As they cooled their heels and prepared for the cross-continental flight to Sydney where their fortunes for the next phase of the ICC World Cup will be decided against Sri Lanka at the SCG on Sunday, Australia’s cricketers reflected on a job comprehensively done.
The chances of losing to a team whose history in the game stretches back barely 15 years, and was playing in the fifth division of global cricket nations at the time that Australia won its most recent World Cup were never real.
But there was a risk that they might not get as much as they had hoped in the wake of the loss to New Zealand four days earlier.
Instead, their expectations were more than met.
The batsmen all had time in the middle with the notable exception of Michael Clarke, and that was the result of a captain’s call.
The bowlers similarly had to work for their wickets, and most of them managed to snare one or two.
Or, in the case of Mitchell Johnson, 4-22.
And the fielding was sharp, the chances were taken and nobody got injured – Mitchell Marsh's limping during his third and final over of the evening apparently a footwear issue rather than any injury worry.
But while the game went pretty much as the scriptwriters would have anticipated, there were a handful of memorable, even historic moments.
Watson omitted from XI
Watson enters the field for the anthems // Getty Images
On most days, the competing teams’ on-field warm-ups provide not much more than a back drop for the ground announcer to run through his repertoire of rousing tunes.
But an hour before play was due to begin at the WACA, a buzz that almost drowned out the ambience circulated the arena – Shane Watson was standing idly by as his teammates engaged in stretching, sprinting, catching and congratulating.
With James Faulkner returning from injury and Josh Hazlewood coming in as a straight swap for the niggle-carrying Pat Cummins, one of Australia’s all-rounders was always going to be in the selectors’ cross-hairs.
But the fact that it was but five matches since he had scored 82 in an ODI against World Cup favourites South Africa in Sydney and since then been considered the best choice for the pivotal No.3 batting berth in a top-order that malfunctioned last weekend, Watson was considered safe.
Conventional if not necessarily popular wisdom dictated that either Mitchell March or Glenn Maxwell, neither of whom had made an impact against New Zealand in Auckland, might be told to make way.
But as the warm-up wound down with Watson a bystander, and the team sheets exchanged at the coin toss it was confirmed that Watson was not in the starting XI, that his exclusion was discretionary, that Steve Smith would take his place at three and that – for the first time in more than five years – Watson had been dropped.
The pain the 33-year-old doubtless felt was only compounded when Smith, after an unconvincing start to his innings, blossomed to reach 95 and was only denied a century by the team’s chase for runs in the final 10 overs.
The knowledge that Smith looked so comfortable in the role, has scored as many hundreds (two) in his eight innings at first drop as Watson managed in his 29, and that the new man averages almost three times what his predecessor managed at No.3 means the team’s senior all-rounder’s role in the remainder of the tournament is clouded at best.
Warner breaks the shackles
Having learned from the full-throttle batting approach that saw them crash and burn in Auckland last Saturday, Australia’s early batsmen made a comparatively sedate start against some searching new-ball bowling from Afghanistan.
After Aaron Finch perished for the second time in as many innings playing from the crease, David Warner and Steven Smith showed the associate team plenty of respect.
Smith faced 45 deliveries before finding the boundary for the first time. Warner, so often the player who takes the attack to the opposition, scored freely but with control rather than brute force even though he was regularly, and ill-advisedly, tested with the short ball.
Warner pulls another boundary // Getty Images
But in the 30th over, as the pair’s second-wicket partnership pushed towards 200 and Warner looked to push well beyond his century, he took to Afghanistan’s opening bowler Dawlat Zadran with a ferocity that signalled the match had just changed gears.
Crouching down on one knee, Warner crunched the stunned quick over mid-on for the first six of Australia’s innings and then another as Dawlat looked to even the score only to be hit even further over the same section of fence.
Warner drives the spinner at the WACA // Getty Images
And when Warner’s quest for an historic double-century ended with a skied miscue, Glenn Maxwell came in and played the sort of innings that many felt only South Africa’s one-man highlights reel AB de Villiers was capable of perpetrating.
In the final 30 overs Australia more than doubled their score to top 400 on home soil for the first time.
After a stumble across the Tasman, the tournament co-hosts had regained their balance.
Maxwell – from pinch-hitter to switch hitter
The decision to send in Maxwell at the fall of Warner’s wicket, at which time Australia were set to launch at 2-274 with more than 12 overs to go, made sense for several reasons.
So laden is Australia’s batting order with power hitters, in the top and middle-orders, that the chance to unleash them on a honest but scarcely threatening attack was too good an opportunity to miss.
So it proved when Maxwell unveiled his trusty reverse sweep from the second delivery he faced, finding the backward point (or backward square leg) boundary in the process.
It was the first of so many audaciously clever shots as Maxwell peeled off the fastest 50 by an Australia batsman in a World Cup (off 21 balls) and looked set to challenge the record for the fastest-ever hundred until he holed out on 88.
Included in that package was an extraordinary flick off his pads that resembled an expert sand wedge from a difficult lie, and an even more remarkable switch hit from a yorker aimed wide outside off stump that he somehow re-routed over the rope at third man.
A shot for six only Maxwell can make possible // Getty Images
But when wickets fell in a clatter as the final overs unfolded, the continued absence of Clarke from the middle raised questions as to why a player who has played just one international innings in two months would not take the chance for some mid-wicket practice in a game that his team so clearly had by the throat.
As it was, Clarke’s on-pitch contribution came in the form of five overs of tidy left-arm spin that yielded a wicket and showed he is certainly fit enough to bowl.
Whether he’s found similar touch and timing with his batting will doubtless be revealed in next Sunday’s vital Pool A match against Sri Lanka in Sydney.
Johnson’s return to more friendly surrounds
Johnson found a welcome return to form // Getty Images
In the days that followed last weekend’s loss in Auckland, Mitchell Johnson acknowledged that it’s been a while since anyone has got a hold of his bowling with quite the callous brutality inflicted by New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum.
Not only did the ICC’s reigning Player of the Year record the unflattering figures of 0-68 from six overs, some of Australia’s recent former greats – including a current national selector – queried the wisdom of him being given the ball in preference to the almost-matchwinner Mitchell Starc.
An unthinkable thesis given Johnson’s heroics of the past year or more.
But brought on as Australia’s first-change bowler after Afghanistan’s openers had negotiated – if not quite dominated – the initial spells from Starc and Hazlewood, Johnson warmed to familiar surrounds, supportive fans and batsmen who were clearly unnerved by his pace.
His opening delivery might have drifted down leg and caught the thigh pad of Usman Ghani before scuttling to the rope, and the third was a bouncer that rose so steeply it was signalled a wide.
But his rhythm was back, and the view that wickets weren’t far away proved prescient with his fourth delivery that Ghani jammed down upon only to chip it to James Faulkner at mid-on.
Two overs later Johnson had his second as Afghanistan’s number four Ashgar Stanikzai announced his reluctance to hang about risking possible injury by flailing hard at every ball that came his way before skying a catch that Steve Smith did brilliantly to pouch running backwards with Mitchell Marsh bearing down on him.
Finch takes a screamer // Nine Network
It was only Marsh's footwear troubles that brought Johnson back into that attack, and it took him just seven deliveries to snare his third as Aaron Finch clung to a blinder that flew fast and high to his right.
After his Auckland experience, Johnson’s second set of six overs in the tournament netted him 3-18.
Batsmen from Sri Lanka and Australia’s other opponents later in the World Cup had been duly placed on notice.
The Afghanistan team celebrate an early wicket // Getty Images
Even though their bowlers conceded the highest score compiled by any team in the 40-year history of the World Cup, it would be unfair to suggest Afghanistan’s efforts with the ball were disastrous.
Indeed, the initial spell of Dawlat – a dead spit for Pakistan’s former great and current coach Waqar Younis minus maybe 10kph in pace and that lethal late reverse swing – troubled Warner with his canny seam movement and accounted for Finch with an exemplary three-card trick.
A couple of outswingers, the looping inswinger and then another juicy outie that was pouched at slip.
While the face paint and patriotic bandana might not have lifted Hamid Hassan to the heights he hoped, he showed a capacity to land his yorkers in the final overs at a rate and with an effectiveness that many bowlers from Test-playing nations could only envy.
Shapoor Zadran bowled with aggression and variations that did not deserve final figures of 2-89 from 10 overs, and his preparedness to tower glaringly over Warner as he piled on the runs reflected the competitive nature of his team in the face of an onslaught that would have daunted many.
And while the Afghan batting was never going to threaten the target of 418, and from the time they lost their first four batsmen inside 20 overs their stated pre-match aim of seeing out the full innings was a pipe dream, they refused to gift their wickets.
Faulkner is yorked by Hassan // Getty Images
Certainly, the fact they go into the World Cup record books as the team on the end of the biggest (in terms of runs) defeat in the tournament’s history does not do them justice, considering some of the other lopsided moments the event has witnessed.
As the cliché goes, Afghanistan’s cricket team will be all the better for today’s experience notwithstanding the final outcome.
They also provided some memorable images.
The sight of tailender Dawlat Zadran handing his bat – unused during his four-ball stay at the crease that ended when Starc spreadeagled his stumps – to his incoming replacement conveyed the camaraderie as well as the constraints that characterise Afghan cricket.
But perhaps the most instructive moment came when Warner, renowned as being one of the more polarising as well as prolific competitors in world cricket, was dismissed having pounded the Afghan attack all over the WACA and beyond.
Afghanistan supporters at the WACA // Getty Images
Led by Shapoor, who had finally claimed the wicket having exchanged words and numerous glares with the opener, as well as captain Mohammad Nabi a number of the Afghan players went out of their way to pat Warner on the back as he left the field.
Like so many others among the crowd of 12,710 at the WACA for this historic fixture, they will remember his innings and the day for many years to come.