At its finale, the Cricket World Cup delivers a local derby
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) After 48 matches involving teams from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe cricket's global showcase has distilled itself into a local derby.
Australia and New Zealand welcomed 12 other nations to the Cricket World Cup but saved the final for themselves, ensuring Sunday's championship match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground will feature the tournament's two best teams and will be permeated by one of world sport's most heart-felt rivalries.
In trying to characterize that rivalry, commentators have evoked a game of backyard cricket between siblings: the older brother (Australia) accustomed to dominating the younger; the younger brother (New Zealand) eager for a win to further establish its own identity and to win its rival's respect.
The status as favorite is disputed but only in the sense each team has tried to confer it on the other. Australia says New Zealand is the favorite as the form team of the tournament, unbeaten to this stage and the winner, by one wicket, of the match between the teams in pool play.
New Zealand says four-time champion Australia is the favorite as the home team, master of its own conditions and winner of more than two-thirds of all one-day internationals between them.
It's a heart and head calculation in which Australia is the experts' pick, New Zealand the sentimental favorite. Australia should have the support of most of the MCG crowd on Sunday and of millions of compatriots in a country where cricket is the national summer sport.
But the New Zealand team's support will extend well beyond its 4.4 million countrymen and women. As each team has been eliminated from the tournament, most-recently India, many of those fans have transferred their support to New Zealand as the alternative team they would most prefer to win.
Part of that is the natural tendency to support the underdog, unrated New Zealand against top-ranked Australia, but it goes further. Cricket fans around the world have been captivated by New Zealand's progress through the tournament, by its aggressive, risk-taking style of play and by the humility of its players, most-often represented by captain Brendon McCullum.
''We've done some amazing things over the last little while,'' McCullum said Saturday. ''We've had some tremendous support back home and from around the world. I think the brand of cricket we've played has touched a lot of people and endeared us to a lot of people who follow this game.
''It's probably no secret that most of the other teams around the world would probably prefer New Zealand to win than Australia.''
Australia captain Michael Clarke might have pared back some of that sentimental advantage in announcing Sunday's match will be his last ODI for Australia. Clarke says he won't prepare differently, but the decision he announced unexpectedly Saturday adds a new, emotional context to a match already rich with nuance and subtext.
''It's a special game, no doubt about it,'' Clarke said. ''But it needs to be about the team. It's not emotion, it's skill that helps you win major games and major tournaments and tomorrow will be no different.
''I will train no harder today. I will study New Zealand no harder than I did last time we played them. I will sleep no worse tonight than I ever do. I'll be no less nervous before I walk out to bat. The feeling is exactly the same - if we can win that would be icing on the cake.''
McCullum said when the World Cup began New Zealand dreamed of making the final - something it has never previously achieved - but it dreamed more specifically of a final against Australia in Australia.
''I think that's a fair call - 100,000 people in Australia's backyard, Melbourne Cricket Ground and the history and traditions and against a very good Australian team,'' he said. ''It's been a great ride so far. I guess this is the ultimate game for us to be able to play in everyone's career. That certainly whets the appetite and creates the greatest stage we can ask for.''
Central to that staging is the historic rivalry between Australia and New Zealand.
''The rivalry between the two countries is, I think, a healthy rivalry,'' McCullum said. ''We've seen some epic battles over the years (and) it's not just cricket and rugby.
''We've seen tremendous battles between the two and both countries have stopped while the teams are playing respective sports. So tomorrow is no different. It's a healthy rivalry which will continue well after our time.''