ICC Men's ODI World Cup 2019
Cup dream appears for revamped Finch
A detailed look at the renaissance of Australia and their captain across a fascinating 12 months of ODI cricket
19 May 2019, 04:48 PM AEST
Before Aaron Finch could contemplate standing before the world to accept international men's cricket's most celebrated tournament trophy, he first had to get up in front of his teammates in a moment as heartfelt as it was humbling.
On a Melbourne spring evening so damp and chill that some India fielders had donned woollen beanies, Finch felt compelled to address his Australia teammates when rain prematurely ended their T20 International but not before their skipper had registered a first-ball duck.
It was the latest failure in a string of sub-par returns – the opener had aggregated 96 runs at an average of less than 10 in ODI and T20I matches during the preceding month – and the team was similarly bereft with three victories from 10 white-ball games.
So in the windowless, soulless basement at the MCG, as bags were packed and heads were bowed, Finch took it upon himself to address the issue that had become the elephant in the dressing room.
"We had a quick meeting after the game, and I apologised to the team," Finch told cricket.com.au before his 15-man squad embarked on their World Cup defence in the UK.
"I said 'I'm sorry boys, I'm trying my hardest but I just can't get any runs'."
In less enlightened times, displays of such vulnerability in the overtly alpha setting of the Australia men's cricket team's inner sanctum might have elicited howls of derision, even the risk of outright ostracism.
But such is the respect the 32-year-old has earned as skipper and the camaraderie that has developed during his tenure, he claims his abject honesty yielded nothing but support.
And that, in turn, was instrumental in the changed fortunes that ensued, both individually and collectively.
When Finch repaid that faith with a drought-breaking 93 against India at Ranchi 15 weeks later, an innings that spawned a spree of big scores and eight consecutive wins for his previously maligned outfit, the joy that swept over him was almost overwhelming.
"That was really exciting for me, it meant so much to see how happy others were for me to get some runs," he said.
"The lessons that I learned and the support that I got from players and everyone was unbelievable, and it really makes you think about the care that there is for the individual player."
Not for a moment, however, does Finch believe it was a diet of warm-fuzzies or group hugs that turned things around to the extent that a team considered rank outsiders for the World Cup earlier this year is now being eyed as a genuine threat.
Rather, it's been a series of subtle tweaks and the occasional bluntly delivered home truths that have re-moulded the group since it emerged in the shadow of the ball-tampering scandal in mid-2018.
Finch admits there were "a few scars" noticeable among the members of that ODI outfit who had been involved in the preceding South Africa Test campaign, and that it took the new-look squad a while to find its feet given the volatility that came to engulf Australian cricket.
But from a forgettable five-nil drubbing at the hands of white-hot Cup favourites England a year ago, Australia's ODI team identified some shortfalls in their preparation and execution and slowly set about redressing them.
It's a process that began in the earliest training sessions run by Justin Langer after he took up his appointment as coach last May, but which took the best part of a year to deliver tangible results.
The turnaround partly stems from some of the structures that have been employed at practice.
In addition to focusing on fitness and fielding drills, Langer saw the struggles that Australia's ODI batters were facing against spin bowling through the middle-overs of ODI matches.
He then challenged the team's batting coach Graeme Hick and spin-bowling consultant Sridharan Sriram to sit down with him and tailor a solution.
The drills they devised in conjunction not only provided the reference points batters needed to make the requisite changes under the pressure of match situations, the results they eventually brought lifted confidence that fuelled individual and team results.
The inclusion of specialist wrist spinners from India and the UAE in the training group for Australia's Tests against Pakistan in September last year also helped batters formulate better plans to cope with the threat of spin in the limited-overs arena.
"We recognised – and statistically, no-one could argue with the fact – that we needed to get better at playing spin bowling," Langer told cricket.com.au.
"That was particularly in the middle overs of white-ball cricket, and a lot of our lack of success was based on how we were playing spin.
"We had some little drills in the nets that focused on where the boys were going to meet the ball (in its flight).
"We were getting stuck on the crease a fair bit, and what the great players do is they get out two to three metres out in front of the crease, and a metre or so when they're playing back.
"It's just a matter of moving your feet.
"So that's an area where we identified an issue, but everyone can identify problems – the real trick is finding a solution for it, and we've worked hard on that."
In the three ODI series that Australia played in the UK and at home in the aftermath of Cape Town, the impact of spin was glaringly apparent, just as it's tipped to be a decisive factor in the upcoming World Cup.
Spinners the calibre of Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali (England), and India's Yuzvendra Chahal averaged a wicket every three overs and surrendered runs at the rate of barely 80 per 100 balls delivered as Australia struggled against the turning ball.
But in the 10 games that followed, in more traditionally spinner-friendly conditions of India and the UAE, India's Kuldeep Yadav and his spin partner Ravindra Jadeja as well as Pakistan's Yasir Shah averaged between them a wicket every 10 overs at an economy rate of 91.
"We'd been improving – it was there, but we hadn't quite got it together for the full 50 overs with the bat," Finch said of the ODI team's form prior to their breakthrough tours to India and the UAE.
"We would be in a great position and just let a game go, or we'd have a partnership that instead of putting on 120 or 140 runs would be broken around 80 which meant we had to start again.
"It just wasn't quite working, which is so costly against really good teams.
"So when it started clicking in those games against India and Pakistan, it was really satisfying reward for a lot of hard work."
The other notable factor in the volte-face that Australia's ODI team underwent a few months ago was the output of the skipper himself.
Having thrown himself upon the mercy of his teammates over his failure to reach 50 in a drought that stretched 22 ODI and T20 innings across more than eight months, Finch roared back to his dominant best in India and the UAE.
The synchronicity between the opener plundering two centuries and averaging more than 67 in those two series, and Australia enjoying its longest string of consecutive wins since the days of their 2015 World Cup triumph surprised nobody who has studied the team's form lines.
In the year prior to Australia's successful World Cup campaign on home turf (and in New Zealand), Finch played more ODIs than any of his teammates.
That's how intrinsic he was to a batting line-up that also featured David Warner, Steve Smith, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and Glenn Maxwell.
And since Finch made his ODI debut in January 2013, no Australia men's player has scored more centuries (13 to date) in the 50-over international format.
The struggles he endured throughout the Australia summer, when the Test berth he had so craved also slipped from his grasp, also resulted in a closer bond with his new national coach.
It was in India, prior to the five-game ODI series last March, that Langer effectively threw his arm around his skipper and worked closely with him to restore Finch's faith in his own game as well as the balance of a team that the captain so heavily influences.
"It wasn't necessarily in the nets, it was just talking to him about his mindset and all the things that mentors do, or that former players do to help others get better," Langer said.
"We were missing a big piece of our jigsaw heading to the World Cup, we needed to have Finchy up and running, confident in his game and playing well.
"So I actually got back on the tools and started spending more time with him, and it's very satisfying to see him come through the other end of it.
"It also strengthened our relationship.
"As an ex-player, and having been through what he was going through, I could really empathise with him."
The impetus provided by Finch's form turnaround plots another vital point on the graph of Australia's ODI fortunes which, since their 1-2 defeat at the hands of India last January has been trending unerringly upwards.
Given the nature of tournament play, World Cups are habitually won by teams who find their peak performance in the final weeks of the competition as opposed to those who appear invincible in the months and weeks before the event formally gets underway.
As Finch notes, a reason why Australia's men's team has won five of the 11 ICC World Cups contested to date while no other competing nation has won more than two (West Indies and India) is because they have regularly seized the defining moments in cut-throat games.
And Australia carries great confidence in their abilities to reprise those outcomes in their 2019 campaign because of the presence of Ricky Ponting – a dual World Cup-winning captain and three-times trophy winner – as a specialist coach within their squad.
Finch believes that Ponting's mere presence in the dressing room and on the training track immediately lifts performance as well as morale of every member of the group.
"The boys all want to impress 'Punter'," Finch said, recalling the effect Ponting had on the team when he was enlisted to support Langer last year.
"Everyone wants to impress Punter, you should see them – it's like eight-year-old girls around Justin Bieber when Punter's around the changeroom.
"It's embarrassing, but it's great."
With Ponting helping his close mate Langer "on the tools", and with former leaders Smith and Warner back in the fold after serving their 12-month bans, Finch claimed there is palpable excitement among the touring party that arrived in London earlier this week.
And rather than shy away from openly coveting the quadrennial trophy that will be presented at Lord's following the tournament final on July 14, Finch happily admits he is daring to dream.
It's more than allowing himself the occasional fleeting indulgence that he might join a celebrated lineage – from Clive Lloyd, to Kapil Dev, Allan Border, Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga, Steve Waugh, Ponting, M.S. Dhoni and Clarke – in hoisting the trophy aloft as captain.
Rather, he permits himself to clearly and repeatedly visualise standing with his men on the fabled balcony of the Lord's Pavilion, and hoisting the golden orb aloft in the soft evening glow of an English summer Sunday.
"I think it's important to let yourself dream about that, because then you've got something to chase," Finch said.
"I think if you go over there just hoping to win, you're not being one hundred per cent committed.
"No matter what you dream or what you envisage, it doesn't always come true but it gives you a chance to achieve it.
"I think if you go over there and don't believe you can win it, then you won't.
"So I quite clearly picture us holding the Cup on the balcony at Lord's on the 14th of July … absolutely I do."
2019 World Cup
Australia's squad: Aaron Finch (c), Jason Behrendorff, Alex Carey (wk), Nathan Coulter-Nile, Pat Cummins, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Kane Richardson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, David Warner, Adam Zampa
May 22: (warm-up) Australia v West Indies, Southampton
May 25: (warm-up) England v Australia, Southampton
May 27: (warm-up) Australia v Sri Lanka, Southampton
June 9: India v Australia, The Oval
June 12: Australia v Pakistan, Taunton
June 15: Sri Lanka v Australia, The Oval
June 20: Australia v Bangladesh, Trent Bridge
June 25: England v Australia, Lord's
July 9: Semi-Final 1, Old Trafford
July 11: Semi-Final 2, Edgbaston
July 14: Final, Lord's
For a full list of all World Cup fixtures, click HERE