Sunday, 29 March 2015

McCullum’s three balls

Take a ball Brendon. Surely?

It was over the moment the ball hit the stumps. New Zealand have come back before, but their head had been cut off. It was not to be at the MCG, not against Australia this time. McCullum gone: game gone.

Will those three balls play over and over again in Brendon McCullum’s head? He was always going to hit out off the first ball. When you’ve lead from the front all tournament, it looks like a backward step to take a ball. But should he have?

First ball, between bat and pad as McCullum swings, missing off stump. Second ball, between bat and pad as McCullum swings, missing leg stump. Third ball. Zing bails. Detonate.

It takes immense bravery to hit that indiscriminately at the beginning of the innings. Brendon McCullum hit his first ball of the tournament for four; the first ball of the next match he sliced over cover for one attempting to do the same. Against England he actually dabbed his first ball for one, but second ball he cut for six.

Then against Australia he came up against Mitchell Starc for the first time in the tournament. Brendon McCullum was Starc’s first Test wicket. It’s a duel that can’t be dull. Pacey, swinging ball against blunderbuss bat.

Round one went to McCullum. Starc started with a wide as McCullum charged. Then he bowled full and McCullum launched himself at it. Six over extra cover, full swing of the bat ending up over the shoulder.  Starc bowled him nine balls. Two went for four, one went for six, and McCullum harvested 17 runs. Peaking too soon?

Sometimes McCullum did take a ball. Against Afghanistan he was positively sedate, pushing a single off his first ball before launching Dawlat Zadran for two fours Against Bangladesh he had to wait until his third ball for a boundary.

In the quarter final against West Indies he even accorded Jason Holder the honour of defending a ball, taking an age in McCullum terms, until his fourth ball, to hit a boundary.

Could he have waited? Could he have taken a ball? Could everything have been different?

Who knows.

Aside from his batting, McCullum’s spring uncoiled fielding has been a trademark throughout the World Cup. Time after time he’s chased a ball down to the boundary, legs whirring. Instead of sliding to stop it, McCullum dives. Head first, no regard for life and limb. Keep the ball inside the boundary, worry about the advertising hoardings later. (Not long later)

Not many captains have blended leading from the front in so many ways with tactical agility. He opens the innings, biting as much as he can from targets or setting up for a big score for others. He fields like a man possesed, besting men ten years his junior. He is New Zealand’s captain. Mitchell Starc may have got Man of the Tournament, but this was Brendon McCullum’s World Cup in all but one way.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

New Zealand are magic

Trent Boult rips a ball past the outside edge. Matt Henry jars one into the splice. Grant Elliott backhands one past the stumps. Brendon McCullum chases a ball down like it’s a baby in a pram rolling towards a cliff. New Zealand are at Eden Park, but it feels like the Colosseum.

South Africa are present, but barely. After three overs they have 20, the next ten harvest 23, painfully eked out off the edge and the splice. A lot is made of Brendon McCullum’s tactical brilliance, but it’s overstated. What really sets him apart is his extraordinary commitment in the field (helped by his perpetual motion legs) and willingness not to let the game drift.

His captaincy is inventive, but like an inventor, sometimes it blows up in his face. It wasn’t a game changing mistake, but giving Trent Boult a seventh over in his first spell was the wrong move, as Boult dropped short repeatedly, showing that slight fatigue that should have been spotted and gave away twelve. 

Brendon McCullum’s natural leadership style has dovetailed with the current ODI playing conditions. As teams have put more emphasis on building through the innings and exploding at the death, McCullum has attacked with the new ball and forced opponents to pick their poison.
Either they attack and risk losing too many wickets, or they defend and reduce the platform to launch from. Australia made the former mistake, forgetting that in the battle between high class swing and big hitting, the bowlers will win. England made the latter mistake. 

But with the bat, where they’ve zigged, he’s zagged, swinging like a windmill at anything that comes along, and dispatching most of it into the outfield or the stands. For most teams, 59 is a decent score from an opener, but one in which the opener failed to see it through. McCullum doesn’t even think of seeing it through. If he did he could score 300.

Kane Williamson is so often a totemic figure in the New Zealand batting that, measured elegance the other pole to McCullum. Even though it seems silly to think it now, after he fell I almost conceded the game for them. It seemed like the perfect combination: a quick innings from McCullum to bring down the required rate, and a big one from Williamson to take it deep and leave the death over hitters a manageable task. 

But when he under-edged a pull, his reaction showed how crucial he knew his role was. The zing bails lit up and Williamson bowed his head and trudged off. When Ross Taylor ran out Martin Guptill, the other main candidate for a big innings, it was left to Elliott and Anderson.

Grant Elliott was batting a place too high. Grant Elliott’s bowling lacked much of anything. Grant Elliott barely made the squad. Grant Elliott won a World Cup semi-final with a six.

New Zealand are magic.