Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne open up on the tense start to their match-winning World Cup final partnership, and how their opposing styles saw it flourish
Aussies' match-winning stand that bloomed after frosty start
Like so many enduring couples, the union between long-time friends Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne that carried Australia to World Cup glory was born amid bickering, blossomed despite their innate differences and ultimately ended amid reverential awe.
The two 29-year-olds, who first crossed paths more than a decade ago when representing their respective States at under-15 level, can rightly be characterised as one of cricket's odder couples.
Head, the languidly talented if sartorially suspect South Australian who sports a bandido's moustache and a renowned thirst for celebration, contrasts sharply with the deeply spiritual, meticulous Queenslander whose idea of a good time is a few spare hours spent in a cricket net.
But when they were thrown together in the middle of the cacophonous Narendra Modi Stadium on Sunday evening with Australia 3-47 in the seventh over and India seemingly surging towards the title that had long seemed their destiny, it was their differences that proved their collective superpower.
As Labuschagne recounted in the wake of their 192-run fourth-wicket stand that took Australia from the edge of a precipice to the cusp of the crown, the reason he and Head were so effective was the fact their batting approaches are polar opposites.
Where the right-hander was immovable, Head was mercurial; while Labuschagne's watertight defence and refusal to play a rash stroke drove the rival bowlers to distraction, the left-hander's imperious but rarely impetuous hitting saw them regularly driven to the boundary rope.
"We pretty much just kept coming to each other in the middle and saying 'you bat like you, I'll bat like me, and we'll be here at the end and we'll win'," Labuschagne revealed after they came within a solitary delivery of achieving precisely that.
"It's almost the perfect pair out there for that sort of scenario – me absorbing the pressure at one end, Heady putting pressure back on at the other.
"We play a beautiful hand because I'm playing such a low-risk game, not letting them in while Heady's taking the game on, putting pressure on them and they feel like they can't escape.
"They can't get a wicket at my end, and Heady is striking the ball beautifully so they're kind of getting punched from both ends.
"We've played a lot with each other.
"We grew up together playing against each other since under-15s and under-19s.
"So I know his game, and just keep giving him confidence – 'keep watching the ball, play one ball at a time' and obviously he played one of the best World Cup knocks you'll see."
But despite their long history and intrinsic understanding of each other's needs and nuances, they are also prone to differences of outlook, a problem that arose before their match-winning partnership had yielded a run.
As Head disclosed after collecting player of the match honours for his 137 off 120 balls, the issue stemmed from the dismissal of Steve Smith – out lbw to the final delivery of Jasprit Bumrah's fourth over – which had brought Labuschagne to the wicket amid escalating crisis.
Upon being struck on the back pad, Smith sought his batting partner's counsel as to whether the umpire's out verdict might be reasonably challenged but Head was unable to provide his former skipper with any certainty.
"It's hard on my angle, my angle of doubt," Head said of the conversation that ultimately led to Smith accepting the verdict and departing the field to cacophonous celebration both on and off the field.
"I got the feeling he was like 'err, what do you think?', and I was like 'well, what do you think?'.
"And I think if Smudge (Smith) ever feels not out, he'll review it."
Head also pointed out his mind was already consumed by his own battle, having struggled to find the middle of the bat as Bumrah and new-ball partner Mohammed Shami gained appreciable swing, and the 10 from 15 balls he'd scored to that moment belied his level of anxiety.
But immediately after Labuschagne's arrival at the crease, as Shami resumed his attack on the left-handed opener, a replay of Smith's wicket was shown on the big screen and confirmed impact had occurred outside the line of off-stump and Smith would have survived if a DRS appeal was lodged.
It soon became obvious to Head that in addition to a couple of relentless India seamers, he also now had to deal with an aggrieved batting partner who couldn't believe his teammates had missed the opportunity to prevent such a key wicket.
"They replayed it straight away, second ball and he (Labuschagne) is down there kicking dirt and shaking his head," recalled Head.
"And Marn (Labuschagne) rides every wave, so I'm looking at the big screen and Marn is shaking his head and blowing up at the other end and we're trying to plan a partnership.
"I don't know if he had issues with me or Smudge.
"So then I was like "I gotta get through this over' because I wasn't batting very well at the start, and I've gotta get through the over then I can tell him that I thought it was plumb.
"And now I'm gonna have him (Labuschagne) up my backside, saying 'why did I tell him (Smith) it was out?'."
Head duly made it through a searching maiden from Shami, then Labuschagne did likewise to an over from Bumrah from which the only runs scored were four byes before the former suddenly struck consecutive boundaries from Shami's next set of six and the game indelibly changed.
That yielded the introduction of spin – left-arm orthodox Ravindra Jadeja and left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav – from either end, and runs began to flow, albeit at a trickle.
The duo's 50 stand arrived in the 19th over, and soon after Head notched his half-century from 58 balls faced while Labuschagne remained resolutely unbeaten on 18 off 43.
As Head found his range and loomed as India's danger man as had been the case in this year's World Test Championship final where he thrashed 163 off 174 deliveries, Labuschagne benefited from India's bowlers straining to find wicket balls aimed at the batter they considered more vulnerable.
Come the mid-point of their pursuit, Australia's pairing had narrowed the target to barely 100; ten overs later, it had dropped below 50.
By that stage Head had reached a century, celebrating the moment with an extravagant waving gesture aimed at the Australia dug-out which took its inspiration from the dismissive flick he had offered South Africa's Heinrich Klaasen upon flattening his stumps at a key moment in the preceding semi-final.
"I just had a shocker the other day with Klaasen, he smacked me for a couple of fours and it was somewhat of a 'see you later'," Head explained of the effete hand wave he would subsequently aim at the team bench in the final before it was reciprocated by his beaming colleagues.
"And I know that's not me … that's not how I play the game.
"I've never been too heavily invested to give any send-offs, so it was very out of character.
"And the boys have been into me about it for the last couple of days, about giving him the send-off, so I thought I likened it to (the trademark action of Australian techno DJ) Fisher a little bit with the hand flicks, so I thought we'd have a bit of a laugh about it."
It was as forgotten seamer Mohammed Siraj prepared to begin what proved to be the ultimate over, with the pair still in occupation and Australia just 10 runs from victory, that Head confided in his partner he planned to finish the game inside those six deliveries.
But having rifled a pull shot through mid-wicket for two, then flayed an inside-out drive to the extra cover boundary, Head slammed another attempted bouncer to the on-side and picked out the sole fielder (Shubman Gill) in front of the wicket on that part of the ground.
As he walked off to near silence from the shocked and already grieving crowd that had thinned appreciably, Labuschagne decided such an audaciously historic innings should not pass unrecognised and walked behind his mate providing his own standing ovation.
"I really wish he was out there for the for the finish, but it was an amazing knock," Labuschagne said after Glenn Maxwell sealed victory from the sole delivery he faced, thereby honouring Head's pledge for the target to be reached in that Siraj over.
"And with two to win and just have him walk off, the standing ovation was required because it was such a special innings.
"Just being out there being part of one of the most special innings in World Cup cricket, from the other end … it was an emotional moment because I just can't believe how it's all unfolded."
So assured had the long-time friends become as the once-distant target grew ever smaller, Head admits he allowed himself to ponder not only how much he planned to enjoy victory celebrations over ensuing days, but also the prospect of winners' reunions in 10 and 20 years' time.
Those thoughts were partly prompted by the sight of Geoff 'Swampy' Marsh – 1987 World Cup winner and father of Mitchell – among an Australian supporters tour group in the crowd at Modi Stadium.
And he's also reminded of the brotherhood forged among trophy-winning groups from earlier generations by the regular appearance of former greats in the Australia dressing room, and his SA teammate Jake Lehmann's penchant for wearing the World Cup victory rings presented to his dad and two-time winner, Darren.
"I haven't had much success in my career," Head said.
"This year has been huge with the Test Championship, but I missed out on the 2019 World Cup last time, 12 months out finding myself out of the team.
"And I've been in the dressing room when the guys from the '80s come through, and the reunions that come through from the past, and you see that bond.
"So I'm looking forward to the next two or three days, and looking forward to the 10-year and 20-year reunions.
"I'm gonna enjoy it."
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