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It’s tub thumpers v wallflowers as New Zealand face Australia in T20 final

“I don’t reckon many people gave us a chance leading into this tournament, apart from probably the players,” Marcus Stoinis said, “so it’s definitely going to mean a bloody lot to us and we’ll be super proud when we bring that home for Australia.”

Note the choice of conjunction. That when is written in loud, blinking neon, and illuminates the confidence coursing through a team that was not expected to get anywhere near the T20 World Cup trophy. “Everyone had written us off but we had a real lot of confidence in the way we were preparing and the way our strategy was coming together,” Aaron Finch said. “We haven’t defied expectations, we came here with .a really clear plan to win the tournament and we feel we’ve got the squad to do that.”

New Zealand will feel they have the squad to stop them, and there is nothing in the two teams’ routes to the final to suggest either should feel superior. This is mainly because they have been practically identical: four wins out of five in the Super 12s, second in their groups, underdogs in their semi-finals, winning that crucial toss, choosing – inevitably – to bat second, losing an opener to the third ball of their innings, having to accelerate rapidly in the final overs – New Zealand needed 60 off the last 30 balls, Australia 62 – and getting there with precisely six balls to spare.

What is different is their approach, not just tactically (though for the record Australia, like New Zealand’s semi-final opponents, have a batting-heavy strategy; New Zealand, like Australia’s semi-final opponents, go big on bowlers), but something much deeper than that.

Steven Smith, left, Matthew Wade, centre, and Ashton Agar take a rest during Australia’s practice session at the ICC Academy in Dubai on Saturday.
Steven Smith, left, Matthew Wade, centre, and Ashton Agar take a rest during Australia’s practice session at the ICC Academy in Dubai on Saturday. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

Both captains have set out how they want their teams to play the game, and their answers revealed one to be a tub thumper and the other more of a wallflower. “It’s just about staying really aggressive,” Finch said. “In this format your opponents don’t always allow you big opportunities to get into the game, and whether it’s with bat or ball you have to find a small edge at some point and try to drive that advantage home.”

Kane Williamson said he wants his team to “enjoy the occasion and take it on in our style” and when asked to define that style managed this: “Something we’ve been trying to do and play throughout this competition is looking to go out and make those adjustments and certainly have the courage to do so and play smart cricket and buy into, you know, concepts that for us as a team are what we try and wholeheartedly do.”

Whatever that means, and it is not very clear, “stay really aggressive” it ain’t. Meanwhile on being seen as underdogs, a suggestion that got Finch talking about having always planned to win the tournament, Williamson said that “it sort of doesn’t have a lot to do with us really” and that “the different tags and whatnot, that’s not really something we control”.

Over six years of unparalleled success across all formats these the Kiwis have truly soared, but there is something of the nervous flightless bird about them still. Tim Southee spoke recently about a time before Brendon McCullum and then Williamson captained the team, when “we played a style that didn’t really sit well with us as Kiwis”, and the subsequent change of approach to one “it feels natural for us to go out and play in”.

New Zealand’s Tim Southee has a shot as Kane Williamson watches on during a football match at the team’s net session ahead of the T20 World Cup final.
New Zealand’s Tim Southee has a shot as Kane Williamson watches on during a football match at the team’s net session ahead of the T20 World Cup final. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

The idea that a team’s approach is almost forced on them by the nature of their nation is fascinating (and it is intriguing that the same nation is also represented by teams that preface games with aggressive pre-match ceremonial war dances, not something you can imagine Williamson convincingly attempting). But certainly the evidence of this tournament is that for all the batting fireworks that carried them to victory in the semi-finals this is a side that is not only itself calm, but that has found success by becalming others.

In essence their tactic is to bowl so well that their opponents cannot score more runs than their own shallow pool of batters, further weakened for the final by the absence of the injured Devon Conway, can get in reply. Australia’s Adam Zampa, who other than a blip against England has been outstanding across the tournament, has the best economy rates of any bowler on show on Sunday night but Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc have all been more expensive than the most expensive of New Zealand’s five frontline bowlers. Against Australia’s barrage of batting aggression they will all have to excel.

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If there is little to divide the teams that have reached the final, about half an hour before the start one will suddenly emerge as heavy favourites. Every game played under lights in Dubai at this World Cup has been won by the side batting second, and both finalists have a 100% toss-to-match win conversion rate (Australia have won a statistically unlikely five out of six tosses, New Zealand only the most important two, against India in the Super 12s and England in the semi-finals). The ideal end to a tournament about to get a different winner would be someone finding a different way of winning.

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