directly applicable white-ball arena, the rivals also warmed up for the current World Cup with a pair of three-game bilateral contests in India held in March and September that yielded each side three wins apiece.
In addition, a number of the Australia squad have gained vast experience playing limited-overs cricket in subcontinent conditions through their involvement with the Indian Premier League.
There is even a similarity in the bowling approach taken by the respective finalists throughout this tournament, with India's bowling spearheaded by the pace-bowling trio of Mohammed Shami (leading wicket taker with 23 at 9.1 from just six matches), Jasprit Bumrah (18 at 18.3) and Mohammed Siraj (13 at 32.6).
Despite India's reputation for producing spin-friendly conditions, Australia has also built their attack around three quicks with Hazlewood and skipper Pat Cummins playing every match to date in this campaign while Starc was rested only for the final group match against Bangladesh.
Hazlewood revealed he had expected Australia's selectors to stick with the same bowling attack throughout the World Cup even though conditions during the tournament have often been oppressive with occasionally short turnarounds between games, such as the two days separating Australia's semi-final from the decider.
"We've certainly got to trust with each other, and I think the coaching and selectors have got a trust with us as well," Hazlewood said of the fast-bowling triumvirate that leads Australia's attack across all three formats.
"We've been around the block a few times now, and we've seen that with India apart from that one game against us they've played three quicks for the majority as well and they've been outstanding.
"So we know it can be done, we've seen them do it and we've been here a lot of times now so we know how to bowl in these conditions."
The other area in which Australia can claim perhaps greater experience than their more-fancied rivals is in delivering on the big stage when it comes to tournament deciders.
While the World Test Championship play-off represented vastly different conditions and circumstances, Australia dominated that encounter from day one when Travis Head and Steve Smith peeled off centuries.
Of greater relevance is the 2022 T20 World Cup played in the UAE, where Australia entered the tournament as something of an outside hope only to storm home and claim the trophy with a bulk of their current ODI squad involved.
Cummins' team was similarly discounted early in this campaign when they lost their opening matches to India and South Africa but have since won eight games on the bounce to carry a quiet confidence into Sunday's decider despite India's seeming impregnability.
"I think not shying away from your natural game, or from taking the game on," Hazlewood said when asked the key to Australia's habit of peaking at the right time in tournament play.
"Have confidence in what got you to this point, and we just seem to keep building and building and building and keep getting better every game.
"I think other teams probably may not have the same confidence when it comes to the big games.
"Whether we're sort of leaning on the success of Australia previously, not that it gives us a free hit but it gives us a lot more confidence in the big games to show what we always do all the way through, and do it in big games as well.
"It's always nice to have a few trophies in the cabinet to lean on, for that confidence and know that it that actually works.
"So it's as simple as that, just sticking to the basics and playing well on the night."
And there's perhaps no better example of that assuredness than Australia's plans for pre-final preparation that seem more likely to include a round of golf in Ahmedabad on Saturday rather than one more nets session.
"We'll have a travel day (today) and probably play golf on the Saturday I reckon before the game and then turn up Sunday for the game," Hazlewood said of his team's low-key build-up noting it was on a golf course in Ahmedabad that allrounder Glenn Maxwell suffered a freak mishap falling from a golf cart.
"It's been pretty similar the whole way through, I've been lucky enough to get out and have a bit of a hit (of golf) occasionally which has been good.
"But we might walk the 18, I think."
2023 ODI World Cup Finals
First semi-final: India beat New Zealand by 70 runs
Second semi-final: Australia beat South Africa by three wickets