Australia lean on Khawaja and Carey to leave New Zealand in the shade
"It’s a good contest, isn't it?" a Lord’s steward said to a fan who was desperately cradling four beers as if his life depended upon him not spilling a single drop.
"It always is," was the quick reply, as if Australia against New Zealand has never failed to produce anything other than an ODI classic.
Well, not quite really. You only have to remember back to the previous Cricket World Cup final to know that is not actually the case.
Australia reigned supreme at the MCG in 2015. Almost from the moment Mitchell Starc knocked over Brendon McCullum with a full inswinger to send back the then-Black Caps captain for a three-ball duck, the much-anticipated trans-Tasman battle for the trophy became a no-contest. New Zealand were knocked over for 183 and their opponents sprinted home with seven wickets and 101 balls to spare.
The cricketing neighbours had met nine times since in the 50-over format prior to Saturday, including an ICC Champions Trophy fixture in Birmingham two years ago that was ruined by rain with Australia reduced to 53-3 in reply to 291 all out.
There was no danger of wet weather bothering play at the home of cricket, though, with London experiencing temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, yet the reigning champions once again fell into a sticky situation with the bat.
When Jimmy Neesham pulled off a sensational return catch to dismiss Glenn Maxwell, the Australians were wobbling at 93-5. If the suspicion was the top-order runs of Aaron Finch and David Warner had plastered over cracks in the middle order much like a bad builder, the potential issue was suddenly exposed.
Instead, Usman Khawaja and Alex Carey combined to produce a pivotal partnership worth 107 that saw them play the roles of the tortoise and the hare. While the former methodically plodded along, his compatriot burst out of the blocks to launch the type of counter measures his side so desperately needed.
When Alex Carey came to the crease, Australia were 92/5 and sinking. His counter-attacking knock dragged them to a defendable total, and earned him his first Player of the Match award in international cricket— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) June 29, 2019
How good was his innings?#CWC19 | #CmonAussiepic.twitter.com/oqWoScfvFf
Carey had only once previously passed 50 in his ODI career, yet he boasted an average in excess of 30 thanks to a series of not outs. He had produced the type of brief, late-innings cameos that promised bigger and better things, if ever presented with the platform.
With over 28 overs remaining, the wicketkeeper-batsman had his opportunity. Immediately he set about lifting the tempo. He countered New Zealand's spinners with clever reverse sweeps towards the short boundary, while the seamers were emphatically punished with pull shots if they erred on the short side.
His half-century arrived from just 47 deliveries and included nine fours. By the time he was finally out for a career-best 71, the sixth-wicket alliance had steered Australia clear of choppy waters. Such was the importance of the recovery that not even a Trent Boult hat-trick in the final over could sink them.
Khawaja was the first of the left-arm paceman's three successive victims, bowled by a yorker for 88. The left-handed batsman once again came in ahead of Steve Smith but lasted far longer than the former captain, who did at least make up for his failure with the bat by taking a wicket and a stunning catch in New Zealand's disappointing reply.
"That partnership between Khawaja and Carey was superb,” New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson told the media.
"I don't think anyone managed to hit the ball well on that pitch all day except Carey. Credit to the way the Australian batters fought hard to get them to a very good score on that surface."
While Carey lifted the tempo, Khawaja sedately marched his side towards a total of 243-9, more than enough for a potent bowling attack to defend on a worn pitch. Slow and steady won the race to top-score out of the pair, but both, in their own contrasting ways, demonstrated Australia's strength in depth.
Now we know for sure - it is not just a case of smoke and mirrors beyond the star names with this XI; the holders look to have the stamina and the resources to prevail in yet another marathon World Cup campaign.