Australia 207 for 8 (Law 72, Bevan 69) beat West Indies 202 (Chanderpaul 80, Richardson 49*, Lara 45, Warne 4-36) by five runs

And so it will be Australia who face Sri Lanka in the World Cup final in Lahore on Sunday, after an excruciating five-run victory over West Indies in Mohali that was nothing short of a heist. Once again, their safecracker extraordinaire, Shane Warne, was right in the thick of the action with four key wickets, but this was a team victory dredged – run by run, ball by ball – from some of the most uncompromising depths ever encountered on a cricket field.

From 15 for 4 in the first ten overs of the contest to 207 for 8 at the end of Australia’s innings; from 165 for 2 in the 42nd over of West Indies’ reply, to 202 all out with three balls to spare. The once-insuperable West Indies have suffered some rare indignities in recent seasons, many of them at the hands of these very opponents, but few meltdowns come close to rivalling this.

In front of a rapt Mohali crowd, witnesses to the venue’s de facto opening night, this was a contest that crackled with low-fi energy from the outset, as if nothing we were witnessing was ever quite as it seemed. Not the early rout of the Australian top order, not the painstaking rebuild undertaken by Stuart Law and Michael Bevan, and certainly not the pseudo-serene progress that West Indies’ top-order made towards an awkwardly distant target – a challenge that only Brian Lara, with a transcendentally fluent 45, ever looked like taking in his stride. Until, that is, Steve Waugh extracted him with a delivery that was, fittingly enough, out of this world.

And from the moment of Lara’s departure, which made it 93 for 2 after 23 overs, the first fleeting glimpses of hope were visible for Australia, even while Richie Richardson, the architect of their downfall in Jaipur, was bedding into a third-wicket stand of 72 with the steadfast Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The runs kept coming at a steady trickle, but it was the shots that didn’t come off that were the most revealing – the swishes and whooshes to the rare sightings of width, and the exasperated body language that followed each missed opportunity.

But in spite of themselves, West Indies kept pressing towards their target, and so long as Chanderpaul in particular – the least skittish of the incumbents – endured, victory was surely a formality. But then, on 80, and moderately hampered by what appeared to be a stiff back, Chanderpaul swished once too often through the line of a Glenn McGrath length ball, and plopped a limp catch into the hands of Damien Fleming at mid-on.

The reaction in the crowd was one of low-key bemusement, as if their early-evening nap had been disturbed by a distant rumble of thunder. For the moment should not, on the face of it, have changed a thing about West Indies’ challenge. They still needed a sedate 43 from 52 balls with seven wickets in hand, but the arrival at No. 5 of the long-levered Roger Harper – just as he had done in very different circumstances in the quarter-final against South Africa – was the most glaring indication that the minds of the chasers were getting scrambled.

McGrath and Fleming sensed the mood, closing the field around Harper’s aggressive intentions, and turning his flat-batted hacks into dots with sharp hands in the ring. Sure enough, it took just five deliveries to force him into an error, as he sashayed across his stumps to McGrath and was pinned lbw on the back foot for 2 – it was high but probably just about trimming the bails.

And now, four down, the requirement was visibly dicey for West Indies – 35 from 39 balls – and once again they gambled on holding back their remaining frontline batsmen, Jimmy Adams and Keith Arthurton, in favour of some cheap slogged boundaries. Once again, the ploy failed. Ottis Gibson‘s arrival prompted the return of Warne, and one ball was all he needed to send him on his way, caught behind for 1 as he heaved into a hopeless mow outside off, the violence of the shot and the exuberance of Ian Healy‘s appeal doing enough to persuade umpire S Venkataraghavan to raise his finger.

Richardson had at least picked off a cathartic boundary in between whiles, though his method wasn’t exactly reassuring – a wild pick-up through midwicket off McGrath that was a million miles from the percentage shot that the situation required. And by the end of Warne’s breakthrough over, and with Adams belatedly at the crease, the requirement had slipped to virtually a run a ball, 29 from 30, with panic now rising in the throats of West Indies’ remaining batsmen.

McGrath, the architect of the fightback, was now bowled out for the excellent figures of 2 for 30, but his efforts had left the contest exactly as Warne would have wanted it. More sharp fielding forced Adams to make something of nothing, as he planted his front foot for the slog sweep, and was pinned plumb lbw to leave West Indies 183 for 6 – 25 off 21 needed.

Enter Arthurton – his white wide-brimmed sunhat exuding a degree of confidence that his tournament record – 1, 0, 0 and 1 – scarcely warranted. Exit Arthurton, all but nailed by the flipper first ball, and then caught behind in Fleming’s next over for another duck – a grotesque pirouetting pull resulting in an enfeebled snick through to Healy.

Richardson, now gasping for a boundary, thrashed at and missed a wide one from Fleming – another dot – before hacking a further two down to third man. But after an outstanding sprint and dive from Ricky Ponting on the cover boundary had cut off a certain first-ball boundary for Ian Bishop, Richardson at last connected on a pull through backward square to make it seven precious runs in two balls, and haul the requirement back to 14 from 12.

Warne, however, had six of those balls at his disposal, and a clueless Bishop in his sights. Two balls was all he needed – a legbreak/flipper combo pinning him plumb in front – 14 from 10. A diet of singles was all that Curtly Ambrose and Richardson could harvest from the remainder of his over, as Warne retreated to the outfield with figures of 4 for 36 in nine, and one foot in the World Cup final.

Richardson, however, wasn’t done yet. A Fleming half-tracker was flogged with relief through cow corner for four – and with a tie sufficient to get West Indies through thanks to their group-stage win – the match was suddenly a matter of five runs from five balls. But then, once again, West Indies’ guileless approach to their chase reared its head.

So long as Richardson was on strike, the match was his to win. Instead, he under-edged his next ball through to Healy and hurtled off for an impulsive single. Curtly Ambrose responded quickly but not quickly enough – Healy’s underarmed shy pinged down the stumps with the bat inches short, and suddenly West Indies’ hopes were being cradled in the dubious arms of the No.11 Courtney Walsh.

Richardson, 49 not out and stranded at the wrong end, implored his team-mate to find him a single; instead Fleming found the perfect bail-trimmer, nipping a length ball back through a flapping gate, to cue bedlam in the outfield as Australia’s squad players hurtled out of the pavilion to join their cavorting team-mates.

As Mark Taylor acknowledged afterwards, West Indies had won the first 95% of the contest, and Australia the final 5%. Their opponents had allowed victory to slip from their grasp in both innings, and the enormity of their missed opportunity was almost too much to process.

For the opening exchanges of the contest could hardly have been further removed from the extraordinary closing scenes. After choosing to bat first on a seemingly true deck, Australia’s top order was routed in a throwback performance from Ambrose and Bishop, newly promoted to the new ball after a previously fallow tournament.

Ambrose in particular was in the mood to land some blows, none more telling than his second-ball inducker to the previously imperturbable Mark Waugh. Three hundreds and a fifty in five World Cup innings counted for nothing as Ambrose slammed his knee-roll plumb in front of off. A second-ball duck, and Australia’s player of the tournament was done.

Bishop then lured Taylor into a rash hack back onto his own stumps for 1, and though Ponting looked busy in his 15-ball stay, he too had not got off the mark when Ambrose found another low-bouncing inducker to nail him as he hopped across his crease. And when Bishop bagged Steve Waugh for 3, again via an inside-edge onto his own stumps, Australia’s tournament hopes were in tatters inside the first ten overs.

And yet, the killer instinct that West Indies might once have been able to call upon in such circumstances proved elusive. Walsh was a predictable menace at first-change, conceding seven runs in six overs as Law and Bevan set themselves for survival, but Gibson – seemingly hampered by a groin strain – bowled just two ropey overs, one from either end, as Richardson turned instead to the twin-spin attack of Harper and Adams in a bid for containment.

It worked, up to a point. Neither batsman was able to find any fluency as their stand began to stretch, but neither did they need to, as the realisation dawned that batting through the 50 overs would be the key on an awkward, two-paced surface. With Law’s commitment to the front foot earning him rare opportunities to attack the straight boundaries, and Bevan’s eye for a nudged gap second to none, the stand had grown to 138 when they were finally separated by a run-out – Law, on 72, was for once slow to respond as Bevan called him through, and Ambrose’s return from gully caught him short.

Bevan fell soon afterwards for 69 – he’d pulled off one trademark lofted drive for six to signal the charge in the final ten overs, but then scuffed his attempt at a repeat in the 45th. However, Healy’s low-based chivvying proved ideal in the closing overs, as his 31 from 28 balls ensured that the rebuild would not go to waste.

But could a target of 208 possibly be enough? Australia’s tigerish fielding certainly suggested it could be, as did the instant impact of that man Warne, who scalped Courtney Browne with his very first delivery after entering the attack for an early raid in the sixth over.

And yet, if there was one man with the technique to transcend the contest, it was the imperious Lara, who appeared to be playing on a surface all of his own as he cruised along to a run-a-ball 45 in a second-wicket stand of 68. Though he played and missed on a handful of occasions, he nevertheless trusted his fabled cover-drive to serve him well, never more emphatically than when he slammed Steve Waugh to the rope for what would prove to be his final scoring stroke.

For Waugh’s response was a ball from the Gods, a wickedly gripping offcutter that shaped in from round the wicket, and bit the pitch to straighten past the outside edge and trim the off bail. And as Lara walked off bemused, the seeds of doubt that his dismissal had sown were already beginning to take root. But it would take until the excruciating closing overs for them to burst into their grotesque full bloom.

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