ADIEU, BAZ!

Published: Tue, 03/08/2016 - 08:43

Brendon McCullum made both cricket and the New Zealand team better

Sandeep Kumar & Akshay Sharma Delhi 

In cricket it is when opponents salute you that you know you are the stuff of legend. “But McCullum, even when he doesn’t hit the ball, well, it’s still going for six,” said Mushfiqur Rahim, trying to hide his frustration at the presentation ceremony after losing an important encounter in the 2012 World T20 at Pallekele. Brendon McCullum had just become the only player to score two Twenty20 International centuries and he  remains so.

McCullum bid adieu to the gentlemen’s game on February 20 at the end of the home Test series against Australia, surprisingly not opting to lead his side in the ICC World T20 tournament, in spite of the fact that it is this format in which he is considered one of the most ferocious and dangerous batsmen. Nicknamed Baz, McCullum batted with unrestrained aggression throughout his career and was a devastating stroke-maker all around the wicket. He was brutal against short pitched bowling but was also vicious when hitting through or over the covers ,apart from being a proficient player of the cut shot as well. Against spinners, he was able to step out and get to the pitch of the ball quicker than most and employed the sweeps, both orthodox and reverse, to great effect. He would also, occasionally, get agricultural and try to scoop the ball over the wicket-keeper’s head and often did it successfully.

In his farewell test at Hagley Oval, he broke his idol, Viv Richards’ record of the fastest century in Tests. Walking onto the crease with his side stumbling at 32 for 3, Baz tore into the persistent Australian attack and hammered 21 fours and six massive sixes to register one of the most memorable farewell innings of all time. In the process, he became the 34th player to hit a century in his farewell Test and the only captain to do so in Test history.

It won’t be unfair to say that while he was unmatched when it came to aggression in batting, he didn’t possess the sort of talent and ability that somebody like Virender Sehwag or Adam Gilchrist did. As a result, he was often inconsistent and his average remained below 40. Despite this, there would hardly be a cricket-lover who would not like the aura of Baz. He was a true entertainer, one of the nicest and noblest players on the field. Who on the cricketing globe will be embarrassed by breaking the record of his idol? Well, Baz certainly was. “He was my idol growing up, I am almost embarrassed to go past him, to be honest, but hopefully he enjoyed a little bit of the stroke-making,” the wicket-keeper-batsman said while not forgetting to acknowledge Richards in his last innings.

McCullum made his Test debut in March 2004 against South Africa and played 101 consecutive Tests in the 12 years since then.  He made the most of the talent he possessed and played some memorable innings. His 158 in the first match of the inaugural edition of the IPL dazzled everyone and set the ball rolling for the tournament’s success and removed all the scepticism around it. Then there was the T20 hundred he scored against Australia in 2010. The biggest highlight of this innings was how he kept scooping Shaun Tait’s thunderbolt deliveries, clocking around 150 kph, behind the wicket for boundaries.

While he remained a fierce stroke-maker and came to be known for his blitzkriegs, there was one innings where he transformed himself and produced a masterpiece that no one expected. Against India in February 2014 during the Wellington Test, McCullum found himself batting at the crease with his team five down and still needing 152 runs to avoid an innings defeat. It was at this dire hour that McCullum produced his magnum opus. Putting aside his customary carefree attitude but not his positivity, McCullum scored a massive 302, the first triple hundred by a New Zealander in Test cricket, and batted for a marathon 775 minutes and 559 balls, one of the longest innings in Test history, to deny India a victory that was well within their reach. He shared a record 352-run partnership with BJ Watling in what was a triumph of willpower and dogged determination. Around the score of 250, he looked spent but soldiered on to ensure that his team would not let go the 1-0 lead they had in the series. This innings proves that in this great game of cricket, the most astonishing performances can come from people least expected to
produce them.

McCullum scored four centuries against India, including three double tons and one triple ton. No wonder his retirement is cause for celebration for the Indians against whom he averaged 68 with 1,224 runs in 10 matches, by far his best record against any Test side.

A major turning point in McCullum’s career was his appointment as the captain of New Zealand in late 2012. This change resulted in a massive controversy as the outgoing captain, Ross Taylor, went into a sulk, claiming that he had been treated unfairly. The coach Mike Hesson, along with McCullum, came to be seen as villains who had cheated Taylor out of captaincy. Starting his tenure with such negativity wasn’t going to make things easy for McCullum.

But the ultra-positive approach in his captaincy coupled with inspiring leadership and statesman-like conduct turned him from villain into a national icon. Attack, attack, attack was his mantra and he was clear that this aggression gave his team the best chance of winning. Under his tenure, New Zealand remained unbeaten at home in Tests until his final series and had one of the most memorable World Cup campaigns in 2015. The ethics he instilled in the New Zealand team reignited people’s faith in the gentlemen’s game at a time of increasing cynicism. Baz remained unfazed in spite of criticism for being too nice and remained loyal to playing the game in the right spirit.

The mantle of captaincy seemed to give his batting a booster shot as well. From an inconsistent batsman who produced occasional bursts of brilliance, he became one of the most prolific run-scorers in the world game. Against India in 2014, in the same series where he recorded his triple hundred, he scored 535 runs in that two-match series with a counter-attacking double ton in the first Test to go along with his triple in the second match. He scored another double hundred later in the year and a quickfire 195 against Sri Lanka to cap the year. Overall, he compiled 1,164 runs in the calendar year 2014 at an average of 72.75.

The impact of McCullum can be gauged by the fact that when he took over, there was a feeling of despondency in the New Zealand cricket fraternity with frequent losses and a lack of flair in the side. But he is leaving behind a New Zealand team which is inspiring great optimism and loyalty among the fans.

So, where does McCullum feature in the pantheon of New Zealand greats? Among batsmen, the likes of Glenn Turner, Martin Crowe, Stephen Fleming, Ross Taylor and now Kane Williamson are likely to be regarded as better than him. “I’ll never go down as a great player but I played a role in the team, made some contributions” is how McCullum sees himself.But McCullum has carved a special place for himself in New Zealand cricket’s history through his exhilarating batting along with the unmatched dynamism of his captaincy. McCullum never allowed the game to stagnate, whether he was batting or captaining. The game got better because of him. For that we can say a big thank you to Baz. We may not see him wearing the black cap again, but his presence in tournaments like the IPL and Masters Champions League will certainly make the fans relive Baz’s great moments  for sure.   

Brendon McCullum made both cricket and the New Zealand team better
Sandeep Kumar & Akshay Sharma Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews